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Cambria County mansion rumored to be haunted by ghost of legendary 'Gibson Girl'

Saturday, October 27, 2001

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

One would be hard-pressed to find a more magnificent country residence than Elmhurst, the idyllic English Tudor mansion built between 1897 and 1902 for Pittsburgh railroad tycoon William Kendall Thaw and his wife, Mary.

Located about 80 miles east of Pittsburgh on 130 rolling acres of farmland and forest in Loretto, Cambria County, this three-story summer retreat boasts nine bedrooms, eight different fireplaces with carved mantels, paneled dining and living rooms and a two-story cork-lined ice house with a fireplace where Helen Keller reportedly stayed in the early 1900s.

This 20-room mansion in Loretto, Cambria County, was built by the family of Harry K. Thaw. Thaw made national headlines when he shot and killed the famous architect Sanford White on the roof of Madison Square Garden in a jealous rage over his wife, "Gibson Girl" Evelyn Nesbit. Rumor has it that Nesbit's ghost is haunting the stately home. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

The 20-room mansion, which is on the market for $1.2 million, also includes one other feature: a ghost, and a famous one at that.

Legend has it that Evelyn Nesbit, the beau-tiful "Gibson Girl" and Tarentum native, who was married to the original owner's son, Harry K. Thaw, still wanders the hallways and occasionally appears in mirror reflections. Other times, some say, lights flicker off and on for no apparent reason and doors and windows swing shut by themselves.

Elmhurst's current owners, Al and Linda Lewis, who bought the house in 1989, knew nothing about a ghost or the house's history. Linda says she's never come face to face with Nesbit, who passed away in 1967 at age 82. Potential buyers, she says, shouldn't worry about it either.

"Evelyn was only at Elmhurst a few times," she says, laughing. "It doesn't make sense for her to come back to haunt it."

Few prospective home buyers seem to worry about ghosts, but stories of a supernatural occupant occasionally do haunt a sale. One agent in Prudential's Monroeville office recalled a couple a few years ago who wanted to be let out of their sales agreement on a house in Wilkins, Westmoreland County, because they had heard there were ghosts in the neighborhood. They wanted the sellers to guarantee that there were no spirits on the property.

The sellers, who said they had never seen or felt anything unearthly in the house, agreed to the next best thing: a "no ghost" clause in the sale agreement that permitted the buyers to conduct a "ghost inspection" within 10 days. Even so, the couple ended up not buying the house.

In Pennsylvania, there are no laws governing the sale of so-called stigmatized properties. However, the standard Sellers Property Disclosure Statement requires sellers to disclose any "material defect" that could have a "significant adverse impact on the value of the property." The problem, says Jim Mentzer, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors, is deciding what constitutes a material problem.

"It really depends on the mindset of both the seller and the buyer," says Mentzer.

"You have to decide: Is it fact or fiction?" agrees Dennis McClelland, executive vice president of the Realtors Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh.

Most material problems, he said, are tangible defects, such as a leaky roof or the presence of asbestos.

Drawings of Evelyn Nesbit adorn a wall of the Elmhurst House in Loretto, Cambria County. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

"Who are you going to get to verify that the ghost story is true?" McClelland says.

Since they bought Elmhurst, the Lewises have heard most of the stories about the property. One tells of motorists picking up a young woman in a long white dress on nearby Route 22. In tears, she asked to be driven to Elmhurst. But when they neared the entrance gate, they discovered their passenger had unexplainably disappeared.

Nesbit and Harry Thaw, both natives of Western Pennsylvania, entertained lavishly at the mansion when they vacationed there in the early 1900s. Then in 1906, Thaw, 35, made national headlines when he shot and killed the famous architect Stanford White on the roof of Madison Square Garden in a jealous rage. Five years before, White had gotten a 16-year-old Nesbit drunk and robbed her of her virginity, and "Mad Harry" succumbed to his festering jealousy.

