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Harmony's Mennonite Meetinghouse dating to 1825 could join national register

| Sunday, July 24, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
An 1825 Mennonite meeting house in Harmony. The Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Board recommended this month that this building be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
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An 1825 Mennonite meeting house in Harmony. The Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Board recommended this month that this building be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It has been four years in the making, but Historic Harmony's Mennonite Meetinghouse and Cemetery on Wise Road in Jackson soon could be on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Board last month voted to approve the nomination of the house.

That approval and other paperwork was forwarded to the National Park Service, which maintains the register and was expected to act on the listing within 45 days. That means the official designation could come as early as next month, according to John Ruch, president of Historic Harmony.

Historic Harmony, which purchased the property in 1977, enlisted the help of Lu Donnelly, a member of the board of trustees at the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and co-author of the book “Buildings of Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania,” to help get the meetinghouse placed on the national register.

Donnelly said the process of getting the state board to approve the nomination was painstaking, and included providing numerous drawings, documents and photographs that demonstrated the historical and architectural significance of the building.

But, Donnelly said, the Mennonite Meetinghouse was more than worthy of the effort.

“It is a wonderful building,” Donnelly said. “I like to say it is deceptively simple. At first glance the design looks very simple, but in reality it is not. It is quite involved.”

It is believed to be the oldest existing Mennonite church west of the Allegheny Mountains, Donnelly said.

According to Historic Harmony records, the meetinghouse was built in 1825, about 10 years after the Harmonists had sold much of their holdings in Butler County to the Mennonites and moved to a new settlement along the Wabash River in Indiana. They later returned to Western Pennsylvania, settling in what is now Economy, Beaver County.

The meetinghouse was used by the Mennonites until the early 1900s. An association of descendents of the original church leaders owned and maintained the building until it was sold to Historic Harmony, which now uses it for special events and rents it out for weddings on occasion.

Donnelly said that once the building is placed on the national register, there won't be a lot of obvious changes.

“The owner of a building on the national register can still tear it down, but obviously, since Historic Harmony already owns this building, that is not a concern,” Donnelly said. “They are such a delightful and dedicated group. They are a joy to work with.”

Structures on the national register cannot be torn down for any purpose that involves the use of federal funds, Donnelly said.

In 2009, the meetinghouse was one of eight properties for which Historic Harmony donated preservation easements to the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

A preservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement made between a property owner and an authorized preservation organization to preserve an historic site in perpetuity.

They are recorded as such with the property's deed.

Other protected properties include the Harmony Museum Building, the Wagner House museum annex, the Harmony Society Cemetery, Vineyard Hill, the Harmony Museum log cabin annex, Bishop John Boyer's House on Perry Highway and the Harmony Society-Ziegler-Wise Barn on Mercer Road.

Vince Townley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-772-6364 or vtownley@tribweb.com.

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