It Ain’t Easy Saving the Past

Don’t mess with these ladies, the Pittsburgh DAR chapter in 1906.

So, you want to preserve an old historic building? Of course not. You want someone else do it.Blockhouse1

Let’s look at two examples where people did come forward.

First we’ll detail the effort, setbacks and determination of a group of women who ensured the Fort Pitt Block House was not broken up and dumped into a hole somewhere. They also kept it from being moved out of context to Schenley Park.

Then, we’ll look at a tavern that served drinks for at least 234 years before anyone outside the West End noticed its age. It was 2011-04-30-west-end-old-stone-tavern-02about to bow before a bulldozer when local preservationists stepped up to the bar.

They want it to be preserved and studied. Maybe for a tourist attraction, maybe for a cool professional office. So far, all that’s been delivered to their table is bulldozer protection. They can take heart in knowing it wasn’t easy for the block house saviors, either.

Rich Women vs. Rich Men

The block house saga was a story of rich women donning their hats (striking by today’s standards), meeting rich and powerful men in their corporate and political domains, and not taking “No” for an answer. Well, sometimes they did. Then, they made the most of it.

We are talking about the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

They were actually granddaughters and great-granddaughters of men who fought in the revolution. True, those men helped create a new Democratic nation, but that was not their prime motivation.

They wanted personal wealth.  They got it and gave it to their descendants.

It came from speculating on land, Indian land. There’s a reason why George Washington, a surveyor, died the richest man in the country.

Those who fought in the Revolution, or otherwise advanced the cause, were promised Indian land when it was over.

Land-hungry colonists thought their British overlords were too protective of Indian treaties. The Indians, not surprisingly, didn’t think Britain protected them at all. Americans also did not want to pay taxes to cover the war that had driven the French out of their way in Indian territory.

So, the Revolution flared. It created what was considered “old money” by the time the local DAR chapter formed in 1891.

Appreciating their rich roots, members took on a never-ending project: obtain, restore and display the Fort Pitt Block House.

The American Dream, a house with gun ports. These are tenants living in the Fort Pitt Block House in the 1890s.

The American Dream, a house with gun ports. These are tenants living in the Fort Pitt Block House in the 1890s.

A Fortress Among Indians

The tiny brick structure was all that remained of Fort Pitt, which was built to guard over the entrance to Indian lands in the Ohio territory.

It also was built to protect settlers who were enticed here by land developers.

The block house was nothing more than a bunker for men with muskets to shoot enemies approaching the fort walls.

It survived because someone was living in it when the new American government hired a salvage contractor to take down the over-sized fort.

The relic remained a residence for 100 years. Additions were built and windows cut into the walls. As many as 10 people at a time called it home.

It was in a slum, a cluttered collection of tenement shacks.

There are accounts of tenants giving tours of the block house, so its origins had not been totally forgotten.

Henry Clay Frick

Henry Clay Frick

Getting Railroaded

Forward-thinking businessmen and politicians wanted to clear the slum at the heart of the city and erect a rail terminal, rail yards and warehouses.

That sounds like an ugly project now, but back then it was the equivalent of Google wanting to set up a technology park.

The DAR wanted to restore the block house to its original condition and create a setting conducive to visitors.

Standing in their way was “new money.” It was represented by the likes of Henry Clay Frick, the Pennsylvania Railroad and local elected officials who saw where the future lies and with whom it lies.

Fortunately for the DAR, the absentee owner of nearly the entire Point District was one of them.

Portrait Mary Schenley sent to the DAR in 1892

Portrait Mary Schenley sent to the DAR in 1892

Mary Schenley had been living in England for 50 years since she eloped at 16. She was a cousin of many DAR members. Like them, her wealth came from the management of land.

Shrewd Schenley 

Schenley was no dummy. Her remarkable story is covered in a previous post here.

She had already donated 300 acres to the city for a park in Oakland now bearing her name.  She had declined to sell the Point to the city and others who approached her. But, it was just a matter of time.

Schenley warmly agreed to give the block house to the women for nothing. She shrewdly threw in a strip of land to ensure access to the building just in case someone, like the city, decided to start closing streets — which they ultimately did.

Schenley also wisely put in a clause returning the block house to her should the DAR prove incapable of handling the project.

That proved to be a great motivator to the women.

The most remarkable member was Edith Darlington Ammon.