The trials that followed mesmerized the country. After one hung jury, Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity and spent several years in an asylum. The case and Nesbit's affair with the much-older White was immortalized in the 1955 film "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" starring Joan Collins.

When the Lewises purchased the house, there was no sign of Nesbit or Thaw. It had been empty for eight years and was in desperate need of work. Last used as a restaurant, it sported ductwork and old bathroom sinks in the kitchen, outdated plumbing and no heat.

Still, the quality of the workmanship was stunning, as was the view of the Allegheny Mountains seven miles away from the wide, wraparound porch. The dining room, in particular, with its original wisteria-patterned wallpaper and unsanded oak floors, took their breath away.

"We walked in and just kind of looked at one another," recalls Linda Lewis, who learned the house was for sale through an ad in the Washington Post. "Even though it was a challenge, we decided, 'Let's tackle it.' "

The Lewises, who declined to say how much they paid, spent the next six months renovating the 7,000-square-foot house, which was built by the Beezer brothers of Altoona at a cost of $150,000. The six bathrooms were completely restored, walls repapered, woodwork scrubbed clean and every one of the 60 original windows (some measuring 4 by 8 feet) was reglazed and reconditioned. In addition to installing a new circulating hot-water heating system, the Lewis' also had the brick repointed, painted the exterior, put new dampers and glass enclosures on every fireplace, rewired, and installed new aluminum storm windows on every window.

Today, this sprawling, elegant estate -- topped by five medieval chimneys -- is one of Cambria County's most beautiful homes. It also has a few reminders of its most-famous occupants. On a wall in the dining room, above a 100-year-old breakfront, are three etchings of Nesbit that Lewis found at an antique shop in Atlantic City. They stay with the house because "she belongs here," Lewis says.

The dining room is filled with antiques and features dark-stained wainscoting, an 11-foot-ceiling and a polished tile fireplace. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

The 23- by 17-foot dining room remains one of the house's most stunning rooms. Filled with antiques, it features dark-stained wainscoting, an 11-foot ceiling and a polished tile fireplace.

The large entrance hall boasts a wide, paneled staircase and a 5- by 8-foot Dutch door that opens onto the front porch, which overlooks a valley 2,000 feet below.

To the right of the front hall is the colossal living room. Twenty-four feet long and more than 17 feet wide, it's large enough to hold not only a baby grand piano and a pair of couches but several seating areas. Adorned with a beamed ceiling and 60-year-old scenic wallpaper, it has a marble fireplace flanked by a pair of built-in bookcases. A wall of windows overlooks the 30-acre front yard. The living room leads through pocket doors into a music room with original woodwork.

Across the foyer is the walnut bookshelf-lined library. Along with built-in cabinets, it features a small powder room with an original corner sink. The updated kitchen features new hickory cabinets and a center island with a Jenn Air stove as well as the original chestnut butler's pantry.

On the second-floor landing, a pair of large leaded-glass windows spill sunshine onto an oversized window seat. Upstairs, the 50-foot-long hall connects the nine bedrooms, four with fireplaces. A back staircase leads to the six-room third floor, the original servants' quarters. The largest room, currently used as a billiards room, measures 42 feet long. Still need more space? There is a storage attic above the third level.

Along with a private entrance, the heated basement has a full bath with a tiled shower and large workshop. It also houses the mansion's two oil-fired furnaces and four new storage tanks. Outside, there is an attached heated garage.

At one time, Elmhurst served as a summer church camp (the bedroom doors are still numbered). Under Cambria County's zoning regulations, it can be used as anything from a restaurant to a country club to a bed-and-breakfast. It's just 20 miles from both the Johnstown and Altoona airports and outfitted with a large commercial septic system.

Or, the new owner could simply use it as the grand home that it is, like the Thaw family. They escaped Pittsburgh's smoke and heat each summer to live at Elmhurst until they sold it in 1920.

"It's historic, but still livable," says Lewis.

For more information on Elmhurst or to schedule a viewing, contact Linda Lewis at 814-886-7175.

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