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Chatham College rescues and revives historic cottage

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

Interior gutting, broken windows, lengthy litigation, skeletal remains -- the building at the east corner of Fifth Avenue and Woodland Road could tell just about every old-house horror story.

Matt Summerville of Eisler's Landscaping transports an arbor vitae to be planted in front of Willow Cottage, which after a $2.2 million restoration will serve as Chatham College's gatehouse and guest house. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette photos)

But a house that survived for more than a decade in the shadow of death has been given a miraculous new life, thanks to a city that supported it through its darkest days and a college that had a big change of heart.

The $2.2 million restoration and renovation of Willow Cottage into a Chatham College gatehouse and guest house is one of those often hoped for but rarely seen reversals of fortune. This is a house with a lot of heroes, from the city planners who recognized its historic significance and structural integrity to the city solicitors who defended its right to life to the architects and carpenters who turned blight to beauty. And, to be sure, a lot of other folks along the way.

For the uninitiated, a little history: Willow Cottage, the oldest surviving element of what was once Millionaire's Row, was built in the 1860s by industrialist and civic leader Thomas M. Howe as the diminutive counterpart to his Gothic Revival hilltop estate, Greystone.

The "pointed style" was one of several popularized in the mid-19th century by Andrew Jackson Downing, the architect and landscape gardener whose ideal of the picturesque house in a rural setting was shaping the American suburban landscape and the taste of the middle class. In spirit if not in fact, Greystone and its cottage were straight out of Downing, whose books offered house patterns and garden designs as well as instructions for the proper role and location of outbuildings.

A gate lodge, for example, would have been occupied by the gardener or some other employee of the owner. But it had more than a practical purpose.

"When a stranger entered the place, this cottage would of course first arrest his attention ... and serve as a prelude or agreeable preparation for the more varied and extensive cottage of the owner," Downing wrote in "Cottage Residences," first published in 1842.

Surprisingly, sometime in the late 19th century, Willow Cottage had a Honey-I-blew-up-the-house transformation. A Howe-Childs family photograph that came to light only a few weeks ago shows that what began as a 1 1/2-story cottage grew another floor, probably in the 1870s. But why and how?

A closer look at the family may tell the tale.

Howe was a big Whig, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1851 and 1855, and a bank president with interests in copper mining, a railroad and a cotton mill. He and his wife, Mary Ann Palmer Howe, were the parents of 14 children and, in time, the progenitors of a large extended family that includes many of Western Pennsylvania's most prominent names.

In researching Willow Cottage, old-house historian Carol Peterson discovered that the Howes lived in Allegheny City and used Greystone as their country house for a few years before moving there permanently in 1867.

Howe's partner in the Penn Cotton Mill was James H. Childs, who was married to Howe's daughter Mary. In 1862, at the age of 28, Childs was killed at the Battle of Antietam, leaving Mary to raise their three children. By 1871, she and the children were living down the hill from her parents in Willow Cottage. The gate house may have been built for her young family, but it also, as Downing advised, would have foretold the larger house to come.

Thomas Howe died in 1877, and a few months later his widow deeded the cottage to her daughter.

Ellis Schmidlapp, founder of Landmarks Design Associates and architect for the renovation and restoration, thinks Mary Howe Childs used some of her inheritance to enlarge the cottage in the late 1870s.

Willow Cottage, shown in a photo taken in the 1870s, is at Fifth Avenue and Woodland Road in Shadyside. It was built in the 1860s as a 1 1/2-story cottage.

Today, the first and third floors of the house appear almost identical to the first and second floors of the original cottage, indicating it may have been cut horizontally and the upper story raised while the middle floor was inserted.

"It seems to me possible they could have raised it in a piece," Schmidlapp said. "It's a matter of bracing and hoisting." A two-story, one-room addition went on, likely between 1872 and 1876. "They could have raised the third floor and put the addition on at the same time."

The house stayed in the family until 1947, when the widow of Mary's son Thomas Howe Childs, who'd lived there most of his life, sold it to neighbor Michael Late Benedum, who had purchased Howe's Greystone and replaced it with a stone house he also called Greystone.

