George Washington didn’t sleep in Old Stone Tavern, as far as anyone knows, but a lot of historic Pittsburghers enjoyed “cherry toddies” in the city’s second-oldest building.
Preservationists are working to purchase and restore the tavern, built in what became West End Village around the end of the Revolutionary War. Last year they established a nonprofit, Pittsburgh’s Old Stone Tavern Friends Trust Inc., and hope to begin raising money shortly.
“It’s a big job. You have to come up with money,” said Paul Sentner of Elliott, who chairs the trust. “We feel that the tavern, if we could get it all running and back into shape, could be a hub for all the historic sites around the region.”
Harris Masonry owns the building at Greentree Road and Woodville Avenue and is willing to sell if the group comes up with enough cash for the business to move, according to company President Lee Harris. The deal would have to include an office building, construction yard and large warehouse, Harris said.
Neither Harris nor Sentner would disclose a price, other than to say it would take “six figures.”
“I’m willing to work with them up to a point, but if something else comes up down the road, I’m going to do what I have to do,” Harris said.
Harris bought the building for $38,500 in 2009, according to online Allegheny County real estate records. He intended to demolish it and expand his construction yard.
But the city in 2010 designated the building as historic, which means it can’t be razed or altered outside without City Council approval.
Michael Shealey, an architect who researched tavern history, said it was constructed about 1782-84 by Daniel Elliott, a Revolutionary War veteran with large land holdings in the West End. The tavern was known as Elliott’s and the Elliott neighborhood is named for him.
A tavern ledger from 1793-97 shows about 500 accounts to leading citizens, including Revolutionary War Gen. John Neville; John Woods, a member of one of Pittsburgh’s founding families whose Hazelwood home is on the National Register of Historic Places; and Hugh Henry Brackenridge, a Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice and founder of the University of Pittsburgh.
Neville, Woods and Brackenridge played significant roles in the Whiskey Rebellion, an armed uprising of distillers from 1791-94 over a federal tax on liquor.
Shealey said the Fort Pitt Blockhouse in Point State Park, built in 1764, is the only building in Pittsburgh that’s older than the tavern. He said the blockhouse represents the end of the city’s British Colonial Era and the tavern, the beginning of the American Era.
“That building, as far as I’m concerned, is the most valuable building in the city of Pittsburgh that is currently under threat,” he said.
The building was a tavern through a succession of owners from the 1700s until it closed in 2008. Harris said he found beer glasses on the bar and “liquid chicken” in refrigerators. He found partial sticks of dynamite with BBs taped to them that had to be removed by the Pittsburgh police bomb squad.
“We don’t know why they were there,” Harris said.
Debbie Iszauk, 59, of Monroeville said her grandparents, Max and Freida Green, and later an uncle, Everett Green, owned the place from the early 1900s until the 1970s and lived in a second-floor apartment. They served cold beer and Freida Green’s lemon meringue pie and baked ham in the bar.
“It was never one of those fancy places,” Iszauk said. “It served the working class.”
Norene Beatty, secretary of the trust, said the group hasn’t decided what it might do with the building. She’d like to see it restored and leased as a working 18th-century tavern. Money from the lease would pay for maintenance, she said.
“We’d like for you to sit down, have a cherry toddy, and hear the story of the tavern,” she said. “I don’t know what a cherry toddy is, but a lot of people drank them, according to the ledger.”
Bob Bauder is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or [email protected].