Stories often go untold, and places are forgotten as buildings fall into disrepair or are torn down to make way for economic expansion.
But the Washington County Cultural Trust, reinstated to 501©(3) nonprofit status at the beginning of this year, is breathing life into one of the county’s oldest homes.
“The fact that Canonsburg started on that parcel, on that hill in 1794, it’s kind of like everything coming full circle,” said Andrew Andronas, president of WCCT, who is spearheading the Roberts House restoration. “The past six, seven months have been pretty fast-paced. We have a lot of talented people with us on this journey.”
The journey to restore Roberts House began nearly 20 years ago, when Canonsburgian Andy Tarnick finally, finally purchased the home he’d been eying for years.
“I was buying homes and restoring them at a slow pace. It took me years to do each one, and then I’d rent them out. I tried to buy that house probably for ten years,” said Tarnick, a trustee for the WCCT. “Every time I saw Jack Templeton (Roberts House’s previous owner), I would ask him, hey, are you ready to sell that house over there?”
One morning Tarnick drove along East College Street, his eyes settling as always on the once-grand stone and brick house. On this day, however, something extraordinary caught Tarnick’s attention.
“There’s a for sale sign in the yard,” Tarnick said. “By the time I got to the top of the hill by Pitt Street, I had the realtor on the phone. I said, bring the paperwork to me. I’m buying that house right now.”
Tarnick purchased the Roberts House, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, intending to save the home. Another interested buyer planned to level the lot and transform it into a parking lot. But saving the centuries-old house was more of a project than the handyman anticipated.
“In my heart, I said ... this has got to go to a historic society. This has got to be restored to what it was,” he said. “I wanted to give it to a group that was going to take care of the home.”
The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks took over the building, reselling the structure to the Washington County Cultural Trust, led by then-president Ellen Sims. She donated her own funds to complete Phase I renovations.
“We got architects in to put a roof on, and we got the place shored up. If you don’t have a good roof and a good basement, you don’t have a good house,” said Joe Salandra, who served as vice president of WCCT during Phase I. “I would love to see the place restored. They’re (the new WCCT team) doing a heck of a job. They’re all great people.”
Andronas said the early work made his restoration dreams possible.
“We don’t want to forget what they did because the house would ultimately be gone at this point. We pay homage to the old president and the old board and what they did because it’s very important,” said Andronas. “We thank those in Phase I, and we thank those who got us to this point. Now, it’s time to get this project over the goal line.”
Many folks from Canonsburg and beyond are eager to begin Phase II restorations, which started full-force in January, including Kerry Fox, of the Washington County Redevelopment Authority, and Bill Pope, senior project manager at WTW Architects in Pittsburgh, whose firm has donated time to the Roberts House.
“I love being part of restorations and rehabs. There’s so much there to be restored and recreated,” said Pope. “We’re very proud to be attached to the project. I’m very grateful to represent our firm as a member of the cultural trust, sort of the liaison between the trust and the firm. We’ll be participating in the preservation and restoration of the house and the details and the redesign.”
The Roberts House is the oldest home in Canonsburg, and its Georgian architecture is a gem in the design world. Architectural historian Charles Stotz included the home in his 1936 book “The Early Architecture of Western Pennsylvania.”
“It’s not only one of the most historically significant buildings in Washington County but all of Pennsylvania and the region,” said Andronas.
The house is the last remaining building associated with Jefferson College, which went on to become Washington & Jefferson College in Washington. Its notable residents include John Canon, founder of Canonsburg; Rev. John McMillan, founder of Chartiers Hill United Presbyterian Church; and John Roberts, who ran a general store out of the home.
“Princeton and Harvard, those were the rivals of Jefferson College,” said Mike Roman, a history buff and member of the Jefferson College Historical Society who is also a WCCT trustee.
Roman said the house’s features – including an old baking oven, 30-foot well and stone additions – are remarkable and worth preserving.
“There’s a lot of great features in this house. Can you imagine, when it was in its heyday, this house had to be the best house in Canonsburg,” Roman said. “We’ve got to save all the historic structures that we can. History has to be preserved and passed on. The upcoming generations have to be aware of their town’s history and just hope that they carry it on.”
Fortunately, those involved with the Roberts House project are enthusiastic about their great undertaking.
“It’s a passion project for everybody. The donation of time and resources and materials and, gosh, it’s all there. I think the community is all about it. I think that the hardest thing has been just the money piece. It’s just funding, period,” said Pope.
Andronas guesses the Roberts House restoration will be a $1 million project, but it’s worth it. He hopes the community will rally around the WCCT and help bring the project to life because the team has some great plans for the building.
The house, when finished, won’t be just another old home folks drop a dollar into a donation bucket before stepping over original hardwood floors and gawking at relics. Andronas envisions an upscale venue steeped in history, where the next chapter of Canonsburg’s storied book begins with VIP parties, weddings, board meetings and time spent socializing or contemplating in vast gardens.
“It’s not a pipe dream,” he said. “It’s enormous. There’s so many things we can do with it. The big thing we’re talking is event venue, inside and out. Educational things, museum, library. I think it could be honestly a historic venue. It sits on a pretty large parcel. We have visions (of) outdoor pavers and garden areas and string lights.”
A small portion of the house will serve as a store, an homage to John Roberts, where, perhaps, Canonsburg and Roberts House merch will be sold, Roman said.
The house, Andronas and the WCCT team hopes, will be the heartbeat of Canonsburg’s Historic District, a cultural attraction that could draw folks from near and far to art classes and live performances.
Mayor Dave Rhome said that a block surrounding the Roberts House has already been designated the Historic District.
“Any time you can continue to make your town prosperous, which I think you can see that that’s happening, a part of that has to be the cultural district, whether that be restoring homes or bringing artifacts (in),” said Rhome. “Just the memorabilia that’s available from probably 200 years ago – that doesn’t happen in a lot of communities. These are all destinations. Not too long from now, you’re going to see more of Canonsburg promoting the old and the new.”
And not too long from now, Andronas hopes, the Roberts House will be completely restored to its former glory and its magnificent doors open to the public.
“It’s pretty humbling when you walk through it. I don’t even really know the word to describe it. It’s beautiful,” said Andronas. “You look at some of the little details, just the trim pieces and the woodwork. There’s been decades and decades of evolution. This thing is just a time warp. And it’s still going. So hopefully, beyond our lifetimes, they’re like, this thing’s 400 years old now.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” he added, but “I think it could be an absolute attraction for the county and beyond.”
For the latest on the WCCT and the Roberts House project, visit washcountyculturaltrust.org or follow on Facebook at facebook.com/people/Washington-County-Cultural-Trust/100085678603691.