Snyder family feuds over historic 1890s estate in Sewickley Heights


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In the late 1890s, steamboat and iron baron William Penn Snyder Sr. escaped Pittsburgh's smoke and heat by summering at his country retreat in the Sewickley Valley. More than a century later, Wilpen Hall, one of the last intact Gilded Age estates in Sewickley Heights, is at the center of a legal battle that involves three generations of the Snyder family and Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

Snyder, founder of Shenango Furnace and Shenango Steamship companies, made his fortune supplying iron ore to the steel industry. In 1897, he hired architect George Orth to design a three-story, stone Shingle-style mansion atop a hill on 38 acres. The main house has 25 rooms and 23,000 square feet of space. Wilpen Hall was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.

The dispute pits J. Brandon Snyder Jr., 65, and his nephew, William Penn Snyder V, against the family's 95-year-old patriarch, William Penn Snyder III, and the region's premier preservation group, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks. The three Snyders declined to comment for this story.

J. Brandon Snyder is a son of William Penn Snyder III; William Penn Snyder V is a grandson. They claim that when the elder Mr. Snyder signed a preservation contract with the foundation in exchange for a major tax deduction, he devalued their properties and violated a restrictive land agreement that covers most landowners in Sewickley Heights.

All in the family

Since 1979, J. Brandon Snyder has lived in the "Little House" at Wilpen Hall. At his father's request, he sold his home in Edgeworth and moved his wife and three children to the smaller house west of the mansion to share the expenses of running the 30-acre property, according to the lawsuit. At the time, his mother, Jean Snyder, an avid tennis player, golfer and socialite, was still alive. She died in June 2006.

PG map: Wilpen Hall
(Click image for larger version)

William Penn Snyder III and his second wife, Verna Burchard Corey, 68, have occupied the mansion since they were married in June 2007. The couple hired local architectural historian Lu Donnelly to research and write a detailed National Register nomination, which was submitted in February 2011. Four months later, Mrs. Corey and her husband hosted a party to celebrate Wilpen Hall's placement on the National Register.

More than a year later, on Oct. 24, 2012, William Penn Snyder III granted Pittsburgh History & Landmarks a preservation easement. That's a legal contract between a homeowner and a preservation group that is recorded in a property deed and binds all future owners. The easement prevents demolition of any historic buildings on the property or unsympathetic alterations to their exteriors. If certain criteria are met, the property owner may claim a federal tax deduction for a charitable contribution.

The easement on Wilpen Hall ensures that its exterior and terraced, four-level gardens are preserved forever. Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation does not, however, have the right to take possession of the property.

On July 22, J. Brandon Snyder and his nephew, William Penn Snyder V, filed a lawsuit in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court challenging the easement. William Penn Snyder V lives with his family in a large brick house adjacent to Wilpen Hall. They want a judge to nullify the preservation group's interest in the family estate. J. Brandon Snyder claims the requirement to preserve the buildings and gardens devalues his property because it limits what he can do with his home and land.

J. Brandon Snyder and William Penn Snyder V claim that when William Penn Snyder III granted the preservation group an interest in maintaining the property's historic exteriors and gardens, he violated a land agreement signed by nearly every Sewickley Heights property owner decades ago.

Effective since 1969 and renewed every 10 years, the agreement limits Sewickley Heights landowners to using their homes exclusively as single-family residences. The written contract was designed to deter intrusive development while preserving the community's natural beauty. More than 209 property owners signed the contract, which covers 2,630 acres in the borough and binds all future property owners.

High on a hill

Sewickley Heights is a pastoral place with elegant homes, picturesque stone walls, rolling hills, winding roads and stately trees. A borough ordinance requires that every home must have a minimum of 5 acres.

J. Brandon Snyder's "Little House" shares a long, curving driveway with the mansion occupied by William Penn Snyder III, who uses a scooter or crutches to get around. Earlier this year, he celebrated his 95th birthday during a cruise to China.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks president Arthur Ziegler, who co-founded the organization in 1964, is adamant about saving Wilpen Hall for future generations to appreciate.

