Block House roof removal sheds light on history
By Allison M. Heinrichs
Saturday, June 2, 2007
The Block House, owned by the Fort Pitt Society of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, is the oldest building in Pittsburgh and a National Historic Landmark. It protected soldiers during the French and Indian War and was used as a residence through most of the 1800s.
As the wooden planks were removed, sunlight streamed into the Fort Pitt Block House’s pyramid-shaped attic, illuminating six inches of dust.
Kelly Linn couldn’t have been happier.
“Nobody living today has ever seen this,” said Linn, curator of the Block House, as she perched on scaffolding, clutching a handful of dirty straw, twine and horsehair insulation.
Over the next three weeks, workers with RickJohn Roofing will remove the old roof, built in 1894, and replace it with a roof of similar design. The Carnegie-based company volunteered to do the project and provide materials for free, a $20,000 value. General manager Jean-Paul Bibaud made the arrangements.
The 243-year-old Block House’s attic didn’t contain any huge surprises — no bones of Revolutionary War soldiers or American Indians — but the materials used to build the five-sided roof, and the way it was put together, make it a historical treasure, Linn said.
“Knowing what’s under here will launch a whole body of research into the history of roofing,” said Linn, an archeologist and historic preservationist.
The Block House, owned by the Fort Pitt Society of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, sits in Point State Park. It’s the oldest building in Pittsburgh and a National Historic Landmark. It protected soldiers during the French and Indian War and was used as a residence through most of the 1800s.
The roof has a top layer of cedar shakes, tacked atop the existing roof in 1948. Beneath is a layer of thick black felt, seven layers of tar paper and another layer of older felt, followed by inch-thick wood planks. Between the planks and the second-floor ceiling is an attic 4 feet tall at its highest point, and 16 feet wide.
The floor, coated in clumps of the dusty insulation, is littered with animal skeletons, bird eggs and old papers.
As she sifts through the attic in the next three weeks, Linn hopes to find a date on one of the scraps of paper or an old coin that would give clues about the age of the roof materials — which could date from 1764, when the building was constructed, to 1948, when the final layer of roof was installed.
Several archaeologists will inspect the roof, including a team of historic preservationists from Belmont Technical College in St. Clairsville, Ohio.
For Rick Gammiere, who co-owns RickJohn Roofing with Bobby Wallo, the project caps off an education that began when he was a child.
“When I was in grade school, we visited the Block House, and there was this rope that blocked off the upstairs,” said Gammiere. “I said, ‘I’m going to get up there.’ I can now say I have been.”
Allison M. Heinrichs can be reached at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org or (412) 380-5607