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Historical society preserves, uses Gallagher House

Sunday, February 25, 2001

By Lynda Guydon Taylor, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

If the walls of the Gallagher House in California could talk, no doubt they'd be whispering about the weddings the Rev. Jonathan Winnett Jennings, a Methodist minister, performed there. Perhaps they'd also reminisce about the large family he raised with his wife, Margaret Ann Roberts, in the early 20th century.

Then, too, the walls might have something to say about the parties the Gallagher family held in the attic.

"Everyone remembers when the Gallaghers lived here, having dances up there," said Mary Beth Graf, California Area Historical Society president, standing at the foot of the stairway leading to the attic.

The no-nonsense, plain, red brick home represents one of the larger houses in the borough that has remained architecturally intact. Many have been altered to house California University of Pennsylvania students.

Over the years, the Gallagher house has changed hands several times. The Jennings family lived there until 1919, when Margaret Jennings deeded it to Charles McCormick. Louis Kotler then bought the house, living there until 1930, when the Gallaghers bought it.

Kris Kelly, a niece of Mary Gallagher, its last resident, helped persuade 11 heirs to donate the boxy, colonial revival style house to the society in 1993. Mary Gallagher's husband, Charles, was manager of the General Chemical Company in Newell, Fayette County.

Since acquiring the house, the society updated the electrical wiring. "We had a lot of porch sales to do that," Graf said. The next major project involves repointing bricks.

Each year, the society holds an open house during Christmas. The north parlor is decorated with a traditional Victorian tree.

In 1996, the house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today it's a repository for the history of the area and people in surrounding boroughs, Graf said. A donation of genealogical materials helps people search their family history.

But the society's latest undertaking involves preservation of the old California Cemetery at the entrance to the borough, Graf said. The cemetery is the final resting place of 26 Civil War soldiers and two War of 1812 soldiers. There are loose tombstones the society hopes to install in memorial walls.

The society is trying to preserve the historical integrity of the borough as best it can, she said.

Since its conversion to the society's headquarters, the house has served two functions. On the second story, society volunteers research, file and document newspaper clippings; on the first floor, the house is preserved as it was in 1903.

Leaded, beveled clear crystal and stained glass windows fill the transom above the door and in panels on either side. The downstairs floors are hardwood with false panels in the center of each room, which were carpeted.

Two parlors are on either side of the center hall. When built, one likely was meant for the family while the other was reserved for company and special occasions, Graf said. Each can be closed off with nearly 8-foot wide pocket doors, oak on one side and cherry on the other.

Today the rooms are appointed with gift furniture. Attorney John Edwards donated the square, boxy grand piano made of rosewood, with ornately carved legs, which was placed in the north-facing parlor.

"We were happy to get this as a donation because we needed to fill the house with something that was authentic," Graf said.

Members were quoted a price of $5,000 to tune the piano. "Needless to say, we haven't done that yet," she said.

On the opposite side of the room sits a Mission-style desk left by the Gallagher family. St. Thomas Aquinas Church in California made a gift of a small narrow-seated chair. A mannequin wears a white early-1900s dress once worn by Mary West Linhart when she graduated from California Normal School, now California University.

A horsehair chair and a display case on the mine industry furnish the other parlor. Both parlors have fireplaces with tile surrounding the opening. There are a total of six fireplaces throughout the house and four bedrooms on the second floor where files are kept and the society does its work.

In the dining room is a narrow built-in cupboard extending from one wall. Original wainscoating remains, and a picture of Mary Fox Gallagher, Mary Gallagher's grandmother, hangs.

The third-story attic is used for storage.

The society's dream is to have the downstairs fully furnished, Graf said.

"I think anytime that you take on ownership of a home like this, there's so much that goes into renovation and upkeep. Our dream, of course, is to have everything downstairs done up and just use this up here as an office, but we haven't been able to gather that much money yet. People have been wonderful, but we only have membership dues and donations, so we don't have a lot of money to do the nice things yet."

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