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Built to last: Owning a historic home carries a burden

John Conti
| Saturday, July 26, 2014, 6:00 p.m.
The current den in the Hull house was the original winter kitchen.  The summer kitchen was in a small structure behind the main house. Today, a large modern kitchen, not shown, is in a discreet addition to the house on the side.
John Conti
The current den in the Hull house was the original winter kitchen. The summer kitchen was in a small structure behind the main house. Today, a large modern kitchen, not shown, is in a discreet addition to the house on the side.

In 1778, while Fort Pitt was still in use and the Revolutionary War was still under way, a settler named David Stephenson carved out a small piece of forest for a farm and built a two-room log house in what is now the South Hills.

Some 30 years later, and several miles distant, John Hull also put up a new house on a farm — but his luxurious-for-the-time two-story, six-room brick house was a world apart from Stephenson's.

Western Pennsylvania was growing rapidly in those three decades, and the two houses illustrate well the dramatic change that occurred — from early settlers to established farmers, and from a roughly built shelter, with no particular architectural features, to a home that was highly styled.

Most of us don't often ponder such changes, but they mirror the final, brutal removal of the Indians, the rapid increase in settlers and the growing wealth of our region as natural resources began to be exploited.

The rivers became highways, and iron, coal and glass began to find their place in the local economy. At the same time, skilled craftsmen and architects were arriving from the East and — in some cases — even from England.

Where the roughly built Stephenson house is unquestionably one of the oldest frontier houses still standing in the region, Hull's house stands quite proudly among the new half-million-dollar “McMansions” of North Strabane and nearby Peters.

In fact, those McMansions often resemble it somewhat in its simplified Federal style. Given some judicious expansions over the years (the Hull house is now 10 rooms), they also compare in size.

Both the Stephenson and the Hull houses are still being lived in, and the log house is especially remarkable for that fact. It may well be the oldest log house in the area that is still occupied. The couple who own it use it daily — albeit with an unobtrusive four-room, 20th-century addition behind it.

Owners of both houses take pleasure in the history of their houses and feel it's their obligation to keep that history intact.

“What I feel most is the responsibility,” says the woman whose grandparents restored the 236-year-old log house. “I have an obligation to maintain this, and I feel that very strongly. It's mine, but I am holding this for the ages.”

Adds Kim June, the owner of the 1811 Hull house, “It's a labor of love. You really have to love it and cherish the history that you live in because it is a lot of work to maintain it.”

David Stephenson would have needed the help of others, including very likely some skilled builders, to put up his log house in 1778. Square-hewn oak timbers harvested from the virgin forest, several as much as 32 feet long, formed the walls. There was considerable skill involved — even in those backwoods times — in fitting the logs and carefully notching them with plumb corners.

Stephenson's house had two rooms open to each other around a central fireplace. Characteristic of the time, there was a sleeping loft accessed by ladder through an opening in the gable on the outside.

The original “chinking” between the logs, likely clay mixed with stones and animal hair, has been replaced by mortar. Unlike many later log houses, the interior walls here were never plastered, so the interior has a very rough-hewn feel. The floor was rebuilt in the 1920s of random-width chestnut planks similar to what had been there originally.

The current owners inherited the cabin, which had been abandoned for some years before being purchased and restored by the wife's grandparents in the 1920s. The current owners sought landmark status for the house and had its history professionally authenticated.

At the Hull house, similar care has been taken to keep the style of the house authentic. The house was recently restored over several years, with extensive repairs to plaster and to windows and doors — many of which still have their original hardware. A new roof also was added.

There is a fireplace in every one of the old rooms of the house, and several additions over the years have made it totally up-to-date. Today, there's a large kitchen with dark cherry cabinets and stylish granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances. A family room added at the back of the original house was connected to the still-standing fireplace of the old summer kitchen, and it became the fireplace for the family room.

The original Federal-style porch was replaced also — very likely in the late 1800s — with a Victorian-style porch by owners who were no doubt intent on keeping the house stylish for its time. The house apparently was, until at least the 1930s, the center of a 450-acre farm, later subdivided for new suburban construction. Historians have told the owner that it was probably built of brick made on the site.

“I do feel like I'm a caretaker of history,” says Kim June. “The first time I washed my stairs whenI moved in, I felt like I was embodying every other woman who had ever washed those stairs. I felt like I had become a part of a historical pattern. There's a sacredness to being the caretaker of history.”

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

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