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Can Fayette County's historic Meason House be saved?

Sunday, June 23, 2002

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

By 1802, Isaac Meason was the richest man in Fayette County and, quite literally, king of the hill.

That year, the successful industrialist, who made his fortune in iron furnaces, built a Georgian mansion on a hilltop just outside Uniontown.

Diane Kriss' historic home, Meason House, has endured on the Fayette County hilltop since it was built in grand style in 1802. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Two hundred years later, Meason House is being threatened from all sides of its remarkable walls. The elegant home, with hand-cut limestone and sandstone that rivals the best masonry of its period, may soon be sold and dismantled because of a Hatfield-and-McCoy-style feud that's been simmering for years.

"You really don't find anything better in that period until you look at the White House," said Bill Bolger, national historic landmark coordinator for the National Park Service in Philadelphia.

The approach to the Meason House is another story. Modern visual clutter, such as the nearly vacant Laurel Mall and a Burger King, litters the landscape before the stately home looms into view. After you turn off Route 119 South onto a 12-foot-wide dirt road, there's a climb up a hill where a collection of wrecked cars is parked around an auto repair shop.

Towering above all of this is a home with a commanding view, a raised, circular lawn and magnificent iron gates. It is the first home west of the Alleghenies to be designed by an architect. Adam Wilson, who was imported from England, employed the design principles of Andrea Palladio, the influential Italian architect.

Meason House has survived to this point because its owners, Terry and Diane Kriss, won a monumental legal battle against a wealthy coal stripper to limit his operations and also foiled a plan to erect a 325-foot-tall cellular phone tower near their property.

But today, with ruins of cars next to their front yard, a strip mine in their back yard and more court battles looming to keep the 21st century at bay, the Krisses have had more than their fill of frustration.

These circumstances, the couple say, make it impossible for them to continue living in the house and difficult for anyone else to turn it into a historic museum or bed-and-breakfast.

In the hardscrabble land of Fayette County, where every job counts, government officials are loath to close an auto repair shop that employs five people, generates tax revenue and has finally complied with local zoning laws.

But after 25 years, the Krisses are sick of filing lawsuits, attending hearings and spending more than $100,000 in legal fees to preserve their architectural jewel, one of 2,341 national historic landmarks. That designation, by the U.S. Congress, means the home is the best example of its architectural type.

The Krisses also are land-locked, and much of the property that adjoins their 4-acre parcel is owned by Joseph Cellurale Jr., proprietor of the nearby auto repair shop, or his relatives. The relationship between the two families is uneasy at best, according to both sides.

Lynda Waggoner, executive director of Fallingwater, sits on the board of Preservation Pennsylvania, which has tried to save the Meason House for nearly two decades.

"The controversy between the two families there was so difficult for everyone that no one wanted to get into the middle of it. There was no good solution. We tried to work through various zoning ordinances to make some peace," Waggoner said.

When Meason looked out his window, the man who later became a state legislator and Fayette County judge could see some of the plantation once owned by Christopher Gist, the trusted scout of George Washington.

Two hundred years later, when the Krisses look out that same second-story window, they see Cellurale's business, a greenhouse and a dirt road that is 12 feet wide. A half mile behind their home is a strip mine; blasts from it rattled the chimneys regularly.

At public hearings and behind the scenes, preservationists have backed the Krisses in their efforts to help the house take its rightful place beside Fallingwater, Friendship Hill and Searights Toll House on the National Road, Fayette County's three other national historic landmarks.

But privately, preservationists worry that hostilities between the Krisses and Cellurale family will interfere with the latest plan to save the Meason House.

"It's beyond rage. I don't think Mahatma Gandhi could bring them together," said Sean Cavanagh, a Fayette County commissioner who voted in favor of rezoning Cellurale's property so the auto mechanic could operate legally.

At this point, the Krisses are fed up with lawyers, judges, feasibility studies and cheap talk. They and preservationists support a plan to use the Meason House as a training ground where students can restore it while learning to become master electricians and craftsmen in carpentry, plumbing, masonry and historic restoration.

If that plan fails, "This house is going to be dismantled, and I'm going to sell it for scrap," a weary Terry Kriss said recently. "I sacrificed my money and my job and my well-being for this house. I've become a bitter person over a house that I tried to save."

