Hays Mansion might be saved from wrecking ball

| Saturday, March 23, 2013, 1:21 a.m.

Munhall council plans to vote next month on whether to rescind the condemnation decision on the historic Hays Mansion.

On Thursday, descendants of the Hays family worked on various improvement projects inside and outside the house, situated on a hill overlooking the Monongahela River off Whitaker Way.

More than a dozen Hays relatives asked Munhall council this week to change the house's condemned status. The structure is on this year's demolition list.

The Hays Mansion was built in 1832 by riverboat captain Abraham Hays after his home flooded, according to documents from the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. It was a station along the Underground Railroad where slaves would hide in the building's basement.

Attorney Angelo Quaranta said the Hays family has the mansion under a purchase agreement with its current owner, Mark Draper, founder of Riverbend LLC. Draper, who describes himself as an amateur historian, saved the half-acre property from demolition by another party when he bought it in 2005 for $160,000.

Descendant Jim Deibel of Plano, Texas, said the Hays heritage is manifested in the mansion, also known as Harden Place.

“Based on over a year of research into my family, I discovered over 415 descendants of Abraham Hays,” he said.

Deibel said based on one comment his father made at his 84th birthday dinner in February 2012, he set out to find his father's living cousins.

He said The Abraham Hays Foundation was started to preserve the legacy of the Hays family and the mansion. The foundation is filing for 501c3 nonprofit status.

Deibel read a letter from U.S. Steel Real Estate president George A. Manos indicating that the company would be willing to sell 17½ acres on the hillside where the mansion sits to the foundation.

He said he believes a section around a pond is a family graveyard where Abraham and Fannie Hays are buried.

“I don't have confirmed evidence of this,” Deibel said.

Munhall council voted Nov. 21 to demolish the Hays Mansion. Councilors said they've been told by Draper that the property will be fixed up for too many years, without action.

Deibel and other Hays descendants said they only found out about the property's existence last year.

He said improvements so far include securing the mansion so no one can get in, clearing the brush and debris around the property, removal of graffiti and covering broken windows.

“I find this whole thing very exciting,” Councilman Bernie Shields said. “This is all we wanted, for someone to take care of the place. This is a start.”

Deibel said rescinding the condemnation will allow the foundation to gain more membership and grant funding.

“There are $30,000 in back taxes on the property,” he said. “The foundation cannot afford, nor would they put themselves in peril, to buy the house with it being condemned. We're trying to show you that we're putting our best foot forward to get this thing in a position to close on the house. Once the foundation closes on the house, obviously we'll pay all the back taxes.”

Councilman Dan Lloyd said he doesn't believe the foundation is putting enough money into the mansion for extensive repairs.

Ellicott City, Md., resident Rebecca Petit Hays Shelton, whose father was William Seward Hays Sr., said Harden Place needs a lot of work, and time is needed to make those repairs.

“The Pittsburgh winter weather hasn't made getting any of this done easy,” she said.

Munhall borough manager Matt Galla said the demolition order for the mansion will not even be signed until mid- to late July.

“We just want to see progress,” Munhall council vice president Rob Falce said.

Exact plans for what the mansion might become still are being worked out.

Stacy Lee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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