Time, fire take toll on historic structures in, around Pittsburgh
The roof burned away, and the third floor crashed into the second, which fell onto the first. But enough of Scenery Hill’s Century Inn remains since a devastating fire last week that its owner hopes to rebuild the historic property.
“It just needs a little sprucing up,” Megin Harrington said after her first look inside the famous inn on Route 40 in Washington County. It burned early Tuesday.
Built in 1788 and expanded in 1794, the Century Inn was the oldest continuously operating inn on the National Road.
Despite the fire, its stone walls appear strong and intact, with plaster adhering to the front rooms. A restoration expert said the mantle and fireplace appear to be salvageable, and Harrington said original walnut wood beams inside The McCune Saloon look unscathed, as are other plaster-covered beams elsewhere in the 20-room house.
“The bar is in good shape,” said Harrington, 67, who has run the inn for 40 years after taking over from her in-laws, who bought it in 1945. “The big hold up is the stone, whether it is feasible to rebuild. But I would love to.”
Structural engineers and restoration experts will have to assess the stone, which was quarried on site.
Though it looks solid, Harrington said intense heat cracked the face of some stone blocks, and firefighters washed away some sand-based mortar while fighting the fire.
The Century Inn is the latest in a string of historic properties across Western Pennsylvania to sustain severe damage this year.
In January, an arsonist damaged five historic buildings along East Eighth Avenue in Homestead.
Old Emlenton Mill, an 1875 grist mill that ran for more than 100 years in Venango County, burned to the ground in February.
In March, the North Side lost the John A. Brashear Factory when a wall collapsed, and the city razed the historic site, which was built in the 1880s to make mirrors and lenses for telescopes.
A fire in April gutted the Old Large Hotel in Jefferson Hills, shuttering the 112-year-old former stagecoach stop along old Route 51 that housed antiques and a bottle of locally made Monongahela Rye whiskey dating to the late 1700s.
Such severely damaged properties often are lost forever, though a few manage to rise from the ashes, said Arthur Ziegler Jr., president of the nonprofit Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. Even if rebuilt, the properties are never the same.
“There’s too much of the fabric gone,” Ziegler said. “You have to allow for the fact that what you will have is a lot of simulation of what you had.”
But historic properties can be rebuilt to look as they once did by using period materials taken from other buildings, adding new materials made as they were centuries ago or keeping the facade and building new behind it.
A decade ago, Ziegler’s preservation organization worked with Allegheny County to build a historic replica of an 18th century barn on the Oliver Miller Homestead in South Park. Amish builders made native timber frames with mortise and tenon joints secured with wood pegs, a construction method used 200 years ago.
“You can come pretty close to looking original,” Ziegler said.
Historic status at issue
Harrington is awaiting a settlement from her insurance company, both for the inn and the immense collection of priceless art and antiques it contained.
Figuring out whether the insurance company will provide full replacement value is the next step in deciding what options are available, said Michael Kardell, a senior project manager and estimator with Church Restoration Group.
The Cranberry-based firm specializes in historic renovations, including restoring churches and other buildings damaged by fire. A company representative visited the Century Inn this week to see the extent of the damage, though Church Restoration Group has not been hired to work on the structure.
The fact that the stone facade and some other structures — such as beams, walls and wood floors — remain is an encouraging sign for breathing new life into the building, Kardell said.
“It sounds like they might have enough of the place left for a good start,” he said. “We’ve certainly done plenty of rebuilding of historic properties that have been damaged by fire. It’s not unheard of.”
The Century Inn acquired a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. To remain there, enough historic character would need to remain through a renovation, said Patrick Andrus, a National Park Service historian for the register, which has more than 90,000 properties.
“It’s a matter of degree of what remains and what does not remain,” Andrus said.
Dearth of help to rebuild
No federal grants or loans are available for restoring privately owned historic properties. Restoration projects involving tax-generating historic properties are eligible for a 20 percent federal tax credit.
Pennsylvania has a similar tax incentive that could provide a 25 percent break, up to $500,000, said Erin Hammerstedt of Preservation Pennsylvania.
A number of preservation-minded nonprofits could provide funding or serve as a conduit for grants to help revive the Century Inn, said Clay Kilgore, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society.
He cited the poor condition of the David Bradford House before the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 1959 restored the Washington home of the Whiskey Rebellion leader — who had ties to the Century Inn, along with U.S. presidents, foreign dignitaries and other notable civic and business leaders.
“We would be remiss to move on,” Kilgore said. “If it can be saved, we have to do it.”
Jason Cato is a writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or [email protected].