How Pittsburgh’s Oldest Building Was Saved By Fearless Women

Jan 29, 2015

On July 6, 1917 the Courier Junior of Ottumwa, Iowa published a short essay from Mary Elizabeth Champney, age seven: 

Now that everybody is talking about war and every little boy and girl loves our flag, the stars and stripes, I want to tell you about the Fort Pitt block house of Pittsburgh, Pa., that was built many years ago in 1764...[The caretaker] said all the people of Pittsburgh loved it and that hundreds of people visited it every year. They loved the name of Washington and that made the block house dear to them. 

What Miss Champney doesn’t mention, and likely didn’t know, is that just ten years earlier, the Block House had only narrowly escaped destruction. That the last surviving remnant of the French and Indian War still stood was due to the Fort Pitt Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Newly formed, the Fort Pitt Society aimed to protect historical places, the Block House chief among them. It was one of five defensive structures, redoubts, built at the tail end of the French and Indian War to bolster the security of Fort Pitt. Maintaining control of the confluence of the three rivers was crucial in that protracted empire-building struggle. When the war ended, the fort was decommissioned; the Block House was used as a home.

By the late nineteenth century, a dense tenement neighborhood called the Point District had grown up around the Block House. Meanwhile, commercial interests salivated over the valuable land. A warehouse syndicate offered to pay the Fort Pitt Society $25,000 to relocate the Block House. But the DAR wasn’t having it.

Despite facing down libel, political might and the likes of Henry Clay Frick, the Fort Pitt Society refused to allow destruction or relocation of the Block House. The regent of the DAR at the time, Edith Darlington Ammon, wrote not one but two bills for the state legislature that promoted historic preservation. It took four years, and personal lobbying, but in 1907 a bill protecting the Block House was signed into law.

Squirrels now present the Block House’s only threat of attack: they often lean into the building to snack in peace. 

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