By Tony LaRussa
Monday, July 12, 2010
It’s hard to see the building at the crossroads of Greentree Road and Woodville Avenue in the West End as anything but just another of the city’s many aged, vacant properties waiting for its date with a wrecking ball.
But some people are looking beyond the broken windows, peeling siding and thick ivy snaking up the sides. They see a gem.
Late last year, city officials ensured that whatever the future holds for the centuries-old building known as the Old Stone Tavern, its designation as a historic structure will prevent it from being torn down. The Historic Review Commission must give permission before an owner can alter its exterior.
Research done during the historic designation nominating process points to the likelihood that the tavern is the region’s second-oldest building, behind the Fort Pitt Blockhouse built in 1764 in what is now Point State Park.
“It’s almost certainly the oldest commercial structure in the region,” said Michael Shealey, an architect who conducted much of the research.
The Old Stone Tavern is located at a bend in what was the historic Washington and Pittsburgh Turnpike, a toll road connecting Pittsburgh to Washington County and National Road. It is believed to have served as a tollhouse and frontier trading post and likely played a role in the Whiskey Rebellion, the late 18th-century uprising against a federal excise tax on liquor.
Despite the 1752 date chiseled into a cornerstone, evidence points to the structure’s construction in the early 1780s, Shealey said.
“We always knew it was very old, but never imagined it dated back as far as it apparently does,” said Norene Beatty, who testified at a public hearing in support of the historic designation. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see it restored and used as a rustic tavern like you would find in Colonial Williamsburg?”
Yet even though historic designation protects the building, it does not require someone to restore it.
Historic buildings can qualify for state and federal grants and tax credits, but the best hope for restoration lies in identifying a commercial use for the property, said Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, which supported the nomination.
“Protecting the building was an important first step,” said Ziegler.
Diana Poliziani of Crafton Heights, whose family has owned businesses in the West End for 50 years, hopes the building is “put to good use.”
“I think the business district is going to explode in the next couple of years, and a historic building like that should be part of what happens,” she said.
John DiSantis, a former Historic Review Commission member who nominated the building for historic designation, said its preservation is important to the fabric of the community.
“When you’re talking about something this old, it really doesn’t matter how long it takes before something is done with it,” he said. “The key to me is that what exists now has been preserved.”
Lee Harris bought the old tavern last year, intending to tear it down to expand the adjacent masonry business started by his father.
“I knew it was one of the oldest buildings in the neighborhood, but I didn’t really know it had such historic significance,” he said.
Harris said that although people who pushed for the historic designation “were well-meaning,” it made doing business during a sour economy that much more difficult.
“I bought the place because I needed more space,” he said. “Now that I can’t tear it down, it’s really not much use to me.”
Harris didn’t fight the historic designation, took steps to keep the building from deteriorating further, and provided access to those interested in studying the structure. He estimates it would cost $250,000 to $500,000 to restore the tavern’s exterior and refurbish its interior, depending on the scope of the work.
He said he would consider selling the tavern and surrounding property, including the buildings he uses for his business, for a fair price and the cost of relocating if someone presented a development proposal.
Coming up with possible uses for the Old Stone Tavern is part of a master plan being developed with a $150,000 state grant extended to the nonprofit West End Partnership for Development.
“We’d love to see that area developed, so we can tie both sides of the West End together,” said Lou Bucci, the organization’s chairman. “Unfortunately, our organization doesn’t have the kind of money needed to take on a project like that. We’re hoping that as things improve economically, one of the foundations or a private developer will show some interest. We’d certainly do what we can to support them.”