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Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation receives easements for Historic Harmony

| Monday, April 20, 2009

The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation has received its largest donation of preservation easements ever — eight of the properties that make up Butler County's Historic Harmony.

"These are the most historic buildings we have ever had an easement on. They represent part of the area's original economic fabric," said Jack Miller, the foundation's director of gift planning. "This is an insurance policy on these properties."

Historic Harmony Inc., which oversees the Harmony Historic District, donated the easements to the foundation. The properties are associated with the first settlement established by the Harmony Society, a breakaway Lutheran sect whose members immigrated to the United States in 1804.

Similar to conservation easements, preservation easements typically give historic preservation organizations the right to enforce restrictions on demolition or alteration of a historic building's exterior or interior. Historic Harmony remains responsible for maintenance and upkeep of the sites. The foundation has final say on changes to the exterior of the sites.

The requirements apply to the Bishop Boyer house, which has always been a private residence. The home was built in 1816 by the town's first Mennonite bishop. Historic Harmony sold the building earlier this month to Nancy Wilson of Leetsdale.

"I consider myself a steward of this house for the time being. It's just a wonderful old home that I have admired for 20 years or so," said Wilson, who is moving into the house.

John Ruch, president of Historic Harmony, said the agreement with the foundation confirms that the Harmony properties will be preserved.

"(The foundation) will manage the easements. They are responsible for enforcing the easements. There is a cost to that, and the History & Landmarks Foundation has the wherewithal and staff to manage that, which we do not," Ruch said.

The transfer of easements was first considered in 2003, after a Zelienople resident willed the Bishop Boyer house to Historic Harmony, which asked the foundation how it could protect the house without owning it.

The arrangement might set a precedent, said Bill Callahan, Western Pennsylvania's community preservation coordinator for the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission's Bureau for Historic Places.

"What they have accomplished may well be looked upon nationally as a model for many preservation organizations," Callahan said.

The Harmony area was declared a National Historic Landmark District in 1974 — the first such district in Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia.

"It is an extraordinarily special designation. This is a town with a remarkable history," Ruch said.

George Washington spent a night in Harmony when it was an Indian village in 1753.

Lutheran Separatists, led by self-proclaimed prophet George Rapp, came from Southwest Germany to found Harmony in 1804, and their celibate Harmony Society became 19th-century America's most successful communal group.

The Harmony Society sold the town and about 9,000 acres in 1815 to Abraham Ziegler, a Mennonite.

About 10,000 people visit Harmony's historic sites each year.

The landmarks foundation, founded in 1964, has 50 easements on properties in Pennsylvania, including the Heinz Lofts, the Bedford Springs Resort and, recently, the Carlyle — formerly the Union National Bank Building in Downtown Pittsburgh. Many of the foundation's easements are for individual historic homes in the Mexican War Streets and Manchester.

"The Harmony donation is the first time we have accepted multiple easements," Miller said.

Historic Harmony, a nonprofit organization founded in 1943, operates the Harmony Museum. The Harmony National Historic Landmark District includes eight square blocks and the cemetery, which is in Jackson.

"We could not do this on our own. We think these are the first preservation easements in Butler County," Ruch said.

Additional Information:

Saving the past

Historic Harmony donated preservation easements on these properties to Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation:

• Harmony Museum Building, Mercer Street, built in 1809 with 1816 addition; part of Harmony Historic District.

• Wagner House museum annex, Mercer Street, built between 1807 and 1812; part of Harmony Historic District.

• Harmony Society Cemetery, Edmond Street, built 1805-1815; part of Harmony Historic District.

• Harmony Society-Ziegler-Wise Barn, Mercer Road, built in 1805 with modifications around 1850; eligible for National Register of Historic Places.

• Vineyard Hill, with George Rapp's Seat carved into a rock outcrop, Evergreen Mill Road. Rapp founded the Harmony Society

• Museum annex believed to be the Harmony Society log house, Mercer Street.

• Mennonite Meetinghouse & Cemetery, Wise Road, built in 1825 and 1815, respectively.

• Bishop John Boyer's house, Perry Highway, built in 1816.

All properties are in Harmony Borough or Jackson Township, Butler County.

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