When Benedum died in 1959, he left it to the foundation named for his late son, Claude Worthington Benedum, which sold it to Chatham College for $1 the following year. The college used the cottage as student housing and, 25 years later, sold it, along with its 1.08-acre site and about six additional hillside acres along Fifth Avenue, to Greystone Associates, which wanted to (and did) build townhouses there.

The city approved the project on the condition that Greystone seek historic designation for Willow Cottage. It became a city historic structure in 1986, which meant that neither demolition nor exterior changes could occur without the approval of the Historic Review Commission.

Enter Alvin and Shirley Weinberg, who bought the cottage from Greystone Associates in 1988. When research into construction costs and the real estate market led the Weinbergs to believe that restoring the house would be more costly than its resale value, they asked the commission for permission to demolish. The commission's refusal triggered a seven-year legal battle that ended in 1997 when the state Supreme Court ruled in the city's favor.

Two years later, construction workers boarding up the windows for Chatham College, which hoped to buy the house, found the skeleton of an East Liberty woman, who had been missing for 10 months, under a mattress. The cause of death was undetermined; the case remains open.

Thirteen months later, the Weinbergs sold the house to the college.

"It was creating a bad image for us, rightly or wrongly," said Chatham College President Esther Barazzone, who joined the college in the middle of this mess, in 1992.

Plus, since 1985, when Chatham sold the house, "We had no front door. We had to squeeze in a little sign just to make our presence known" on Fifth Avenue. "And it was also just so very sad to see this tremendously important building to Pittsburgh go." Barazzone now sees it as the perfect symbol for an institution that began in 1869, on the same hillside, as Pittsburgh Female College: "old and high-quality but revitalized for the future."

Today all of the ghosts have been banished from Willow Cottage, along with its romantic name. Take a deep breath and call it the Chatham College Howe-Childs Gate House. The historic name lives on a little in the center hall, papered with Bradbury & Bradbury's "Claire's Willow" pattern.

Schmidlapp and the contractor, Sota Construction Services, and their carpenters had to re-create most of the interior millwork, including the staircase balusters.

The house began as two rooms on either side of the center hall, which is perpendicular to Fifth Avenue. On the east side of the house, the two rooms on the first floor had been opened up into one large parlor around 1910; in today's renovation, the conjoined rooms become the lounge.

One of the Gothic Revival home's porch columns.

"I interpreted this change from two smaller rooms to one larger room with a broader brick fireplace and casement windows with leaded glass transoms as a move to redo their living space in an Arts and Crafts style," said Schmidlapp, who chose Mission-style furniture and Bradbury & Bradbury's "Walden" wallpaper, inspired by William Morris's 1877 pattern, "Willow Boughs."

On the west side of the house, two rooms have been joined to create a long conference room. The second floor holds the resident's apartment, a two-bedroom guest suite and another guest room and bath; on the third floor are two, two-bedroom guest suites. They will house visiting speakers and prospective students.

As for the exterior, "It was, although in terrible condition, intact," Schmidlapp said, with some clapboards and trim needing to be replicated.

What color would replace the slate blue of recent decades? An investigation of the 25 layers of paint on the first and third floors (22 on the middle floor) showed the wood trim's original color was the same "faun" color as the clapboards.

"But in every illustration, Downing has a two-tone scheme," Schmidlapp said, so the trim and vergeboards were painted a shade lighter.

And while the newly discovered photograph of the cottage shows a landscape of lawn and deciduous and evergreen trees, the new 11-space parking lot necessitated a denser planting of trees and shrubs, partly to screen the parking. At least one of the trees in the early picture -- the oak near the front of the house -- remains, considerably taller and limbed up.

The unpaved parking lot, covered with small stones to promote drainage, is one of the project's several green, environmentally friendly features, including nontoxic paints and roof shingles made from recycled rubber tires, as well as the most basic one: giving an old house a new use.

Where was the namesake weeping willow?

"You're taking me back 75 years," said 80-year-old Tom Nimick, a great-grandson of Thomas and Mary Howe who is descended through their youngest child, Eleanor Howard Howe Nimick. He remembers the willow on the Fifth Avenue side, east and in front of the house, near the cistern, which was about where the western-most townhouse is now.

The gate house also will serve as the welcome center for the 32-acre college arboretum, which comprises hundreds of trees, including 124 planted throughout campus in the past five years.

Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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