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O'Hara neighbors wish Charles Boyd Brown III had chosen someplace else to share his mansion and music machines with the world

Wednesday, June 27, 2001

By Michael J. Dongilli

Charles Boyd Brown III died June 25, 1999. His legacy as a businessman will go on indefinitely in the form of the company he founded.

His legacy as a collector of music machines and owner of one of the area's most extraordinary houses will be determined in a few weeks. The O'Hara zoning board has to decide whether to let the executors of his estate turn the 19,000-square-foot home he left behind into a public museum.

It's what Brown himself wanted, and he left behind a well-funded foundation to see it happened.

It's an orchestration, however, that neighbors are finding hard to applaud. Several have said inviting traffic into the quiet neighborhood with its narrow streets would be dangerous and disruptive.

"It's a terrible place to put a museum," neighbor Jo Ann Patelunas said. "If they want people to see these treasures I think they ought to put them where the public can see them. It doesn't belong in our area."

Music his passion

Those who knew Brown remember him as gregarious, fun and kind -- and as a "lover of those machines."

Growing up in Aspinwall, "make-a-buck-Chuck" showed entrepreneurial spirit, selling lawn chairs and investing his wages in U.S. Steel stock. He graduated from Thiel College, worked in a machine shop, then started Gas-Lite Manufacturing Co. in 1963.

The company, on Charlotte Street in Lawrenceville, remains the largest maker of sand-cast aluminum fixtures in the United States, according to company president Kathleen Martin.

"It was a niche market, required minimal machining and you could get into it easily," said Brown's longtime friend Dino Iasella, one of six board members on the John Schneider Loresch Foundation.

Brown established the foundation to honor his great-grandfather and endowed it with $10 million to carry out his museum wishes. He nurtured a passion for music -- though he couldn't "carry a tune in a bucket," as Iasella said, much less play an instrument. The machines -- almost 150 of them -- are displayed in Brown's home, a work of Bavarian history and architecture on 18 acres off the ends of St. Charles Place and Joanne Street.

"The house is probably one of the most unusual houses in the Tri-state area," said Dwight Ferguson, an attorney for the foundation.

Stairway to the stars

"Unusual" is a term unworthy of Brown's home. There are enough behind-the-wall secret passages to qualify the house for CIA security clearance. Pull the sword on a small coat-of-arms wall plaque hanging unobtrusively in the gameroom, and the opposite wall opens to reveal a man-made cave, complete with concrete stalagmites, -- running 150 feet to an indoor swimming pool. It features a cascading waterfall, surrounded by plants that look so real you'd have to touch them to know otherwise.

Brown's stately, rarely used, conference room would shame many in Fortune 500 companies. It's more than just wood walls and luxurious, leather chairs -- what sets it apart is the lack of doors.

Entry is through wall cut-outs once so precisely fit that getting out had all the makings of a Houdini escape. Settling over the years has expanded the joints to make the exits easier to detect, but the effect is still unsettling.

The master bedroom has a spiral staircase leading to a roof observatory, providing all the sightseeing grandeur expected from the edge of a cliff 540 feet above Route 28 and the Allegheny River below.

But that's only a topographical view. Climb the second spiral staircase and you can gaze into space using a Celestron telescope that, on a clear night, makes the rings of Saturn and moons of Jupiter seem at arm's-length.

And then there are the music machines.

Some are as awe-inspiring as the house itself.

The Aeolia Orchestrelle is a self-playing reed organ, imposing at roughly 10 feet tall, with a bellow that shakes the hall where it stands.

Others are simply charming -- a wind-up bird box has four stuffed fowl that move, chirp and chime in such a life-like way that if the cage door opened, surely they would fly, too.

There are players embedded in lamps and tables; there's a chair that starts playing when someone sits on it. Names for them are as various as the sounds they make -- grinder organ, cylinder box, cuff machine, coffin box, nickelodeon, concertina, Herophonette, Reginaphone, Victrola.

