1822-vintage log house doomed?

Lawrenceville fixture subject of talks on preserving the logs, rebuilding the home nearby

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While driving on Butler Street on Saturday, Keith Cochran glanced toward 38th Street and noticed that a gable had disappeared from a two-story log house in Lawrenceville.

The architect was dismayed to see demolition had begun on what might be the oldest log house to remain a residence in the 21st century in any major American city.

"You could just see that the attic level was gone. A few pieces of wood were sticking out," said Mr. Cochran, who has led an effort to preserve the building at 38th and Charlotte streets.

The house was built between 1822 and 1830 for Henry McBride and has been a residence ever since.

Mr. Cochran is negotiating with the homeowner to save and tag the logs so the house can be rebuilt somewhere else. Sarah Ann Madia, a real estate agent from Mars, bought the property for $43,000 in April.

A demolition permit, issued last Tuesday by the city's bureau of building inspection, shows Watts Contracting was hired to demolish the house, which sat empty for at least six years. The previous owner removed the plumbing and heating systems, exposing the log beams.

Reached Monday, Ms. Madia would not comment on her plans for the site, although she has been working with an architect, Justin Cipriani.

Ms. Madia said she was in discussions with Mr. Cochran "to try to work something out. If we can come to some terms that work out between us, I'd be more than happy."

Mr. Cochran has already spoken with a contractor who can tag and disassemble the 70 notched oak logs that make up the two-story, two-family dwelling, which stretches a half-block on 38th Street. He obtained a quote from Allegheny Restoration, a company in Morgantown, W.Va., that has an employee who specializes in timber framing and log houses.

One day, Mr. Cochran hopes the house can be rebuilt in Arsenal Park, near the bike trail that parallels the Allegheny River or, possibly, in Allegheny Cemetery.

The house dates to Lawrenceville's beginnings as a village that grew up around an arsenal. A house history prepared by Carol Peterson revealed that one of the home's former residents, 15-year-old Catherine Burkhart, worked at the United States Arsenal and was among the dozens of teen-age girls killed in an explosion there on Sept. 17, 1862. The property also belonged to a series of three German butchers, one of whom built a slaughterhouse on the site.

"They were almost certainly providing meat to the arsenal," Ms. Peterson said. She said she and Mr. Cochran were both disappointed to learn that the house was being demolished.

"We had been having an ongoing conversation with the owner about the possibility of retaining the log house. We had been discussing dates and times that we and the owner and her architect could go look at some other log houses that had been restored and made into modern, viable houses with electricity, heating and plumbing -- you know, all those fun things," Ms. Peterson said.

The property is the last log house in Lawrenceville, which originally stretched from 38th to 41st streets, a fraction of what it is today, Ms. Peterson said.

The house would be considered a contributing structure if Lawrenceville ever goes on the National Register of Historic Places. State preservation officials, Ms. Peterson said, say Lawrenceville is eligible for that distinction.

Lawrenceville became a borough in 1834 and part of Pittsburgh in 1868.

"Nobody knows exactly why Henry McBride moved to Lawrenceville. He had been living on a farm in southern Allegheny County. The only reason that anybody would have moved here in 1820 would have been to work at the arsenal or to engage in commerce associated with the arsenal," Ms. Peterson said.

"There was a stone barn in the backyard and some cattle pens," she added.

She would like to see the house, "reconstructed in Lawrenceville and frankly as close as possible to its original location. It would be really nice if it would be reconstructed within the bounds of the original village between 38th and 41st. That's not necessarily feasible."

On 38th Street, the block is packed with homes built in the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s.

"We're losing things in little increments, and this is a big increment," Ms. Peterson said.

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648. First Published July 12, 2011 4:00 AM


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