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Historic Pittsburgh arsenal needs care, official says

| Friday, Aug. 24, 2012, 12:18 a.m.
The arsenal in Lawrenceville with missing shingles and untrimmed bushes. Gwen Titley | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
The arsenal in Lawrenceville with missing shingles. A plaque on the wall pays tribute to the 78 people, mostly child munitions workers, killed in the Allegheny Arsenal explosions nearly 150 years ago. Gwen Titley | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Tom Powers of the Lawrenceville Historical Society points out deterioration in the walls surrounding Arsenal Park in Lawrenceville on August 22, 2012. Gwen Titley | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

A one-story stone building in Lawrenceville, one of the oldest standing in Pittsburgh, is getting short shrift from the city, historians say.

The roof of the building, used to store gunpowder at the Allegheny Arsenal in the 1800s, is missing shingles, and some of the wood fascia is showing signs of decay. Nearby, the walls around the grounds, now Arsenal Park, are deteriorating.

“We've been concerned about this over the years. … It's certainly one of the last remnants of the arsenal,” said Arthur Ziegler, president of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. “We need to take a look at it, but haven't done so yet.”

Citiparks uses the building, which dates to between 1817 and 1819, for bathrooms and storage.

As historical groups prepare for next month's 150th anniversary of one of the deadliest accidents in Pittsburgh history, officials say the site of the Sept. 17, 1862, explosions at the arsenal that killed 78 people deserves better.

“There's no reason why that park should be so shamefully neglected as it is,” said James Wudarczyk, an author and researcher with the Lawrenceville Historical Society. ”We have a park that is historically significant and needs some basic maintenance. ... We have money for dog parks.”

Citiparks Director Mike Radley said someone would check the building to make sure it's structurally intact. He said workers would fix the roof if need be but its age makes for a delicate situation.

“There's no wiggle room for repairs on a building that old,” he said.

Councilman Patrick Dowd, who represents Lawrence-ville, could not be reached for comment.

“The Allegheny Arsenal is important to understanding Pittsburgh as the arsenal of the Union and then the arsenal of democracy,” said Andy Masich, chairman of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and CEO of Heinz History Center in the Strip District. During the Civil War, the arsenal turned out 40,000 bullets per day for the Union Army.

The perimeter walls of the arsenal were completed in 1828 with limestone or sandstone at a cost of 11 cents a bushel, Wudarczyk said.

“Those walls have stood for 180 years,” he said. “All they need is a little maintenance.”

A small portion of a wall was repaired in 1999.

The city will spend almost $4 million this year on maintenance at four regional parks, all city playgrounds, trails, memorials, monuments and concession stands, according to its budget.

Just four of the 50 buildings originally built at the arsenal site remain standing, said Tom Powers, author and editor of the Lawrenceville Historical Society's newsletter. They include two other buildings that held gunpowder, now used for storage, and a building on 39th Street that housed arsenal officers.

“Maintaining this sort of historic structure requires some care and oversight,” Powers said. “The historical society doesn't have the resources, and the city has its problems.”

The Allegheny Arsenal explosion was overshadowed 150 years ago by the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Md. About 24,000 casualties — the bloodiest single day of the Civil War — occurred there. The explosions have continued to wane from public memory, Powers said.

“Sadly, over the years, it's just been fading away,” he said.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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