Decorated homes in Greensburg to open for tours

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Just in time for "the most wonderful time of the year," the Academy Hill Historic District in Greensburg is opening the doors of six homes decorated for the holidays.

The escorted walking tours, scheduled from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 8, will start and end at the Huff Mansion at 424 N. Main St., the home of the YWCA. The holiday house tour, held almost every year since 1995, is a fundraiser for the Academy Hill Historic District, a nonprofit organization.

Money raised during the tours -- tickets cost $25 -- is used for projects such as erecting signs identifying the district, planting trees, event expenses, historic data collection and archiving, donations to local organizations, postage and newsletter production.

"On the tours, homeowners will ... share information on the history of their house, restoration projects and other personal stories," said Marie Baur, chairwoman of the tour committee.

Each of the tours, offered at 20-minute intervals throughout the day, will be limited to a dozen guests. Advance reservations are required and may be made at 724-837-6274 or www.ahhd.org.

The tour is popular, so organizers suggest making reservations early.

All of the houses are within a five-block walk along Maple and Walnut avenues and Main and O'Hara streets on mostly level terrain, Mrs. Baur noted.

At the end of the tour, cider and ginger snaps will be served at the Huff Mansion, where there will be live music and a ticket auction and a local garden club will sell fresh pine greens, ornaments, wreaths and garlands.

Members of the Academy Hill group are also organizing a bake sale, and one of the members is displaying a collection of Christmas music boxes.

Academy Hill got its name after the growing town of Greensburg chose the site for a public school soon after the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1810 passed legislation providing for public education. Over the following 100 years, many of Greensburg's most prominent families built their homes around the school, which lies just north of the commercial district.

Many of the homes were built at the start of the 1900s, when Greensburg was the center of Western Pennsylvania's thriving coal and coke trade. To preserve and celebrate the heritage of the district while re-establishing with the public its historical and architectural significance, the Academy Hill Neighborhood Association was founded in 1994.

Securing the designation of the neighborhood as a registered historical district was an early goal. Through the designation, the association hoped to bring national recognition of the historic importance of the area and secure public grants.

That goal was achieved on April 29, 1999, when it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. That same year, the association officially changed its name to the Academy Hill Historic District.

"Members of the district can be homeowners or renters, and there are 252 properties in the neighborhood," Mrs. Baur said. "There is no membership fee, and meetings are usually held once a month at different members' homes or at the YWCA."

The Huff Mansion is a 1900 Georgian Revival home built by William Huff, who earned his fortune in the banking and coal and coke industry. Boston-based architect Ralph Adams Cram, a friend of Huff's, designed the 14-room mansion with four large columns on the front portico, a wooden floored ballroom, a second-floor skylight and a free-standing stairway leading to the second floor that is is the only stairway of its kind in Westmoreland County.

Huff left the house to his daughter, Catherine Horn, who donated it to Christ Episcopal Church in Greensburg in 1968. Two years later, when the church decided the house was too large to maintain, Mrs. Horn, at the suggestion of a friend, re-deeded the mansion to the YWCA.

For those who cannot attend the Dec. 8 tour, the Academy Hill website -- www.ahhd.org -- includes a map of the district that can be printed and used on a self-guided tour. Photos of some of the houses are included on the website.

Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: suburbanliving@piost-gazette.com.


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