"It's a very important property," he said. "The owner wanted us to protect it through an easement. He gave us the easement and we have a legal obligation to protect the easement."

Ms. Donnelly, the architectural historian, described the property this way in the National Register nomination:

"Wilpen Hall is a Pittsburgh phenomenon. Constructed by a Pittsburgh industrialist whose family remains in the house, designed and worked on by Pittsburgh architects, it is the only remaining site in Sewickley Heights Borough still capable of capturing that confluence of industrial wealth and rural pretension that characterized the great estates at the turn of the 19th century."

The seeds of the pending lawsuit were sown on Feb. 24, 2012, when William Penn Snyder III and his wife incorporated Wilpen Hall Preservation Foundation to preserve the property. In response to a letter from the Internal Revenue Service, the couple said it planned to live at Wilpen Hall as "on-site caretakers," pay fair market rent and turn over the house to the Wilpen Hall Preservation Foundation.

On Oct. 24, 2012, the couple granted the preservation easement to Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

Then, in a Nov. 2, 2012, letter, the IRS asked the Snyders questions about "the propriety of their request for tax-exempt status."

"Your organizations [sic] primary activity is to maintain the estate. Please explain how using funds to restore privately owned property is not privately benefiting Mr. Snyder." The letter is one of many exhibits in the lawsuit.

In a Nov. 20, 2012, response to the IRS, the elder Mr. Snyder and his wife said they planned to open the house for guided public tours two days a week and use the estate for weddings, charitable functions, business conferences and as a place to educate people about local history, allowing Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation docents to conduct tours.

They also told the IRS that they planned to transfer the house to the Wilpen Hall Preservation Foundation.

"There will initially be no full-time staff. Rather, Mr. Snyder, will oversee, with the assistance of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation ... the operation of the property," they wrote.

The IRS granted the Wilpen Hall Preservation Foundation tax-exempt status on Jan. 14, about three months after the Snyders donated the preservation easement to Pittsburgh History & Landmarks.

Gift with strings attached

Last December, William Penn Snyder III deeded 11 acres of the Wilpen Hall property to J. Brandon Snyder, along with the "Little House," for $1. By the time he made that gift to his son, the house and land were encumbered with the preservation easement.

In 1968, William Penn Snyder III was the first landowner to sign Sewickley Heights' restrictive covenant, which is spelled out in landowners' deeds and binds all people who inherit or buy property covered by it. The covenant is automatically renewed every decade.

J. Brandon Snyder and 11 other Sewickley Heights property owners believe the plan to open Wilpen Hall for tours and events violates that 1968 agreement. In April, they sued William Penn Snyder III and the Wilpen Hall Preservation Foundation and prevailed.

Under terms of a court settlement approved by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Judith L.A. Friedman, the family patriarch agreed to dissolve the foundation, which occurred July 24, according to a spokesman for the state Department of Revenue. Wilpen Hall's owner also agreed to abide by the 1968 land agreement, which requires homeowners to use their properties only as single-family dwellings.

The July 22 lawsuit filed by J. Brandon Snyder Jr. and William Penn Snyder V over the easement has the support of John Oliver, the mayor of Sewickley Heights; he has joined the two men in their suit. An ardent conservationist, Mr. Oliver ran the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and then Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. He declined to comment.

While Wilpen Hall may not be open to the public anytime soon, if ever, the curious can catch a glimpse of the grand home when the film "Foxcatcher" opens in December. Wilpen Hall was the stand-in for Foxcatcher Farms, the Philadelphia-area estate of John du Pont, the chemical fortune heir who killed Olympic wrestler David Schultz in 1996.

homepage - neigh_city - homes - artarchitecture

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648. First Published August 25, 2013 4:00 AM


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