Tour unlocks history as they explore the nooks and crannies of the Albert Gallatin homestead



Jacklyn Rider said the most interesting thing about Friendship Hill was its link to her grandfather, who was standing just a few feet away from her.

“His parents were the caretakers here,” the 12-year-old said, pointing to her grandfather, James Wolfe.

Seventy years ago, Mr. Wolfe was born in a cottage near this historic Fayette County home built in 1789 by Albert Gallatin, U.S. secretary of the treasury to Presidents Jefferson and Madison.

Mr. Wolfe lived on the estate for the next 24 years but now lives in nearby Fairchance. He and his wife, Colleen, their son-in-law, Jake Rider, and granddaughter, Jacklyn, were among 40 visitors who came last week for a basement-to-attic tour of the house.

Brian Reedy, chief of interpretation for the National Park Service at Friendship Hill and Fort Necessity, gave two groups the chance to see what was behind stairway barriers and “secured and alarmed” doors. Participants had been advised to wear sturdy walking shoes and bring flashlights for a visit that involved climbing up and down narrow staircases, ducking under low ceilings, and stepping over or around utility lines and pipes.

While the first tour was underway, a summer storm darkened skies, dumped rain on the grounds around Friendship Hill and obscured the view of Chestnut Ridge from the second-floor porch.

“Today, we’ll try to answer one question about the top floors: Are there space aliens up there?” Mr. Reedy joked as he led the first group into the house. “It’s going to be real cozy here, like we were sailors on a small ship.”

Abraham Alfonse Albert Gallatin, a Swiss immigrant born in 1761, came to the United States in 1780. Within a few years he and a partner were buying and selling huge tracts of western lands. He bought the initial 370 acres that became Friendship Hill in 1786 and began building the first part of his home three years later.

As Gallatin’s family grew, the original brick home was expanded with the construction of a wood-framed addition, Mr. Reedy said. While Gallatin was serving as U.S. minister to France, he left his son, Albert Rolaz, in charge of overseeing a stone addition in the Federalist style.

In 1825 Gallatin and his second wife, Hannah, hosted the Marquis de Lafayette at Friendship Hill during his tour of the United States. The Gallatins left Fayette County shortly after Lafayette’s visit, and the property was sold in 1832. Gallatin’s wife had grown up in a wealthy family in New York City and disliked living on the frontier.

“Mrs. Gallatin apparently hated the view of the mountains as much as her husband loved them,” Mr. Reedy said.

Private owners had expanded the house once again with the addition of bedroom wing at the turn of the 20th century.

When Mr. Wolfe’s parents worked there, the estate belonged to the late Evelyn Thompson Martin, the granddaughter of Uniontown coal baron J.V. Thompson. The basement beneath the stone portion of the house had been much shallower when Mr. Wolfe lived nearby.

“We called it the dungeon,” he said of the narrow passageway and its vaulted ceiling.

The space now is better lit, deeper and lined with ductwork and pipes that are part of the property’s mechanical systems.

The property had been in private hands for more than a century when it was acquired by a nonprofit conservation group. The Trust for Public Lands in turn sold the estate to the National Park Service.

Many of the rooms are unfurnished. The National Park Service has been adding both artifacts related to the Gallatin family and explanatory panels that discuss aspects of their lives. One of the saddest tells the story of Gallatin’s first wife, Sophia, who married him and died within a few months of moving to Friendship Hill in 1789. She is buried on the grounds of the estate.

“There is a rose growing up from her grave,” Cooper Bowlin, 9, said. The fourth-grader from Morgantown appeared to be the youngest person taking the tour.

Multiple arson fires damaged portions of the house in July 1979, Mr. Reedy said. He pointed out burn marks still visible on some of the wooden floors and on the upper-story brickwork.

Friendship Hill covers more than 600 acres that extend down to the Monongahela River. The site is crisscrossed by more than 9 miles of trails.

“It’s a wonderfully soothing place,” Jan Kelly of Rowlesburg, W.Va., said of the estate. “We’ve done a lot of hiking here.”

Mr. Wolfe recalled that caring for the extensive lawns that surrounded the house was a labor-intensive task when he was a boy.

“I remember that when they cut the grass, they used a horse pulling the mower,” he said.

Mrs. Martin loved fox hunting, he said, and kept at least 50 hounds and more than a dozen horses on the property. The hunts, drawing as many as 30 riders, would be followed by late-night parties that lasted “into the wee hours,” he said.

Reservations for last week’s basement-to-attic tours filled up quickly. Mr. Reedy pledged to schedule a similar event in the late winter or early spring of 2015.

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com.

 


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.

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