Threatened: Pre-Revolutionary War House
By Margaret Foster | Online Only | June 17, 2010
A house in Mercersburg, Pa., has become a place of controversy for the second time in its 200-year history.
Once the meeting place of the "Black Boys," a citizen army that pre-dated the Revolutionary War, the house is slated to be torn down for a fire station's parking lot or new facility.
The nearby Mercersburg, Montgomery, Peters & Warren Volunteer Fire Company bought the house in 2009 from a longtime owner.
"We bought the property and the structure just for the land, with no intention of doing anything with that house except removing it," Chief Dusty Stoner says. "No one [cared] about this house until we bought it."
When locals found out about the potential demolition of the house, a group, Save the Justice William Smith House, Inc., formed to save it.
"If we relocate [the fire company], they get what they want, and ultimately we save the house. That would be the best-case scenario," says Karen Ramsburg, president of the Committee to Save the Justice William Smith House.
Hoping to qualify for grants, the group wanted to list the house on the National Register of Historic Places, but the State of Pennsylvania has deemed it ineligible because it has been altered.
"The building in its current condition is probably not going to be eligible," says Erin Hammerstedt, shared Field Representative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Pennsylvania. "No one is questioning the [house's] significance; it's the integrity that we're having a hard time with,"
Now Save the William Smith House wants to list the property on the National Register as an archaeological resource—but without the owner's permission, that could be tricky, Hammerstedt says.
Although the fire company has allowed archaeologists on the property in the past, last week its board of directors voted to halt further archaeological study of the site "for now," according to Stoner.
"We've been misinformed a few times. They said they would dig three holes in one day; they ended up being here a week," Stoner says.
During a dig earlier this year, archaeologists discovered glass beads, pipe stems, Chinese porcelain, pottery dating as far back as 1750, and other artifacts. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission assigned an archaeological site number to the property on May 26, but that designation offers no protection.
"The only oversight from our office would come if there were some federal or state assistance," says Keith Heinrich, historic preservation specialist at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. "If it were a private owner, they could build on it."
Stoner says the fire company may apply for a demolition permit in the coming months. "We are a business, and I have to do what's best for this business."
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