Hays family fighting to save Munhall mansion

| Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, 3:23 a.m.

The historic Hays Mansion in Munhall is to be demolished next year, but some — including the Hays family — are trying to save it.

Council recently condemned the property owned by Riverbend Mansion LLC, located along Hardin Place off of Whitaker Way.

Sarver resident Angelo Quaranta, who with his wife Anne Gallagher was speaking on behalf of the Hays family, told Munhall officials that he is looking to organize a nonprofit foundation of Hays family members to preserve the mansion.

“While doing some genealogical research, my wife and I became acquainted with descendants of the Hays family,” he said. “We found that one of the descendents, Jim Deibel, was very interested in preserving the Hays mansion and my role in this is to facilitate any of the land transfers that are necessary to bring this about.”

“The Hays family is spread far and wide,” Gallagher said. “They had no idea the house was still standing.”

Riverbend Mansion LLC founder Mark Draper of Rockville, Md., said he is negotiating a deal to sell the property to the family.

Discrepancies exist as to when riverboat captain Abraham Hays took ownership of the property to build the mansion.

The mansion dates back to 1832. Hays built it after his home flooded, according to “The Hays Family and The Hays Family Mansion” from the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

The mansion was a station along the Underground Railroad where slaves would take a tunnel from the Monongahela River to hide in the building's basement. “The Hays Family History” documents note that family riverboat captains would bring back fugitive slaves during coal mining operations on the Mississippi River.

A Pennsylvania Historic Resource Survey Form says Hays bought the property from John Munhall in 1867, according to information provided in a June 1983 interview with then-owner Dorothy M. Hays.

Munhall solicitor Greg Evashavik said the structure has been a problem for years.

“There have been numerous promises made in the past, that I have sat here and heard, about guarantees of rehabilitating the structure and bringing it into compliance with codes,” he said. “Nothing has ever happened. They've been nothing but empty promises.”

Draper, who describes himself as an amateur historian, purchased the Hays Mansion in 2005 for $160,000.

“My wife and I took all of our retirement savings and paid cash to save the mansion,” he said. “The previous owner wanted to tear it down and build two dozen double-wide trailers. In a move that was pretty rash and maybe foolish, we bought it. I'm a retired college professor and I never had the money to restore it.”

Munhall council president Joe Ballas said borough officials have been hearing the same thing since Riverbend Mansion LLC purchased the property, and maybe before then.

“Every year, we've been hearing that ‘We're going to fix it. We're going to fix it,'” he said. “To be honest with you, you're talking about fixing it up, but there's nothing there to fix.”

Draper said he understands the point of borough officials.

“They're acting in what they think are the best interests of the community,” Draper said.

He said he hasn't been able to provide the financial resources needed to restore the mansion and he's been scraping funds together to pay the property taxes.

Munhall Councilman Rich Votedian asked Deibel into what he intends to convert the building.

Quaranta said it could be changed into a bed and breakfast and/or a museum. Deibel, who lives in Texas, didn't want to say too much about the future of the mansion at this point, but noted the Hays family is “mustering forces.”

“They only way the mansion will be saved is if it is by the family,” he said.

Votedian said the condition of the property is interfering with the development of other nearby land.

Borough engineer Lindsey Jewart said the property constitutes a nuisance and is in violation of borough codes.

Evashavik said demolition will not happen for a significant period of time, which leaves an opportunity for the mansion to be repaired.

“(Council) can always revisit and rescind that decision in the future if something dramatically changes,” he said.

Evashavik said that's not a promise, but he has seen similar situations take place on rare occasions. June or July was estimated, but not promised, as the earliest demolition could occur.

The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation dedicated a plaque in 1975 recognizing the Hays Mansion as a historic structure. It was removed and the building was turned into apartments. The recognition cannot save the building from demolition.

Munhall officials said they hope the mansion can be salvaged.

“We really hope they can make the save,” council vice president Rob Falce said.

“I wish them all the luck in the world,” Ballas said. “It's hindering the people up there from building.”

He said the bottom line is council has to see progress.

Stacy Lee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1970, or slee@tribweb.com.

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