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Historic cottage escapes razing to delight of preservationists

A dilapidated Gilded Age summer cottage in Cambria County has been saved, surprising government officials who fought for years to demolish it and delighting preservationists who want to keep the house standing.

Carrie and Andrew Dziabo of Cresson bought the 14-room Benjamin Franklin Jones Cottage and intend to renovate it. The home is one of two standing relics of the vast, long-vanished Cresson Springs Resort, a mountain retreat built with industrial fortunes made in Pittsburgh.

The crumbling 1880s Queen Anne home was used by Benjamin Franklin Jones, chairman of the Republican National Committee in the 1800s and founder of Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. It is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

"It's a lot of work. No one has really done anything with the house since the 1970s. We are going to use modern supplies to rebuild it but are going to keep the home's original look," Carrie Dziabo said.

The house last was inhabited in the mid-1970s. Neglect resulted in collapsed porch roofs and unsteady floors with holes, creating an eyesore on an otherwise ordinary residential street.

In recent years, the cottage became the center of a prolonged legal dispute. A series of last-minute court injunctions and hasty deals between a local historical association and Cresson township officials allowed the cottage to escape demolition.

In late 2009, the Cresson Area Historical Association offered "last chance" guided tours of the home. People who toured had to sign legal waivers promising to not file lawsuits if injured.

"I am so happy that they are able to save the cottage. It makes our work seem worth it," said Brenda Kalwasinski, the historical association's president until this year.

The association never raised substantial amounts of money and had no luck getting grants from foundations to help restore the home. In 2008, its bank account balance was $700.

"People thought it would cost all kinds of money to renovate the house, and that really hurt the community's perception of the place," said Kalwasinski, a public school cook.

Yet the group's willingness to fight was critical to saving the cottage, said Erin Hammerschmidt, a field representative from Preservation Pennsylvania, a nonprofit organization that advised the historical association.

"They had great intentions, limited organizational capacity and money, but made a big difference. We would have lost that house without all of their work," Hammerschmidt said.

Gerald P. Neugebauer Jr., Cresson's solicitor, said municipal officials are happy with the solution. The couple purchased the house by paying the township's legal fees.

"The home has been transferred to a person who has the money and expertise to refurbish it and who has paid our legal costs. It is a win-win situation, and the township does not want any further involvement in this matter," he said.

Andrew Dziabo works at the Reliant Power plant in Seward. His father, Mike Dziabo, a mining engineer, renovated another home in Cresson and is helping his son work on the Jones Cottage.

In its heyday, Cresson Springs was an upscale resort similar to other 19th century spas such as Saratoga Springs in New York, Glenwood Springs in Colorado and Bedford Springs in Pennsylvania.

At an elevation of 2,000 feet, Cresson was the playground of Pittsburgh's elite, including industrial magnates Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Charles Schwab and William Thaw.

Guests at the Jones Cottage included author Robert Louis Stevenson, mystery writer and North Side native Mary Roberts Rinehart and President Benjamin Harrison, according to members of the historical association.

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