Point State Park will honor the woman who saved the Fort Pitt Block House
By MARYLYNNE PITZ | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | Published: April 23, 2014
When British troops erected the Fort Pitt Block House at the Point in 1764, the building was the military camp's first line of defense. Pittsburgh's oldest building became a trading post and later a home to a series of families, including a lady who ran a small candy store.
But the red-brick block house would not have survived for 250 years if Edith Darlington Ammon and her Victorian friends had not fought valiantly to keep it at the Point.
As leader of the Fort Pitt Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, this daughter of privilege waged a fierce public relations battle, sparring with real estate developer Frank Nicola, industrialist Henry Clay Frick and the powerful Pennsylvania Railroad.
Aided by local lawyers and Michael H. Kennedy, a history-loving state representative from Lawrenceville, these savvy wealthy women persuaded the state Legislature to pass a law to preserve the block house. On Thursday morning, a new garden surrounding the block house will be dedicated in honor of their determined unsung leader.
"The least we can do is have this garden for Edith," said Joanne Ostergaard, past president of the Fort Pitt Society. "This was before women could vote. She went to Harrisburg. ... She gave speeches to the legislators. She was a tenacious woman. You weren't going to walk over her."
Emily Weaver, curator of the Fort Pitt Block House and author of a new book on the building's history, believes Mrs. Ammon's critical role was lost to history partly because she had no children and neither of her siblings married so there are no direct descendants.
She grew up at Guyasuta, her family's 235-acre estate in present-day O'Hara. Her father, William, was a prominent lawyer who collected rare maps and manuscripts about Pittsburgh. Her mother, Mary O'Hara, wrote many books about local history and was the granddaughter of James O'Hara, a hero of the American Revolution.
While in her late 20s, Edith Darlington married Samuel Ammon, a lawyer, in 1890. The battle to save the block house began two years later when the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution wrote to Mary Schenley, who lived in England, and asked her to deed the block house to them.
Mrs. Schenley, who owned most of the land at the Point, had already rejected other requests to donate the property and save the block house, including one from the City of Pittsburgh. This time, family connections may have influenced her response; Mrs. Schenley, a first cousin of Edith Ammon's mother, also was related to other members of the Fort Pitt Society.
The wealthy heiress agreed to give the building and a small piece of property around it to the DAR with the proviso that the block house be restored to its 1764 appearance and maintained. If it wasn't, the land and the building would revert back to Mrs. Schenley's heirs. By 1895, the Fort Pitt Society of the DAR had restored the block house and was conducting tours of it. The organization in 1899 elected Mrs. Ammon its regent, or president, a post she held for a decade.
Conflict began in 1901 when the Fort Pitt Society learned that Nicola, creator of Schenley Farms in Oakland and leader of a real estate syndicate, planned to build warehouses on land at the Point. The society, aided by Samuel Ammon and his law partners, began waging a legal battle against the city and Nicola. In December 1901, Nicola offered the society $25,000 if it would allow the block house to be moved to Schenley Park.
Meanwhile, Nicola spread rumors that the women really wanted to move the block house. The ladies rejected his cash offer, and five of the society's members, including Rachel Larimer Mellon, a member of the banking family, turned down a chance to talk further with him.
In early 1902, the Pittsburgh Leader newspaper reported that the Pennsylvania Railroad planned to lay tracks at the Point. During that year, stories abounded in newspapers that Henry Clay Frick had bought land at the Point and planned to lease or sell it to the railroad.
"Rachel Larimer Mellon went to talk to Mr. Frick and asked his help in saving the building. He was already negotiating to sell his property to the Pennsylvania Railroad," Ms. Weaver said.
Publicly, the industrialist denied reports of a land purchase and insisted that the Point should be used for commercial interests. He did not favor keeping the block house at its original site.
In October 1902, the women learned that Frick had bought all of Mary Schenley's property at the Point, plus some additional acreage, for $2 million. Then, he sold it to the railroad. Litigation between the Fort Pitt Society and the Pennsylvania Railroad would drag on until 1911.
In 1903, Mrs. Ammon got her first preservation bill through the state Legislature but Gov. Samuel Pennypacker, who wanted to save the block house, vetoed it, saying it gave too much power to railroad corporations. By 1904, the Pennsylvania Railroad had begun demolishing tenements at the Point, which was crowded with Irish immigrants.
Mrs. Ammon returned to Harrisburg in 1906 and 1907. This time, the bill focused strictly on historic preservation and passed with Rep. Kennedy's help. Gov. Edwin Stuart signed it into law.
To Mrs. Ostergaard, Edith Ammon and her backers are heroines.
"If they didn't get the answer they wanted, they just kept pursuing it until they got the answer they wanted. They weren't going to move that block house."