Author hopes clue doesn't lead to dead end
Biographies and history tend to be author Linda Granfield's forte, but her latest project has landed her in a mystery.
While working on a biography of Pittsburgh missionary John Magee, Granfield realized there were no photos of the 25-room mansion built by the family in 1890. But after months of searching, she found a 1967 Pittsburgh Press article linking one of the home's fireplaces to Murrysville.
“A Murrysville couple were going to build their new home around the fireplace, and that's all we know,” said Granfield, of Toronto. “The freakiest stuff happens sometimes. Sometimes, just one little memory that happens can make people step forward.”
Granfield, who is working with some of Magee's descendants, is seeking a photo of the fireplace or anything else that was bought from the house.
The home had nine fireplaces, large plate glass mirrors, carved spindles and posts, which were sold by Edward H. Sykes Jr., a Pittsburgh real estate agent whose company owned the property for nearly two years before leveling it in May 1967. The site of the mansion, once located at North Highland and Wellesley avenues in Highland Park, became a series of town houses.
The fireplace that is believed to have been moved to Murrysville was 7 feet tall and made of tile. The home was built in 1890 by Magee's father, Frederick M. Magee, a prominent Pittsburgh attorney. The family moved from Highland Park in the early 1900s and the home was converted to apartments in 1919.
At that time, Magee was in China, working in Nanking through the American Church Mission. He authored an “anonymous” report of the Nanking Massacre that appeared in Life Magazine in 1937 in an attempt to bring awareness to the events of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Granfield said.
The current generation of Magees never saw the house — or any of its major features — intact, Granfield said.
“It's unbelievable there's no picture of that house,” Granfield said. “It seems nobody took pictures. But all can agree it was an incredibly beautiful place. We would just love to have pictures of the house.”
The mystery is news to the Murrysville Historical Preservation Society, said Joan Kearns, vice-president of the group. The relocation of the fireplace predates the society, Kearns said.
Granfield traveled to Pittsburgh earlier this year to search historical records for any photos that might exist of the house — reviewing photos and archives from the University of Pittsburgh, the Sen. John Heinz History Center and the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society.
She hopes that widening her search to include Murrysville might help her close the chapter on Magee's early life.
“It would be interesting if more people remember that they got a piece from that mansion,” Granfield said. “I've been through all of the albums the family has. It would be nice, maybe, if this snowballs, and people realize they have pictures of these places. At this point, it's the documentation we are looking for.”
Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627, or firstname.lastname@example.org.