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Livin' large: Former Pirate spent seven years fielding giant job renovating Tionesta lodge

Saturday, October 06, 2001

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

With the bravado of youth, lots of people make outrageous offers they never expect to follow through on. Such was the case with former Pittsburgh Pirate Bruce Taylor.

Former Pittsburgh Pirate Bruce Taylor and his wife, Candice have used the Tionesta lodge they've renovated just as a weekend retreat and for Christmas parties. Now the couple plans to live in the more-than-12,000-square-foot structure year-round. (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette Photos)

In the early '60s, Taylor, first baseman for the Buccos in 1952-55, operated a charter airplane company out of Franklin, Venango County. One of his regular customers was Vernon F. Taylor (no relation), president of Peerless Oil & Gas Co. in San Antonio, Texas.

A man of considerable wealth, Vernon Taylor had grown up in nearby Brockway, a small town in Jefferson County about 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. After striking it rich, he returned to Western Pennsylvania in 1927 to build a summer retreat on 15,000 acres he'd acquired in Tionesta, Forest County.

On numerous occasions, Bruce Taylor flew the Texas oilman, then in his 70s, from the lodge to meetings in New York and Philadelphia. Often the only ones in the airplane, the men talked and eventually became friends, and Bruce Taylor subsequently was invited several times to dinner at the lodge.

The young pilot was so taken with the secluded, sprawling sandstone getaway -- it measures well over 12,000 square feet -- that he told the Texan millionaire if he ever wanted to sell the place, he should give him a call.

Then, "I forgot about it," says Taylor, now president of Penn-Aire Aviation, an aircraft sales company in Franklin.

Vernon Taylor, however, took those words to heart. In 1987, Bruce Taylor got a call from some lawyers in New York City. The Tionesta lodge was up for sale. Was he still interested?

When he died in 1972, Vernon Taylor had left the property to his daughter Ruth. She, in turn, had bequeathed it to St. Mary's Hall, a college preparatory school in San Antonio, which put it on the market. Somehow the school had learned of Bruce Taylor's offer so many years before.

Never mind that he hadn't seen the lodge since the '60s. He had three days to get in a bid. So Taylor, who at the time owned his own camp in Tionesta, drove up to the lodge with his son and took a look around. Little used over the previous 20 years, it was in "terrible" condition, he said. Still, he decided to take a shot.

"I thought I could fix it up and make it what it's turned out to be, which is a nice big comfortable place to relax in," he says of the place he still calls "a camp."

Taylor spent the next seven years and several times the purchase price turning the lodge into a weekend retreat that's more luxurious than most people's homes. A new roof above the great room cost more than $300,000, and that was just the start. The interior, too, got an extensive makeover.

The previous owners of the lodge hosted grand parties in the 4,000-square-foot great room (of which only a portion is seen here). The who's-who guest lists included President Eisenhower and members of the Mellon and Scaife families.

In addition to sandblasting all the stone walls and replacing every window with energy-efficient Thermopane glass, workers insulated the two-story home by blowing some 8,000 bags of Vermiculite into the gaps between the 36-inch-thick walls. Because the lodge had never been heated (Vernon Taylor used it only a couple of weeks in the summer), Bruce Taylor also added four furnaces, drilled a gas well and converted every wood-burning fireplace to gas. The plumbing, electrical system and sewer lines also were replaced.

Craftsmen replastered interior walls, cleaned and restained most of the lodge's thick wooden beams and replaced a small porch constructed out of "logs and bats" with a massive two-story wood deck. From it, the view of Little Tionesta Creek, gurgling just a stone's throw away through the virgin pine forest, is nothing short of spectacular.

All the while, Taylor -- a self-made man who doesn't easily take no for an answer -- never let on to friends or associates that he had undertaken one of the area's most ambitious remodeling projects, in large part because he didn't consider it a big deal.

"I just wanted to make it livable," he says simply.

When Vernon Taylor built the lodge more than 60 years ago -- at the height of the Great Depression -- he spared no expense. He imported 25 Swedish craftsmen, who took seven years to build the lodge for the then-outrageous sum of $300,000. The men dug the sandstone used for the foundation and walls from the mountain on the property.

