Couple protects 200-year legacy of Breniser House in Derry Township
By Jeff Himler
Published: Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Motorists traveling on Route 217 past the village of Brenizer need only glance up a hill at its intersection with Victory Street to spot one of the oldest homes in Derry Township.
The two-story brick Breniser House was constructed as early as 1811. Its first owners lent their name, with a slightly different spelling, to the community that now occupies what used to be surrounding farmland.
The stately home's original Federal-style architecture has remained largely unchanged over the past two centuries. Still, current owners Nathan and Nicole Doherty have put a lot of effort into restoring missing chimneys and many of the interior details to their original appearance.
Their hard work has been rewarded with the home's official designation as a Derry Area Historic Site, signified by a bronze plaque that will be displayed on the building's exterior. Theirs is the 30th such plaque issued by the Derry Area Historical Society to a site in New Alexandria, Derry or Derry Township that is at least a century old and is considered to be at least 85 percent intact.
Work in progress
The Dohertys purchased the property in November 2006 from the heirs of Lillian Gray, the previous resident and owner.
“We wanted to buy an historic house, and once we saw it, we really liked it,” said Nathan Doherty, vice president of the Derry Area School Board. “It was livable. We knew we could easily live here, and we could still work on it.”
Doherty, assisted by his father, Dave, rebuilt three of the home's four chimneys using bricks from a large pile he found near a shed on the property and some others that he scavenged from a walkway on the grounds.
Evelyn Ruffing, who coordinates the society's historic site program, was pleased to hear that the bricks were older, solid ones — not the more recent type that have holes through the center.
Of the home's many fireplaces, two still have the original mantels and wrought iron summer covers in place. The Dohertys have gradually been replacing other missing mantels. Nathan noted a matching one was provided by a Gray family member residing in the nearby village of Gray's Station. Ruffing discovered an appropriate replacement for yet another at an indoor flea market near Ligonier.
Using an adze, Nathan Doherty is shaping a wooden beam to be installed over the kitchen fireplace.
“Our intention is to keep it as accurate as possible,” he said of the family's restoration work. “We're here to stay.”
There have been some practical concessions to modern living, including plumbing improvements and a new electrical service entrance. The Dohertys also eventually want to add a second bathroom.
At the time of the home's construction, dwellings did not have indoor plumbing. In one of the few changes to its original eight-room layout, prior to the Dohertys' arrival, a second-story room was divided to create a bathroom and a walk-in closet.
Ruffing noted additions and modifications to a home are permitted under the historic site program as long as they don't negatively impact the integrity of the original architecture.
The Dohertys finished the requirements for their historic plaque just in time to be included among historic sites Ruffing is compiling for inclusion on an updated version of the Derry Township map.
Encouraging owners of other older homes to apply, Ruffing said, “What we're really interested in are those prior to the 1850s. They're the ones that are disappearing, and they're the ones that have a history that's different from us” — preceding the Civil War and many home conveniences that are now taken for granted.
“It's a whole different world that's disappearing,” she said.
The Dohertys are doing their part to bring some of that world back to life at Breniser House.
“We try to hang a U.S. flag that's period,” noted Nicole, a dental hygienist who also is skilled as an artist.
Between 1795 and 1818, Congress authorized a U.S. flag with 15 stars and 15 stripes — the “star-spangled banner” that inspired Francis Scott Key to compose what would become the national anthem.
Inside the home, the couple has incorporated such decor as a bust of Thomas Jefferson in the dining room and a convex mirror above the fireplace in the front parlor.
“We found it in a garage sale for $5,” Nicole Doherty said of the ornately framed mirror. “It was painted white. I redid it so it was more appropriate.”
The mirror replaced a similar piece that had hung in the same location in earlier years. Ruffing explained such mirrors were used to reflect light, helping brighten rooms in a time before gas lamps or electrical lighting.
‘The fourth owners'
The front parlor had been used as an office by Lillian Gray's husband, Abe, who served as a justice of the peace in the late 1940s.
“We know of one wedding that he performed here,” Nathan Doherty said.
The Dohertys removed a bookcase in order to reopen a doorway to the adjacent former living room, which they have converted into a playroom for their children, Sophia, 6, and Max, 3.
Nicole Doherty has added personal touches to the home, painting whimsical designs on the walls and ceilings of her children's bedrooms. In the kitchen, she disguised a crack in the plaster with a painted detail that appears to be exposed bricks underneath.
“We're only the fourth owners. That's pretty crazy for 200 years,” she observed.
According to “Brenizer Then and Now,” a volume published in 1988 by the Brenizer Historical Society, the Breniser family that constructed the brick house and established a farm where the similarly-named village is now located originated in Germany. The name has been rendered with various spellings and apparently was shortened from the previous Brenneisen.
Peter Breniser (1790-1869) has been credited with establishing the 500-acre farm in Derry Township. Records are unclear concerning which member of his family constructed the brick house. Abram M. Breniser, one of its early owners, died in 1892, bequeathing the dwelling to his youngest son, Abram Jesse.
Ralph Dewey Breniser was the last known Breniser descendant to be born in the house, in 1898.
Before the Gray family took up residence, the home served as the dwelling for the superintendent of the local coal mining operation that gave rise to the village.
Brenizer's mining era began in 1905 and lasted until the early 1950s. In addition to homes constructed for the mine workers, the community included a company store and a community center. The local mine initially was operated by Jones Coal, followed in succession by Latrobe Coal and Westmoreland Mining.
In its final years, the mine was owned by a partnership including Abe Gray and finally by an individual, Ted Lyda.
Mining era relics found
During restoration work in his home, Nathan Doherty has uncovered several items from the years when it was associated with the coal operation.
When he stripped and stained the wooden floor of the front parlor, he discovered a trap door leading to a vault in the basement. “That was a cool find,” he said.
Noting that mine rails had been used as ceiling supports for the vault, he speculated it may have been used to secure the mine payroll. He found the vault empty but now uses it for making home-brewed beer.
While replacing a damaged floorboard in another area, he retrieved a fragment of an old Brenizer mine map.
“I found it tucked into the floor between the hallway and the living room,” he said.
In addition, he “found a brass tag stamped with a number in the yard.”
It is one of the distinctly numbered markers that each miner attached to a car he had filled with coal so it would be credited to him when it exited the mine and was weighed.
The Dohertys are far from finished with their plans for maintaining and restoring Breniser House, including installation of a metal roof.
One of the most labor-intensive projects they face is chipping away old, cracked linoleum and the hardened adhesive below it to reveal the home's original wooden flooring in the hallway and dining room. Also on their long-range to-do list: installing wainscoting in the bathroom, restoring the truncated back porch to the full width of the house and returning stippled plaster on many interior walls to its original smooth appearance.
With their labor of love, the Dohertys are conscious both of their home's rich past and their part in extending the dwelling's legacy.
As they complete each step of the restoration work or add a new period-appropriate detail, Nicole Doherty pauses to consider how past owners would judge their efforts: “I say to myself, ‘OK, Mrs. Gray, this is still your home, too. Brenizer, I hope you like it.'”
For more information about applying for a Derry Area Historic Site plaque, contact Ruffing at 724-539-2171. There is a fee for the plaque.
Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2910, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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