Edith Ammon, or Mrs. Ammon as movers and shakers knew her

Edith Ammon, or Mrs. Ammon as movers and shakers knew her

A Woman Before Her Time

Her parents instilled an interest in colonial history. Their collected artifacts and manuscripts are housed at the University of Pittsburgh’s Darlington Memorial Library, a valuable resource for researchers.

She published articles denouncing the warehouse plans and garnering support for the DAR’s preservation efforts.

Mrs. Ammon, as she became universally known, sued when the city started closing streets serving the block house.

She initially won, but lost on technical reasons when it went to the state Supreme Court.

Mrs. Ammon then petitioned the city to assure that the block house would not be condemned and taken. For good measure, she asked it to develop  a suitable park around the historic structure. It could simply be called Point Park, she suggested.

You should always ask for twice as much as what you want.

The city fathers rolled their eyes at the very idea of a park in smelly downtown Pittsburgh, but agreed to guarantee Mrs. Ammon they would not condemn her block house.

An attorney representing a “warehouse syndicate” made what seemed to city fathers  extremely generous offers. The women probably thought they were patronizing.

The DAR would be given $25,000 and the block house would be moved at the syndicate’s expense to any location in Schenley Park they chose.

The women presented a united front in saying, “No.”

Vultures Circle Block House

With industrial vultures circling, Mrs. Ammon realized she needed more.

It became known that Frick had bought the rest of Schenley’s land at the Point for $2 million.

Included in the deal was the stipulation that the block house would now revert to him, if the DAR failed to properly preserve and maintain it.

The women were sure  he would demolish it.

To show what they were up against, the price paid for roughly 35 acres of slums is the equivalent of $52.6 million today. Location, location, location.

Mrs. Ammon leaves Capitol with preservation legislation signed into law, the result of years of lobbying

Mrs. Ammon leaves Capitol with preservation legislation signed into law in 1907, the result of a long lobbying battle with railroads.

Mrs. Ammon Goes to Harrisburg

Mrs. Ammon went to the state Capitol where she spent years lobbying for historic preservation laws, particularly as it related to railroads.

She gave speeches in the Senate chambers.

“Have you no history? Have you no pride?  . . . Men who allow this precious spot to be sacrificed certainly have no pride at all. If these [historic] sites are destroyed, nothing but written pages will be left behind to tell their memory. Future generations will want to see them. We should not deny them the opportunity.”

Now remember, women couldn’t even vote. And, she was spending far more time among cigar-chomping vessels of testosterone than was proper. Mrs. Ammon persisted.

She got one bill passed in 1903 known as the “Mrs. Ammon Bill.” It would save the block house, but the governor vetoed it because he didn’t like railroads and it still allowed railroads to take too much property by eminent domain.

Mrs. Ammon drafted another bill, while various related battles took up local court time.

Yes, There Was a Mr. Ammon

As her name implied, Mrs. Ammon was indeed married. Her husband was a well-established attorney, Samuel Ammon. They often worked together.

She got a young local legislator, Michael H. Kennedy, to introduce a bill she largely wrote that protected colonial or Revolutionary War sites from railroad destruction. It became law in 1907.

The Block House was safe.  Well, not quite.

The ladies put on their best and went to visit Mr. Frick on Grant Street.

They asked him to sell a small portion of the land to them to buffer the block house from the warehouses and trains they now knew could not be stopped.

Frick told them he couldn’t do that. He didn’t own the land any more. He sold it  to the Pennsylvania Railroad. Shortly afterwards, the city granted railroad rights of way there. And that was that.

The block house with the pointed roof is surrounded by the Pennsylvania Railroad's warehouse and rail yard.

The block house with the pointed roof is surrounded by the Pennsylvania Railroad’s warehouse and rail yard.

Block House Swallowed But Survives

It meant the block house would be swallowed by mammoth warehouses and circling trains, steam ones at that.

In a report to members, Mrs. Ammon reminded them they may have failed to keep the Point from becoming an industrial rail yard, but they had saved the intrepid block house, which had survived 100 years of far worse conditions.

Then, as they continually fixed it up and preserved the city’s link to the past,  the block house watched the rail business decline. The Point once again became an eyesore.

By the mid 20th Century, the time had come for Mrs. Ammon’s old idea. The state agreed to turn the rail property into Point State Park, now one of the most beautiful urban parks in the nation.

I love irony, and here’s a bit. The railroad property was taken by eminent domain.

How It Looks Today



NEXT WEEK: The Old Stone Tavern in the West End.


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