Famous guests

During Vernon Taylor's brief visits here, he hosted many famous guests, including aviation pioneers Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh and Jimmy Doolittle, actors Rudy Vallee and Clark Gable and presidents Nixon and Eisenhower. Mellons and Scaifes also attended the many formal dances and New York operas Vernon Taylor and his wife, Ruth, threw in the 4,000-square-foot great room.

Despite such glitzy visitors, the lodge had a rustic, campy atmosphere when Bruce Taylor bought it. With no heat, the rooms were dank, the wood paneling was black with soot, and the kitchen and pantry were little more than a couple of countertops and a sink.

"It was very crude," says Taylor.

After building the multilevel deck, Taylor tackled the old low-pitched, tarpaper and log roof. Twelve men with carbine-blade chain saws cut it into pieces and then tore it completely off with cranes. They then spent the next several months constructing a new roof shipped in from Kansas City in sections via tractor-trailer. Workers also inserted five 36-inch-thick I-beams in the ceiling of the great room, allowing for a 10-foot overhang on the sides. As a result, guests can walk around the entire lodge during a rainstorm without getting wet.

With the roof complete, Taylor set about renovating the monster-sized room with a 26-foot-tall ceiling. Heavy snow had made the old rustic log ceiling unstable in winter, so he opted for tongue-and-groove white ash. Installation took a full year because Taylor, a perfectionist, insisted each and every board be completely free of knots.

"They threw away as much as we kept," he says.

Stone walls were sandblasted, as was the 17-foot-long, 5 1/2-foot tall stone fireplace, which is fed logs from the basement via an elevator. Craftsmen also refinished the maple wood floors, cleaned the wood paneling and added baseboard heaters.

Roomy enough to hold 100 guests, this room boasts 41 trophies from two safaris Taylor went on in the '60s -- including impala, hartebeest, eland, cape buffalo, lion, a stuffed leopard. Furnished with an extra-large Henredon sofa, several seating areas and a custom-made Thomasville wall unit, it is also surprisingly comfy.

The extra-large library table gracing the back of the sofa is original to the lodge, as is the player grand piano. It was too large for workers to get it out the door so Taylor bought it. A pair of 16-foot-tall Palladian windows on either side of the fireplace offer a view of the mountain where American Indians once roamed.

Security measures

Two pairs of French doors open onto the covered deck; another entrance leads into the lodge's sleeping quarters. Each of the six bedrooms features a fireplace as well as windows with iron bars.

"Vernon knew he'd have special people here," explains Taylor.

One bedroom, now used as a sitting room, holds one of the lodge's coolest features: a secret compartment. When President Eisenhower visited during the '50s, aides planned to hide the chief executive there should the lodge come under attack.

The elegant formal dining room -- large enough to hold three dining tables -- is equally striking. Taylor had the wood paneling, imported from Switzerland, cleaned and restained. The main dining table comfortably seats 12 and is original to the house. But Vernon Taylor was a tall man, so Bruce Taylor had it cut down 4 inches. The oak sideboard, filled with blue and red glass dishes, is also original. Taylor's wife, Candice, discovered the giant antique oak table against one wall in the garage, where workers were using it as a workbench.

Off the dining room is Taylor's office. Paneled in wood, it is full of Pirates memorabilia, including a baseball signed by every member of the 1956 Yankees. There are also newspaper clippings picturing Taylor and roommate Bill Mazeroski at spring training camp.

The gourmet kitchen features Quakermaid wood cabinetry, new oak floors, granite counters and both electric and gas stoves. The cavernous basement boasts a family room that runs the entire length of the house and opens onto the lower deck, a game room, a full kitchen and bath, and a "boot" room with original log walls.

Outdoor changes

Because the lodge lends itself to outdoor activities such as fishing and hiking, Taylor spent a considerable amount of time and money renovating the grounds. Workers filled in the in-ground swimming pool, but a giant brick outdoor fireplace still towers over the spot where Vernon Taylor held outdoor barbecues.

At one time, Taylor says, the lodge featured fish holding tanks so the creek could be stocked for visiting dignitaries. Richard Nixon, the story goes, ate trout he caught himself during a visit when he was a senator.

For many years, the Taylors have used the lodge just as a weekend retreat and for their annual Christmas party. But that's about to change. Their house in Franklin is now on the market, and once it is sold, the couple plans on moving to the lodge full time.

"I think it's awesome," he said of this grand masterwork. "I've been a lot of places in my life, and the lodge is not second-best to any of them."

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