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Sewickley Heights History Center final piece of preservationist's vision

| Sunday, June 12, 2005

Before his death in 1999, Whitney Snyder Sr. had three missions, two of which he saw completed.

"My father wanted to preserve Sewickley Heights in its rural capacity," Whitney Snyder Jr. said. "He wanted to have a park in the Heights, so he got residents to donate pieces of their land during the 1960s. Now there are over 1,000 acres in the park."

The elder Snyder's second mission was the establishment of a nature center.

"There was a farmhouse not being used on our property, so he donated the farm house and the land it sat on to the borough of Sewickley Heights so they could start a nature center. He wanted a place for school children to come and attend lectures and learn about insects and flowers. The nature center began in 1998.

"I said to my father, 'If you're going to do a nature center, why don't we establish a history center?' His face lit up like a Christmas tree."

Gravely ill at that time, the elder Snyder told his son who to contact to get the "fabric of the area's history."

"I gave my word that I would see to it that the history center would come to fruition," Snyder said.

Four years later, the Sewickley Heights History Center opened its doors. Dedicated to conserving the natural beauty of the area and maintaining its historical integrity, the center features equestrian exhibits, antique automobiles and carriages, historic videos and photographs, and other artifacts.

Many of the vintage photographs are of the "cottages" of Sewickley Heights. While the word "cottage" denotes a small, quaint abode, these cottages were by no means that. Huge, elaborate mansions, some with 90 rooms or more, with separate servant quarters, private water towers, gatehouses, swimming pools and lavish private gardens, served as summer retreats for leading Pittsburgh industrialists at the turn of the 20th century.

Social life for the barons of coal, coke, railroads, finance and iron centered around the Allegheny Country Club, which relocated to Sewickley Heights in 1902 from the City of Allegheny, now Pittsburgh's North Side.

"These industrialists began building their cottages, which were actually working farms, near the Club," said Joe McLean, director of the Sewickley Heights History Center. "It was a different world back then. They would come up here and attend parties, play tennis and croquet, and ride horses. The cottages were only used six or seven weeks a year until about 1920, when the automobile made traveling easier. Then the summer homes became their permanent residences."

Benjamin Franklin Jones, founder of Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp., came from Allegheny to Sewickley Heights in the 1890s. His first mansion, called Franklin Farm, was built in 1901 and became the summer residence of William and Mary Robinson in 1903. The Robinsons were founding members of the Allegheny Country Club.

Benjamin Franklin Jones Jr. constructed the first Fairacres in 1911 in the Heights. Boasting four stories, a water tower and three levels of porches on one side, it caught fire and burned down, said Richard Smith, an interior designer in Sewickley Heights.

It wasn't long before Jones built a second Fairacres consisting of 100 rooms, including 33 bedrooms and 17 baths.

"The drawing room in this house measured 60 by 20 by 40 feet," Smith said. "The stair hall was two stories high, and the first floor was done in black marble. The handrail was covered in bronze-colored velvet."

After Mrs. Jones' death in 1941, the house remained empty until it was razed in 1964. The second Fairacres' gateposts still stand as testament to a bygone era.

When famed scientist Marie Curie became ill during a visit to Pittsburgh in 1921, she stayed at the home of Henry and Edith Oliver Rea, known as Farmhill. The Tudor revival home featured nine fluted brick chimneys, a dozen gables of varying sizes and a magnificent view of the Ohio River.

"Sewickley Heights was small; there weren't many families there because the estates ran about 200 to 300 acres each," Smith said. "Lewis Park had the first dial telephone system in his home, Hillside Farm. All the grand dames had their favorite telephone operators."

Hillside Farm was built in 1926 and featured a 12-car garage. The Park family owned The Black Diamond Steel Works and James Park and Co., both early experimenters in metallurgy in Western Pennsylvania. The Park Co. was also a participant in the development of what is now Alcoa.

"The Louis Park farm is now part of the Sewickley Heights Park," McLean said. "You can walk around and see the remnants of an old roller coaster the Parks had on their farm."

The industrialists threw sumptuous parties. Even Prohibition didn't dampen anyone's spirits in Sewickley Heights.

Horses were also an important part of social life in the Heights' heyday. The Sewickley Heights Hunt Club was formed Jan. 18, 1925, and continues today.

"The fox is now spared in the hunt, which is registered with the Masters of Fox Hounds Association," said Smith, who served as the master of ceremonies for its 60th anniversary in 1985. "The hunt also maintains bridle paths, of which there are about 200 miles throughout Sewickley Heights."

Another tradition that continued in Sewickley Heights until this year was the horse show, once billed as the second greatest show in the U.S., Smith said.

At one time, the horse show was followed by the Riding and Driving Party held by the Robinson family. It was considered the social event of the season. Guests and their horse carriages were dressed in costumes, judged for prizes and then paraded to Franklin Farms for an extravagant dinner and dancing.

The Snyder family still owns Wilpen Hall, designed by architect George Orth in 1898 and completed in 1899. William Penn Snyder, Whitney Snyder Jr.'s great-grandfather, worked at the iron maker Schoenberger and Co. in Pittsburgh before forming the iron brokerage, Leishman and Snyder, with John G.A. Leishman. After Leishman joined Carnegie Steel, Snyder bought his shares and formed W.P. Snyder and Co., and later the Shenango Furnace Co.

"Wilpen Hall has over 100 acres, and the history center is across the hill on 33 acres," McLean said. "We let the grass grow high and cut paths through it so the Sewickley Heights borough naturalist can take students and children on hikes."

Activities and admission to the nature center and history center are always free.

"We don't even have a donation box in the history center," McLean said. "When Whitney Snyder Sr. had his dream, he knew the community would come and support these activities."

McLean is proud of the annual Family Fun Day, which features antique cars, ponies and carriages, games, clowns, acrobats, magicians, hot air balloon rides, an orchestra and professional swing dancers. This year's Family Fun Day was held May 28.

"Our goal is to try and make the place really fun," McLean said. "We want families to come and enjoy not only the free activities, the history and nature centers, but the countryside."

A new feature at the history center is a mural on two walls, each 10 feet wide by 9 feet high and completed by Smith.

"It's a collage of all the things that made Sewickley Heights what it was -- some of the houses, the hunt, the horse show, some of the formal gardens that are now gone, and portraits of the movers and shakers of Sewickley Heights," Smith said.

The History Center is open Monday through Friday, 3-5 p.m. and Saturday noon-2 p.m. For more information, check out the Web site at

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