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Groups seek to restore historic Woods House

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Sunday, June 5, 2005
 

The Woods House in Pittsburgh's Hazelwood section is the only remaining 18th-century house in the city. Stephen Foster is said to have written several songs in the home.

On a quiet street corner in Hazelwood sits a most unassuming, yet remarkable, house. Simple in its design, the only indication of it being out of the ordinary is its thick sandstone walls, which have all the telltale signs of over two centuries of erosion.

It is, in fact, one the oldest residential structures in Pittsburgh. And at one time it was anything but quiet. It was once a place of music and song.

Known as the Woods House, it is named after the man who built it in 1792, John Woods (1758-1816), one of the original surveyors of Pittsburgh as well as a prominent lawyer and political figure. The house was a frequent haunt of Stephen Collins Foster in the mid-19th century.

Foster (1826-64) is considered by many to be the father of American popular music and was by all accounts America's first professional composer. He wrote more than 200 songs, many of which are as popular today as when they first came out.

Having grown up in Pittsburgh, Foster would often visit the Woods' home with a group of amateur songsters known as the Knights of the Square Table, of which he was the founder.

An informal group of five men drawn together by their mutual interest in music, they usually met at Foster's home in Lawrenceville twice a week. But occasionally they would meet at the Woods house at the invite of Rachel Keller Woods, wife of John Woods' brother Harry.

A music lover and musician herself, Mrs. Woods kept a piano in the house for her and her sister Mary Keller to play. A particularly fine instrument made of rosewood by Frederick Haupt, of Germany, the piano was a rare find in Pittsburgh at the time because pianos were scarce due to prohibitive cost.

That piano, which is now housed in the Stephen Foster Memorial in Oakland, was known around the Woods home as "Stephen Foster's Piano." Not only because Foster and friends would often gather round it to sing the popular songs of the day, but because the American troubadour was known to have written some of his most popular songs on it, such as "Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair" and "Nelly Bly."

Both songs were known to have been created on the spot by Foster, with "Nelly Bly" having a particular anecdote associated with it. As the story goes, one evening Foster and fellow Knights of the Square Table members Dick Cowan, Cust Blair and Marshall Swartzwelder were serenading the Woods family on the front porch of the house when Foster noticed an attractive African-American girl poking her head out from the cellar door to hear the music.

Foster asked Rachel Woods the servant girl's name, to which Woods replied "Nelly Bly." Foster, who had already taken a liking to the name when he wrote "Nelly Was A Lady" in 1848, was immediately inspired and quickly went to the piano in the Woods home to compose the song. Published in 1850, it became so popular that 10 years later it was adapted as a campaign song for Abraham Lincoln.

Other songs by Foster that are either believed to have been composed on the Woods piano, or at least played on it early on, include "Oh Susannah" and "Old Folks at Home," otherwise known as "Swanee River."

The Woods House, built of cut sandstone, is one of only three surviving 18th-century structures in Pittsburgh; the other two being the Fort Pitt Blockhouse at the Point and the Neill Log House in Schenley Park.

In the past two years the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which now owns the house, and the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation in conjunction with the Hazelwood Initiative, Inc., and Councilman Doug Shields from City Council District 5 have been working to raise funds for the preservation of the Woods House.

Acknowledging that the house already was designated a historic site by Pittsburgh City Council in 1977 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, Shields says of the home, "There's only been three families that have owned this since it was built in 1792."

The group applied for a Save America's Treasures grant from the National Parks Service which, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, administers the grant program designed to preserve the nation's cultural heritage.

At the time, Cathy McCollom, director of operations and marketing for the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, described the building as "not falling down, but it is in desperate straits." She said then that the roof was "leaking significantly."

Though the grant fell through, Shields says that since then he was able to gather $20,000 for a new roof, downspouts and to secure the building, which was completed three months ago.

"We utilized some Neighborhoods Needs money," Shields says. "There was some URA money in it as well to get the place stabilized."

As for now, the group continues to seek funds for the building's entire renovation, which is estimated to cost upward of $600,000.

But that's not the only problem. Shields says they are still trying to figure out a sustainable use for the building, such as creating an artist-in-residence program.

"We're still struggling with the ongoing use," he says. "We know we got an old treasure here, but what about the future?"

 

 

 
 


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