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March 14, 1996

Book Center staff member helps to preserve 200-year-old Neill log cabin in Schenley Park

Nobody knows exactly how many of the buildings featured in "The Early Architecture of Western Pennsylvania" remain standing. It would take another survey to determine that figure.

Judging by the deteriorated condition of some of the structures when they were photographed in the 1930s, though, it's a safe bet that a large portion of them no longer exist. Especially hard hit by the years appear to be the log houses. Rot is evident on many of them and the mud chinking between the logs is frequently crumpling or missing.

Of the 19 log houses in the book, one that remains standing is the Robert Neill house in Schenley Park. And if Dwight Fong, a buyer in The Book Center, has anything to say, it will continue to stand for many years to come and someday become more readily accessible to the public.

Since 1990, when he first conducted tours of the house as a member of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation (PHLF), Fong has done everything from lobby the city for funds to preserve the home and open it to the public, to clear weeds and brush from the yard around it.

The Pitt staffer has voluntarily taken on those duties because he believes the house is one of Pittsburgh's great treasures. The Neill home is one of the two oldest log structures still standing in Allegheny County; the other one is in Penn Hills.

"People are astounded when they see the house," Fong says. "A lot of them have been jogging past it or riding their bikes or driving past it for years and can't believe what it's like when they get to see the inside." Although the exterior of the house measures only 19 feet by 25 feet, it is surprisingly spacious on the inside, with an immense fireplace that covers most of one wall and a large loft that is reached by a very narrow, winding staircase and provides a beautiful view of Downtown.

The fireplace is very unusual for having a second, smaller fireplace built into its side. The smaller fireplace would have been used for heating the house at night, according to Fong. He says it indicates that the room may have been divided at one time or that the Neills had thought about adding another room.

"The Early Architecture of Western Pennsylvania" lists the Neill house as being built about 1787. That is the date on the deed, but tax records show that the Neills were residents of Pittsburgh as early as 1783 and family members have reported them living in what is now Schenley Park. So Fong feels the house is actually older.

Nobody, however, knows exactly when or why the Neills moved to Pittsburgh. Except for a few wedding announcements involving the Neill daughters, no information on who the Neills were or what Robert Neill did for a living has survived. One turn-of-the-century newspaper article portrays Neill as a Conestoga wagon driver who made runs from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and Baltimore. But Fong finds that doubtful. He says western Pennsylvania's roads were so bad at the time that it was impossible to get a Conestoga wagon over the mountains. It was not until after about 1805, when the National Road, now U.S. Route 40, was open to Cumberland, Md., that the famous wagon began appearing in the region.

"Before that they would have used pack trains," Fong says. "So, he could have been the guide of a pack train. Or maybe there were narrow carriages coming over the mountains, but not Conestoga wagons. They were too big. So, we don't know what he did." The fact that the Neills owned property both in Downtown on Market Square and in what is now Schenley Park, seems to indicate that the family had some money, according to Fong. Robert Neill also took out an option on property in Somerset County, near where Seven Springs Mountain Resort now stands, but never completed that purchase.

In 1795, the Neills moved from the current Schenley Park to where the McCrory store once stood on Market Square. Robert Neill died there about a year later; his wife died sometime before 1800.

Fong thinks the Neills may have moved from Schenley Park to Market Square because they had five daughters and no sons, so they were unable to farm the property.

After the Neills died, the Schenley Park property passed through two different owners before it was sold to James O'Hara, the wealthy Revolutionary War general and businessman for whom O'Hara Township is named. O'Hara's granddaughter was Mary Schenley, who gave the property to the city for a park in 1889.

The Neill property covered 262 acres in the northern section of the park. Fong says the family's log house survived mainly because the property on which it stands has never been subdivided or developed.

For a time after the creation of Schenley Park in the late 19th century, the house actually was rented by the city to vacationers. It continued to deteriorate, though, until 1969, when the PHLF had it dismantled, except for the chimney and the fireplace, and rebuilt.

"Most of the wood is not original," says Fong. "The roof, the second floor loft and the ceiling to the first floor and the ground level floor are all new. The beams holding the roof are all new. Some of the logs are original. Unfortunately, after they dismantled it, the logs that they kept, the good logs, were not put back in their original spots." The only time that the house currently is scheduled to be open for tours is during the two days of the Vintage Grand Prix in August. Special tours, however, can be arranged for groups by contacting Fong (648-1452). The past two years when the house was opened during the race, it drew about 1,000 visitors.

Last year, Fong and a group of volunteers from The Book Center — Margaret Corrado, Lisa Gasswint, Jean Aiello, Jim Crowley and Lynna Massimini — spent several days clearing the yard around the house. Some of the brush and trees on the property had been left unattended for so long that they actually had grown around portions of the chain-link fence. As part of his efforts to preserve and improve the Neill house, Fong also has been instrumental in getting the University's anthropology department and Center for Cultural Research at the University of Pittsburgh Applied Research Center in Harmar Township to begin planning an archeological dig on the site.

Pitt faculty member David Bush will head the dig. If the city gives its approval, which it is expected to do, the dig probably will start in the fall. It will be done by students from the city's middle schools and by adult volunteers.

Plans call for construction of a wood chip path around the house and the installation of a new water line, French drain and drinking fountain. Volunteers also will plant a wildflower meadow, a kitchen garden, a herb garden and other plants from the Colonial period. Those projects will be used to help instruct visitors about life in western Pennsylvania during the time of the Neills.

–Mike Sajna

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