Waggoner is sure the house would make a great, working laboratory for training people to work in national parks or historic homes.

"The setting has been so compromised that it does not make sense to turn it into a historic house museum. It makes more sense to find a new, compatible use for the building," she said.

Border skirmishes

While the Krisses maintained the home, they also battled their neighbor, whose auto repair shop is next to the Meason House.

Joseph Cellurale Jr., who grew up in the Meason House because his family once owned it, admits that the property still interests him.

In pursuit of their home's history, the Krisses acquired this 10-foot-tall grandfather clock that is original to the house from Meason family heirs. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

"I'd like to see it back in our family," he said.

For 31 years, Cellurale operated his business on land zoned for agricultural use. In Fayette County, which only recently overhauled its zoning, such violations were common.

Cellurale was 19 when he opened his auto repair shop in 1970. His lawyer, Joseph Ferens Sr., applied to have the land rezoned from agricultural to business but died soon afterward.

In the mid-1990s, Cellurale applied for a nonconforming use, saying he had been in business so long that he was grandfathered in before new zoning laws took effect. On three occasions, the Krisses prevailed in the courts, and Cellurale's bid to rezone his property was denied.

On his fourth try, Cellurale succeeded in rezoning his property from agricultural to business. The Krisses claim Cellurale received preferential treatment. Fayette County officials' decision, the Krisses say, is reverse spot zoning.

Now, the Meason House, is "an agricultural piece of property in a sea of commercial property," said the couple's lawyer, Joseph George Sr. of Uniontown.

On the Krisses' behalf, George is appealing the decision to rezone Cellurale's property to Commonwealth Court.

"He had been out of compliance for about 31 years. He never obtained a special exception to operate a business in a residential district," George said.

Meanwhile, the Krisses would like to sell, but not to Cellurale or any of his friends or relatives. Earlier this year, the Krisses began negotiating with a contractor to dismantle the house. If that deal isn't consummated, the couple may just sell it off, piece by piece.

Cellurale dislikes Terry Kriss for a host of reasons.

"He's the kind of guy you can't sit down and talk to about a problem. There's no reasoning with him. He'll drag you straight to court. He had me in court for six years over a zoning problem. And for six years, he tried to put me out of business," Cellurale said.

The Meason House stayed in the iron master's family until 1878, when it passed through the hands of several local industrialists. The last of the tycoons to own it was the coal and steel titan Henry Clay Frick, who offered to donate the house to Fayette County in 1934. After the county rejected Frick's offer, the Cellurale family bought the house.

From 1934-60, the Cellurales lived in the Meason House and ran a dairy farm on the property, herding and milking 200 head of Holsteins. In 1956, the family planted a Christmas tree farm of Scotch pines on 100 acres near the home.

When Joseph Cellurale Jr.'s mother died, he and his two siblings could not agree on what to do with it. To settle the estate, a Fayette County judge ordered that the property be sold and, in 1977, Peter Kriss bought it for $77,000.

Determined stewards

Peter Kriss, a talented craftsman who spent much of his life restoring classic cars for Ernie Stern, owner of the Cinemette Corp., fell in love with the mansion.

By the time Kriss bought the Meason House, it had sat vacant for several years. Though structurally sound, the home's wooden window sills had rotted, and a circular stone wall around the raised lawn was falling apart.

For the better part of a year, Peter Kriss and his son, Terry, took on the arduous task of cleaning the home's filthy interior, including killing rats and raccoons who had taken up residence. Terry , now 46, loved working side by side with his father to restore Meason House. When Peter Kriss and his wife, Bernice, died, the house was left to Terry and his siblings.

Recalling the state the house was in back then, Terry Kriss says of the Cellurales, "They've done everything to devalue this site. They don't want it to become anything. They want it back. They would never do the right thing with the home. They are not in tune to historic preservation."

Torn, chicken-wire fences that divide the two properties hint at the tense, combative standoff. A crack in the Krisses' kitchen window is a visual reminder of the day a bullet from a .45-caliber gun flew across their property. State police filed criminal charges against James Cellurale III, who later said that he and his brother were just target shooting.

