Copyright © 2016 John F. Oyler
December 22, 2016
I have been aware of the Neville House since I was a child and have visited it many times since it became available to the general public. Nonetheless I seldom pass up the opportunity to go there. Their pre-Christmas Open House this year, “Christmas through the Centuries” was such an opportunity.
Originally constructed in the late nineteenth century, it is now known as Woodville Plantation and is owned and maintained by a non-profit volunteer organization, the Neville House Associates, as “a living history museum”.
John Neville purchased a block of land “five miles from Fort Pitt” in 1774; he became commandant at Fort Pitt (then known as Fort Dunmore) the following year. Construction of the house, then called Woodville, began at this time. It is believed that the original house was square, twenty five feet on a side, the part of the house that makes up the dining room and the middle hallway and stairs.
The kitchen was a separate building beyond the south wall. Eventually the space between it and the main house was enclosed, and an extension (the current parlor) added to the north wall. Associated with the house were numerous outbuildings and a beehive oven. The Nevilles occupied the house until 1814 when it was sold to Christopher Cowan for $14,000.
In 1835 Mary Ann Cowan Wrenshall inherited the house following her father’s death. Her ancestors occupied it until 1975, when it was acquired by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation and opened to the public as a museum, and eventually transferred to the Neville House Associates.
The pre-Christmas Open House was structured to demonstrate the evolution of Christmas celebrations in this area in the early days. The parlor was sparsely decorated with a few sprigs of greenery on the mantle and on the pianoforte, as was typical of English society in the 1780s. Christmas was still treated as a solemn, sacred holiday, although Virginians like the Nevilles were prone to use it as an excuse for dinners and dancing.
The docent entertained us visitors by singing a carol, accompanied by the pianoforte, then illustrated a simple formal dance of the time. We were pleased to see that the pianist was an old friend, “Kiki” Barley, the director of the Pittsburgh Music Academy and the summer music camp my grand-daughter has attended.
Our next stop was the hallway, where a small German inspired table-top Christmas tree (Weihnachtsbaum) decorated with gingerbread men and paper chains signaled the gradual transition from the earlier Puritan approach that occurred at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The dining room illustrated the traditions of the Victorian era, with a full-size floor mounted tree ringed with strings of popcorn and cranberries, overseeing a modest collection of old-fashioned toys beneath it, awaiting the arrival of the younger children in the family. The table settings were both formal and elegant, as was the custom of the time.
Our tour continued to the kitchen and its extremely impressive collection of colonial era cookware. Cooking over an open fire in a very large fireplace must have been a challenging task.
Finally we went outdoors and entered the Still House, a reconstructed outbuilding whose walls are covered with relevant artwork and historic artifacts. I was particularly interested in a framed map that was inaccessible at the time. Later, when I inquired about it, I was advised that I could inspect it close up the next time I visited the Neville House.
I took advantage of this offer the following Sunday afternoon and was greeted by a very courteous lady, Susan O’Toole. With her blessing, I conducted my own tour of the Still House and was pleased to find that the framed document was actually an original survey of some of the land in that vicinity. The map clearly shows “the Washington Turnpike” from the bridge at the north end of Bridgeville to another bridge over Chartiers Creek at the northern end of Heidelberg.
When I returned to the office, I inquired about paying for a tour and explained that I was planning to write a column about the Neville House. “That isn’t necessary” she advised me before producing an admission sticker and writing “Press” on it. I have retained my Press pass and will attempt to exploit this special privilege in the future.
Our visit to “Christmas through the Centuries” was an appropriate demonstration of the evolution of customs for this wonderful holiday. I do wonder however how the early settlers in this region who were from Germany celebrated Christmas in the late eighteenth century. I suspect the Lesnetts and the Hickmans had Christmas trees and that their children looked forward for visits from Belsnickel and Saint Nicholas, even though their gifts were modest.