A magnificent piece of Civil War history is hiding in plain site in Swissvale along Woodstock Avenue. It is below the grade of the sidewalk, and if you notice it, you see it from the back — just another big old piece of blight.
It is so oddly obscure that a very observant and history-loving Barry Alfonso, a writer who lives in Swissvale, saw it for the first time on an Amtrak train. The tracks pass along what used to be the front gate.
The Ladies’ GAR Home — GAR stands for Grand Army of the Republic — was built for indigent female family members of Union Army veterans. The original structure was a 12-room home built in 1890 that burned down in 1900. A 53-room facility was built to replace it. In 1937, a 30-room extension was built.
Mr. Alfonso contacted the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette hoping to give it some exposure in case someone with extremely deep pockets might consider a future for it. That’s unlikely, though. Borough manager Clyde Wilhelm said liens go back to 2003.
“The title search we did in December 2013 showed there were almost $1.6 million in liens on the property and other claims pending against it,” he said. “We’re seeking funding to demolish it, and it is sad. We used to do fire drills there when I was a young firefighter.”
The home operated until 1996, when a new nursing home in Turtle Creek took in its remaining patients. The Swissvale home had become a traditional nursing home in the 1960s, when federal law required more inclusive admittance practices.
Abandoned for 20 years, the once-gorgeous home is now creepy. Paranormal investigators have visited without much reported incident, but it’s understandable that people who seek out ghosts would seek them there.
What’s left of window screens wave in the breeze. Some windows are completely missing. Many inside walls are covered in graffiti. One corner of porch roof went headlong into the porch at some point, tearing the wood and creating a waterfall on rainy days. With missing gutters and gaping holes everywhere, the building sounds like a coyly crafted water feature.
So few buildings of our Civil War-related history remain. Western Pennsylvania betrayed its rich history of providing safe houses for slaves fleeing north on the Underground Railroad by destroying almost every remnant of it.
And it may be too late for this once-grand structure, which sits on almost two acres. In old photos, the building looks as stately as a 19th-century resort, with a beautifully landscaped lawn that stretched all the way to the railroad tracks. A small photo of the building from its early days can be seen on the site www.lgar.org/LGAR-Legacy.html.
Four early residents, three widows and a soldier’s mother, had previously lived in the Allegheny Almshouse. The LGAR Home was described as a high-minded alternative to the poor house for women whose husbands, brothers and sons had served their country.
Gnarled trees and vines have claimed what used to be the grand lawn. It would be a perfect location for a teen horror movie. Weeds have pushed through cracks in concrete along the front, and the rear parking lot is forlorn, clotted with weeds and litter.
If the building sat at sidewalk level or above, Mr. Alfonso mused, it would loom large and maybe have attracted more attention than it has.
The current owner is Time Out Ministries, which is based in Braddock, but the organization may be defunct. The phone number for that organization was answered by someone who denied knowledge of Time Out. The ministry filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
It is hard to lose yet another great piece of history, but at this point, opportunities are overwhelmed by burden. The cheapest thing to do is tear it down and yet that cost will consume 12 percent of Swissvale’s property tax revenues. The borough is seeking grants to help defray the cost, Mr. Wilhelm said.
The LGAR remains a nonprofit organization and is gathering items to start a museum in Sandusky, Ohio, its headquarters.
“We gave them some soldiers’ spoons and discharge papers that were housed over there [in Swissvale],” said Marcia Yesko, administrator at the LGAR Health and Rehabilitation center in Turtle Creek. The nursing home is no longer associated with the LGAR, she said, “but we kept the name out of respect.”
Diana Nelson Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626.