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Historic landmark in Fayette for sale

The historic Isaac Meason House is for sale.

Owners Terry and Diane Kriss have given up the fight to have the acreage surrounding the 1802 mansion along Route 119 in Dunbar Township rezoned agricultural.

Terry Kriss recently took out a half page advertisement in "Maine Antique Digest" offering the house for $750,000.

"This is not a joke," the ad reads, and specifies that Kriss, who restores antique cars for a living, would trade "for quality Corvettes, Mustangs and muscle cars."

Kriss does not believe that anyone wants to purchase the property, which consists of four acres surrounded by an auto body shop, Laurel Mall and a strip mine, and is counting on someone wealthy enough to dismantle the 20-room house, brick by brick, window pane by window pane and reassemble it somewhere else.

This is not the first time he has taken an unconventional route to sell the house. In 2003, he marketed it on the Internet auction site eBay, but no buyers met the $1 million minimum bid.

Kriss has tried to attract preservationists to the landmark, which he opens to tours by appointment, but has given up on saving it at its present site, hemmed in by development that makes the mansion hard to see and access.

The house is surrounded by commercial property, with a 15-foot driveway as the only access.

"I am not even allowed to have a business sign at the bottom of my driveway," he said.

Kriss' father, Peter Kriss, bought the house in 1977. Terry and Diane have spent more than $250,000 to restore it and an additional $100,000 in legal fees to preserve the site from encroaching businesses and a cellular phone tower. They were successful in stopping the tower's erection.

The zoning is another matter.

"The Kriss property is zoned A-1, agricultural," said Tammy Shell, executive director of the Fayette County Office of Planning, Zoning and Community Development. "The properties around it are zoned B-1, general business. The Kriss property is about 4 acres and the surrounding properties are about 30."

The first request for the business rezoning was in 1968 and some of the land owners asked in 2000 to have their property rezoned general business, he said. The zoning hearing board and the county commissioners granted that request.

Shell said that the revised zoning maps under the county's new comprehensive plan are not yet available. However, she said that any changes in zoning will likely not affect the property around the Meason House.

"The commissioners are working on the text, but anything legally operating, Cellurale's Auto Shop, for example, will be permitted, even if the zoning has changed."

Kriss has given up. "I have fought for 29 years. I'm 49. This house has taken all my adult life. All I want to do is save the house. I have shopped the home to be dismantled and moved. I'm saving the house. It will be rebuilt somewhere."

He approached Commissioner Joseph Hardy, who has bankrolled a number of restoration efforts.

"I got no response," Kriss said.

Long the home's biggest advocate, Kriss now characterizes himself as "its biggest threat. It's hard to say, but I want to move forward with my life."

Two years ago, Kriss was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He's now disease-free.

"I beat it. I'm still here, but the problems are still here. It's been a real privilege to live here, but there's pain and grief and an embarrassment to the historic and preservation community."

Lynda Waggoner is vice president of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and director of Fallingwater. She understands Kriss' frustration.

"We've been involved with trying to preserve the Meason House for a number of years," Waggoner said, "but the Pennsylvania Conservancy is more interested in nature conservation. Fallingwater is an example of man living in harmony with nature."

But she has tried to help preserve the Meason House. "We've been looking for a win-win situation, but we haven't been able to make it work."

As for moving the house to erect it somewhere else, "Houses are moved all the time, even castles at the turn of the century," Waggoner said. "But, I think it would be a shame for Fayette County to lose this building."

Kriss estimates that dismantling the house and rebuilding it in a more accessible location will cost between $2 and $4 million. "Even out of its historical context, it would be an instant tourist attraction."

The mansion and its outbuildings were built for Isaac Meason, who, in 1791, built the first commercially successful iron furnace and forge west of the Alleghenies. He also built the world's first iron suspension bridge and owned 20,000 acres, including all of New Haven, which is now a part of Connellsville.

The Meason House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990. Kriss has compiled a history of the house and its significance to local and national history at www.isaacmeasonmansion.com, which also includes information about the sale.

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