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Washington Neighborhoods
A preservationist wants West Alexander to be a tourist stop once again

Sunday, May 04, 2003

By Joe Smydo Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Thirteen years after fire closed the book on West Alexander's historic shopping district along the old National Road, Sandy Mansmann is refurbishing six remaining buildings and hoping to restart the tourist trade on a modest scale.

The March 1990 blaze destroyed three 19th-century buildings and damaged two others, gutting the center of a business district on the National Register of Historic Places. As a rebuilding effort stalled, antique and craft shops in five other buildings closed, some leaving inventory on the shelves.

Tour buses quit visiting West Alexander, a stop for National Road travelers during the stagecoach era. Buildings not damaged by the fire began deteriorating from leaky roofs. The town's decline disappointed Mansmann, a preservationist who fell in love with the borough after moving to Washington County from Castle Shannon, Allegheny County, about 30 years ago.

"Every time I pull into town, I just say what a charming place this is," Mansmann, 61, of Nottingham, said.

Her efforts to revive the shopping district dovetail with a plan to step up marketing of the National Road in six states.

Local representatives of the National Road Alliance will gather at the S Bridge in Buffalo at 10:30 a.m. Thursday to mark the road's designation as a "National Scenic Byway All-American Road." That designation, from the Federal Highway Administration last summer, means the road is so important it's a destination itself.

Similar ceremonies will be held simultaneously in Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia, the other states spanned by the 800-mile road that Thomas Jefferson authorized in 1806 as the gateway to the West.

Donna Holdorf, executive director of National Road Heritage Corridor, the Pennsylvania arm of the alliance, said she received a $25,000 federal grant to help market the 90 miles in Washington, Fayette and Somerset counties and may apply for additional money to build scenic overlooks and other improvements. She said West Alexander, on the West Virginia line, would be a suitable place for a visitors center.

The road was built from Cumberland, Md., to Vandalia, Ill. Through connections with other roads, it linked Baltimore and East St. Louis, Mo., said Jerry Roll, president of the National Road Alliance and executive director of the National Road Association of Illinois.

West Alexander was founded in 1792 by Robert Humphrey, who named the town for his wife, Martha Alexander. By 1820, it has been said, 25 stagecoaches stopped there daily.

But the town fell by the wayside during a realignment of the National Road that began in the 1920s. The road was incorporated into Route 40, which skirts the borough shopping district by about three-tenths of a mile.

Holdorf said West Alexander has some of the best 19th-century architecture along or near the road, though some buildings are in grave shape.

"I call it a movie theater street," borough fire Chief Gary Richey said. The buildings have fancy fronts and make a nice impression from the street, he said, but the neglected backsides aren't much to see.

Mansmann bought a fire-damaged building for $3,400 three years ago after a resident reminded her of the business district's sad state. Later, she bought an adjoining building for $1,500 and arranged to buy four others on article of agreement for $45,000. She also paid $350 for a debris-strewn lot, site of one of the buildings destroyed in the blaze.

She spends at least two days a week in town, restoring the buildings little by little. She brings to the task an associate degree in historic building preservation technology from Belmont (Ohio) Technical College and a long association with the county History and Landmarks Foundation.

"We both can see the potential in old buildings," said Charlie Coffield, mayor and president of West Alexander Historical Society, who supports Mansmann's efforts.

Coffield said he hopes to open an antique shop in the town's oldest building -- a one-story green structure in the business district that dates to the late 1700s and survived the town's first big fire. He said the 1831 blaze destroyed about two dozen buildings.

It remains to be seen whether the town can bounce back again.

The cause of the 1990 blaze was not determined, Richey said.

The week after the fire, local and state officials began meeting with merchants eager to rebuild. But those efforts faltered, in part because no government aid was available and in part because absentee property owners didn't express a desire to rebuild, said Leo J. Trich Jr., a former state lawmaker who represented West Alexander at the time.

At its peak, the shopping district established in the mid- 1970s had about 18 stores with rustic names such as "Poor Richard's," "Iron Tub" and "The Wicked Whisk." Nineteenth-century homes, an old cemetery, quaint churches and the borough's history as stagecoach stop and marrying center gave visitors a sense of going backward in time. Newspaper accounts described street scenes reminiscent of a New England town, Charles Dickens novel and Currier & Ives print.

The town's Christmas celebration included a "Hanging of the Greens" ceremony, hot cider and a Main Street lined with luminarias. Kids received homemade popcorn balls and bags of candy, and a volunteer read the children Christmas stories while their parents shopped.

Like its cousins, the Scenery Hill Shops in North Bethlehem on the National Road, West Alexander won praise as a regional tourist destination. Shoppers and residents competed for parking spaces, though, a source of dissension in town.

"I'm not sure if I lived here I'd want tour buses lined up on the street," said Mansmann, who plans to put parking spaces behind her buildings.

She hopes to draw enough visitors to support the shops while keeping homeowners happy. Coffield said a circumscribed approach makes sense to him.

"I don't think it can ever go back to the way it was before," he said.

Mansmann envisions using at least portions of two buildings for homes and opening a soup-and-sandwich shop, used book store, art gallery and antique stores in the remaining spaces. At some point, she said, she may lease some of the buildings.

The buildings stand cheek by jowl, and Mansmann has connected some interiors by knocking down walls. Already, she's used the spaces for an historical society gathering and exhibits by members of the Washington Art Association.

"I just want people to know something is going to happen here," she said.

The buildings have hardwood floors, gingerbread trim, mantels and other architectural delights. But they require new wiring, new pipes and fixtures and fresh paint. Mansmann estimated she has invested $20,000 in one building.

Mansmann's buildings anchor the western end of the shopping district. Then, moving east, is the empty lot she purchased to use as a garden.

Next sit two other lots that were the sites of buildings destroyed in the fire.

Richey said he purchased those lots five or six years ago and removed remnants of the burned buildings. He declined to offer an opinion about Mansmann's plan to revive the shopping district.

Next to Richey's lots are a building damaged by the fire, then Richey's house and Coffield's building. Mansmann and Coffield said the historical society may purchase the fire-damaged building and use it as the organization's headquarters.

Fire not only wiped out the shopping district but bifurcated West Alexander. Coffield complained that residential areas are separated by a "dead area."

"I would just like to see some life back in that section of town," he said.


Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 724-746-8812.

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