For the past two decades, the Krisses have maintained the home and worked with preservationists. In the past two years, the Juliet Lea Hillman Simonds Foundation contributed $5,000 toward the restoration of a circular stone wall that surrounds the raised lawn.

The Krisses also have endured hardships that would have driven most people away. When a water line broke one Christmas Eve, the Cellurales refused to grant the Krisses a right of way so they could install a new water line. For at least a year, the Krisses trucked in water from Irwin until the late Michael Cellurale sold them an easement.

They have pursued the home's history, too. After years of correspondence, the Krisses purchased from Meason family heirs a 10-foot-tall grandfather clock made for the house and the original key that Meason, a veteran of the American Revolution, turned in his front door.

The art of architecture

The key to saving the Meason House appears elusive, but Brenda Barrett, who struggled valiantly for 15 years to save the Meason House while working for the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, remains hopeful.

"This property is la creme de la creme of architectural masterpieces. It is one of the greatest Palladian houses in the United States. It is the equivalent of a great house in Ireland or Britain," Barrett said.

Barrett, a lawyer and national coordinator for 23 heritage areas in the National Park Service, points out that in 1802, most people lived in log houses.

"This is the frontier. When you look at the scale and ambition of that property, it's fantastic. The seven-part Palladian plan, the wonderful raised lawn in front of the house. You can imagine that when Isaac Meason built that ... he was setting down roots for the generations. He may have thought he was setting up a dynasty," Barrett said.

Preservationists have tried to court Fayette County philanthropists in their effort to save Meason House. But no one has offered financial backing for the most recent idea to save the mansion, which is to turn it into a working laboratory where students from the Fayette County campus of Penn State University and Indiana University of Pennsylvania could restore it while becoming master craftsmen. Both schools have expressed interest.

"If there was a program that was really active and you used professionals to instruct students, it could be done faster," said Patrick Foltz of Preservation Pennsylvania.

A similar program, operated at Belmont Technical College in St. Clairsville, Ohio, has a placement rate of 98 percent for its students partly because of the strong demand for skilled craftsmen in museums, historic homes and national parks.

The demand for skilled craftsmen is high, said Waggoner, recalling that all of Fallingwater's 10 maintenance employees had to be trained on site.

Many years ago, Waggoner said, a former Fallingwater employee polished a Tiffany ink well so highly that she destroyed the object's patina and it had to be sent out for conservation.

The Meason House, Waggoner said, should be acquired and an endowment established for it; otherwise a priceless opportunity will be lost.

Bolger, a historian with the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., knows the house well and has testified at several public hearings in Fayette County.

Masons who worked on the Meason House did ashlar stone work, a technique that entails cutting and dressing stone evenly on all sides, which allows for the usage of very thin mortar joints.

In that regard, Bolger compares the Meason House to the White House.

"Every stone is cut exactly to fit on all four sides, giving you a flat, smooth wall. It's incredibly difficult to do," Bolger said.

The home's architectural details, Bolger said, are stunning.

"All of the trim that surrounds the doors and windows is all carved stone, which normally you wouldn't find in this country. What you have there is a fully executed design in stone. The chimneys, for example, have decorative details called swags, which are sculpted architectural ornaments. That's the kind of detail you don't find in houses of comparable status in that period."

If the National Park Service bought the house, it would have to study all of the zoning, land use and access issues that affect the site.

"This house has got to be saved, but it's going to take an extraordinary set of circumstances to save it. It's like inventing a religion to save a church," Bolger said.

But in Fayette County, winning converts is a major task. Many Fayette County officials, Waggoner said, have ignored the Meason House.

The various land uses county officials allowed around the Meason House, Waggoner said, are "a testament to some really poor planning. We have an industrial park right up against it. Look what's around it -- a strip mine, an airport, a subdivision, a declining shopping center. Why did we miss this?"

As the legal case progresses, preservationists press on. But the Krisses simply want to move on.

"I'm very, very discouraged, Terry Kriss said. "You can only fight so long until you get really depressed."

Correction/Clarification: (Published July 3, 2002) Our June 23 story about historic Isaac Meason house contained incorrect information. We referred to Belmont Technical College by its former name, Belmont Technical Institute. Also, the college is in St. Clairsville -- not Belmont -- Ohio.

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