Preservationists tackle Elizabeth project
By Eric Slagle
Published: Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012, 1:41 a.m.
A preservation effort is under way to save a house near the Monongahela River in Elizabeth that has ties to the borough's boat-building past.
Those who would save the dilapidated brick Ekin House — which is believed to date back to the 1840s — are facing a deadline, however. A recent purchaser of the property at the intersection of Plum and Water streets has told its defenders that a plan for the building's future must be developed within a year or it will be demolished.
Preservationists say Art Mitchell, who owns Mitchell Plumbing and Heating, bought the house earlier this year with plans of razing it to create additional parking spaces for his business.
Mitchell, a member of Elizabeth's Business District Advisory Committee, could not be reached for comment by presstime.
Elizabeth Councilman Larry Duvall, who also sits on the committee, recalled that when Mitchell announced he purchased the property with plans of tearing it down, others on the committee were concerned because they didn't want to see it leveled.
“Art said, ‘I'm willing to wait to tear the house down. I'll give you a year but we need to come up with something,'” Duvall said. “He was very gracious. Now all we have to do is find someone to occupy it and fund it.”
Preservationists hope to save the front brick portion of the building.
It is said to have been the home of Gen. James E. Ekin, the grandson of Elizabeth founder Stephen Bayard. He was also the son-in-law of Samuel Walker, who owned a successful boat-building business in the borough.
Ekin was in the Civil War and served on a commission that tried conspirators involved with the assassination of President Lincoln.
Allegheny County records show the house sold for $30,000 in March and has an assessed value of $30,400.
A rear wooden portion of the building that is believed to have been added sometime in the early 20th century is expected to be torn down, regardless of what happens to the older section.
William Prince, who is spearheading an effort to build community support for saving the house, said such an important link to the past should not be destroyed.
“It's a key location downtown, both for its history and also its future,” he said.
Prince, of Elizabeth Township, believes a restored Ekin House could become the focal point of a recreation-centered riverfront.
Over the past decade, Elizabeth has done much to re-establish its place in history as the legendary starting point of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. The borough now hosts an annual festival celebrating the explorers with many activities centered around the riverfront near the Ekin House.
The borough has done much to develop a more easterly block of Plum Street as an open-air entertainment venue. The block now plays host to a weekly concert series during warm weather months. The creation of an historical attraction at the far end of Plum Street two blocks closer to the river would further efforts to develop that corridor.
A segment of downtown Elizabeth was designated an historic district by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation in 2009, and the borough's planning commission is working to rezone from residential to commercial the section of Water Street in which the Ekin House is located.
Prince and the nonprofit group Preservation Pennsylvania have organized a feasibility workshop meeting at the house on Oct. 20 at 1 p.m. The event will be open to the public. Prince has also put a petition online at www.change.org where he is urging supporters to record their reasons for saving the building.
Prince has been part of other preservation efforts and is volunteering his time on this one. He said the cost of restoring the building would be high but potentially could be offset by tax credits if it's developed for commercial purposes or by grant funding if it is used for nonprofit purposes.
Erin Hammerstedt of Preservation Pennsylvania said Ekin House supporters need to develop not only a scenario that can save the house, but also address parking issues of the property owner.
“We need to look at the alternatives for a win-win situation,” said Hammerstedt, whose Harrisburg-based organization has worked in every county in the state with groups interested in saving historic properties.
Hammerstedt said finding a commercial enterprise that generates revenue could be an ideal use for the building. Nonprofit groups are a harder fit sometimes because they don't typically earn enough money to meet the overhead costs associated with historic structures.
Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1966, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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