Rare ones -- the Violano Virtuoso, manufactured by A. Mills Company in Chicago, is one of only 20 left -- share the spotlight with items like the pedestrian-looking Chromatic Rolmonica, a flat, hand-held box you blow into like a harmonica, with a hand-cranked paper roll to make music.

As the collection grew, so did Brown's penchant for throwing parties to show it off. A bachelor and fine cook, he held lavish parties, often several nights a week, entertaining from five to 500 guests at a time.

Residents, at least those present at a recent zoning hearing, didn't seem to mind. Brown was a good neighbor, they said, and though he sometimes entertained in a big way, it didn't bother them much.

As Brown's health failed, he wondered how his collection, valued at several million dollars, would remain intact. "He didn't want someone just to come in and auction them all, so he went to see an estate attorney," Martin said. "He said he wanted to set up something like the Frick House, where people could come in and see his music boxes, get the history behind them and appreciate the art."

Martin said keeping the pieces in his home was also important. "To take them out of their setting would lose something. To just have them lined up, warehoused, they just wouldn't have the personality and the beauty they have now."

Is house a home?

Brown's residence is considered a single-family dwelling, which fits in O'Hara's zoning. A trust has more complicated legalities.

"To comply with the purposes for which the IRS recognizes a trust, somewhere on our certificate of occupancy it has to acknowledge the fact that [the house] is being used as a preservatory for these music boxes," Ferguson said.

He said if it were a museum, the tour activity -- from hours of operation and tours per day, to the group sizes allowed in -- "would be substantially less intense than Mr. Brown was ever doing on that property."

Neighbors on Joanne Street and St. Charles Place are a little tired of that tune.

Brown "was very gracious and never really infringed upon us. But I don't see that when it's a public building, and that's not fair to us," said Diana Mahon, who lives on Joanne. "I've lived there for 34 years, and we deserve some consideration. We were there before Chuck. We don't have real wide streets. If you have two cars parked, nobody can get through."

Patelunas, a St. Charles homeowner, expressed similar worries.

"I want my child to be safe, not have [just] anyone drive over the street," she said. "The only people that go on the street are people who either live there, or people who are doing work there. It's not a through street."

Mahon's husband, Joseph Mahon, said Brown should have taken the time to discuss his plans with neighbors.

"That was a private residence. He entertained his guests, but it never disturbed the neighborhood," he said. "Traffic was always kept to a minimum.

"But if you open this up, it's like opening up a Pandora's box. They can promise anything at the beginning, but once it gets rolling you can't stop it."

Bound by trust

Cindy Davis, O'Hara's zoning officer, denied the foundation's initial application for an occupancy permit.

The foundation argued that use as a museum would be merely an extension of use as a single-family home. Davis disagreed. The decision now rests in the hands of the zoning board, though court appeals are possible.

Cynthia Minogue, another neighbor on St. Charles, is worried that even the debate will draw more traffic.

"This was such a remarkable home that when the word gets out that it's going to become a museum, people are going to be curious and are going to drive up there," she said.

Ferguson said the foundation will stipulate in writing to limits of 12 people in a tour at one time; a 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays-only schedule and no buses.

He also indicated the foundation would keep paying township property taxes as though the property were still a private home.

"Chuck wanted this to be a resource for the community," Iasella said, "and we're going to greatly restrict it because that's what the residents want."

Could the machines be donated to another local museum? Ferguson said that was against Brown's wishes and would violate the legal trust.

Foundation Chairman David Hartman indicated the directors investigated the option, but were advised not to pursue it. "We would have no control on what would be displayed, no matter what [the museum] would tell us, and that's not what Chuck wanted done."

Ferguson said if the museum were denied, the house would have to be treated as a private, single-family home, and would likely be sold along with the machines.

Zoning board members noted that the property would likely be attractive to developers and could pose even worse disruptions in such a case.

"Look at the uses that this house could be used for and you might decide that what we're asking for is really a pretty good deal," Hartman said.

Michael J. Dongilli is a free-lance writer.

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