Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

At 249 Years Old, the Block House is Holding Strong

Roy Engelbrecht

The oldest man-made structure in Pittsburgh is looking pretty good, according to a local architecture firm hired to assess the Block House in Point State Park.

The building will celebrate its 250th year in 2014, and its owners are hoping to spruce it up a bit before blowing up the balloons and cutting the cake.

“It’s a very elemental building,” said Landmark Design Associates President Ellis Schmidlapp, who did the assessment work and drew up the restorations plans.  “It’s made of stone and brick and oak timbers, which are really from the virgin western Pennsylvania American forest.”

The building was used as a redoubt for eight years and then converted to a house for its next 100 years. In the 1890s the Daughters of the American Revolution took control of the structure, and Schmidlapp said the group’s members have taken very good care of it since then.

Schmidlapp’s biggest concern was the large oak beams that run the entire circumference of the building at two levels. Soldiers would stick their guns through holes cut in the timbers to help ward off an attack. 

“There was concern about what the strength of those timbers were," Schmidlapp said. "You can’t really see inside the timbers. So we had a firm do radiography, a kind of X-ray of the timber, to see if there were voids inside that we were not aware of.”

Credit Roy Engelbrecht
French and Indian War re-enactors point their weapons through the oak gun loops that tests show are in great shape after 249 year of exposure to the weather.

The high-tech pictures found the wood was in good shape and restoration workers will only have to do light surface repairs.

Over the next four-or-so months, crews will also put a new protective coating on the roof shingles and do some masonry work with a mortar that has been specifically made for the block house.

“It’s all clay and sand. We had a lab in Chicago make an exact size and color of sand particles to do isolated repointing,” said Schmidlapp, who noted repairs in the past have been made with poorly matched mortar and that work will be replaced.

No mater how well the restoration work is done, the building will never be returned to its exact original condition. Of course, the roof has been replaced several times over the years, and Schmidlapp said if you look closely you can see where windows and extra doors were cut when the building was being used as a home.

The $100,000 restoration is expected to be done in the fall, with the 250th anniversary being celebrated throughout 2014.