Friendship Hill National Historic Site: A beautiful architectural puzzle

Albert Gallatin’s home is a fascinating piecemeal architecture full of questions likely never to be answered.

Nearly two centuries ago, the U.S. treasury secretary who arranged financing for the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark Expedition and War of 1812, had less success completing his own dream house in westernmost Fayette County.

Reduced to writing letters from France, Albert Gallatin tried explaining to his son, Albert Rolaz Gallatin, how to design and build the stone house, only to express disappointment when he finally saw it years later.

Location of Friendship Hill National Historic Site (James Hilston/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Location of Friendship Hill National Historic Site (James Hilston/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

The puzzle the elder Gallatin faced in simultaneously building a fledgling nation and a frontier home represents one of the fascinating backstories of the Friendship Hill National Historic Site near New Geneva.

And despite his well-documented disappointments, the sprawling structure featuring wood, brick, stone and eventually stucco stands bold-shouldered across a scenic knoll on the 675-acre park between the Monongahela River and Route 166 in Springhill Township. Its nobility is emboldened by a tree-lined promenade (entrance road) that can make the visitor imagine being in a horse-drawn carriage amid trumpet fanfare.

“For the most part, almost everybody is awed to one extreme or another by the house,” said Kitty Seifert, the Friendship Hill park ranger and historical interpreter. “You have to consider that Gallatin was an amateur architect and working a long distance away in Paris and basing it on his memory of how things were laid out.”

The stone house is so imposing that “a lot of people jump to the assumption that it’s the first part of the house to be built.” Actually, it was last, save for a stone kitchen. Why it faces the driveway rather than verdant meadow remains the big mystery: “You’d have to ask Gallatin,” Ms. Seifert said.

Construction mirrors his life phases

The Swiss immigrant from Geneva served as treasury secretary under presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison then as minister to France from 1816 until 1823. He helped negotiate and also signed the Treaty of Ghent to end the War of 1812. He served briefly in the Senate, with three terms in the House and a stint as minister to the United Kingdom.

Friendship Hill National Historic Site

223 New Geneva Road, Point Marion, PA 15474

(724) 725-9190

Official Website

  • Hours: Gallatin House and visitors center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from May through September. From October-April, they’re open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday only. Closed on federal holidays. Grounds are open year-round from sunrise to sunset.
  • Visitor information: Admission is free. Allow one to three hours to tour the Gallatin House. The 675-acre park has more than 10 miles of nature trails with picnic area and a comfort station adjacent to the main parking lot. Friendship Hill is 71 miles from Pittsburgh, or about a 1 hour, 20-minute drive.
  • Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible.
  • Fees: $5 per person for visits of 1-7 (consecutive) days. Children 15 and under free
  • Fun Facts: Visitors aren’t allowed to walk the stone-house staircase at Friendship Hill but park officials enjoy having them stand alongside it to look upward at its unique spiraling. People also might wonder if the bronze statue of Albert Gallatin surveying his property is lifesize. If so, Gallatin was a slight little fellow. And expect an intersting hike to see the grave of Gallatin’s wife Sophia.

    If you’re looking for some comfort food in the area, travel another three miles south to Point Marion to find Apple Annie’s at 28 Church St. It’s a cozy little restaurant full of Americana and pies as big as foot stools.

In 1786, Gallatin bought the property, 370 acres at the time, and would complete three construction phases there over the next 39 years. But his city-loving family’s disinterest in the rural gem along with the decline in business at his glassworks led to the sale of the property in 1832 — seven years after Gallatin left it and 17 years before his death in 1849. The sale occurred despite his previous claim of being “content to live and die amongst the Monongahela hills.”

Three major post-Gallatin additions, now covered with stucco, boosted the room total to 35 with the layout resembling pieces on a Scrabble board.

The National Park Service purchased a rundown Friendship Hill in 1979. It then completed a $10 million restoration in 1992, with $2.5 million in property upgrades including 10 miles of scenic trails. The historic site along Route 166 is seven miles south of Masontown and three miles north of Point Marion.

The National Park’s “Historic Structures Report” provides the architectural history, which largely mirrors Gallatin’s financial, marital, business, public and political status at the time each addition was built.

As a young man, he erected a log cabin on the property that no longer exists. A brick house then was completed in 1789 just prior to his marriage to Sophia Allegre, who died unexpectedly five months later and is buried on the property. Her death “diminished Gallatin’s interest in Friendship Hill,” the report says.

Politics became his diversion once Sophia passed away.

And, yet, two years later, Gallatin hired a local carpenter to finish doors, windows and a staircase in the brick structure, while adding a wood-frame addition backed by a lean-to that served as the kitchen. That phase was completed in 1798 while he served in Congress.

During Gallatin’s most celebrated years in politics — 1801 through 1824 — he returned to Friendship Hill only three times (1803, 1806 and 1810). In his final years as the minister of France and preparing for retirement, he began construction of a Grecian-style limestone-block house with Albert Rolaz providing directions to Uniontown architect/builder Hugh Graham based on Gallatin’s letters from Paris.

By all accounts, Gallatin wanted the stone house facing the scenic meadow and ridge to the east, as do the adjoined brick and wood structures. So how’d it end up facing the entrance road to the north, the least scenic sight-line on the entire property? “Some plans were either modified by Gallatin or his son before completion,” the report politely explains.

OK, straight to the point: The house got twisted a full 90 degrees. That inexplicable shift may have been necessary because of too little space between the proposed structure and precipitous slope of the knoll, especially given the need for a driveway to the front door. But why not align its front with those of the brick and frame structures?

Or did Albert Rolaz and Graham simply find it more expedient to have it face the entrance road?

A patchwork design

In Gallatin’s Feb. 4, 1822 letter to Albert Rolaz, he laments the state of his glassworks and presumably his gun factory, boring mill, sawmill and gristmill in neighboring New Geneva: “Had I been earlier apprised of the gradual loss and decay of our glassworks, I would not have adopted so extensive a plan of building on our place.” The size of the house, he said, was justified not by the value of the Friendship Hill property “but by the aggregate income drawn from the whole of our property in the neighborhood and not knowing that the dividends we have been receiving for the last years, I had calculated the cost of the house would be defrayed by those and by accruing profits of this year and next year.”

Source: Esri, National Parks Service (James Hilston/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Source: Esri, National Parks Service (James Hilston/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

That’s to say his budget got pinched, forcing “great economy and attention to the work, lessening the plan if practicable and … avoiding every expense not strictly necessary.” He further instructed Albert Rolaz “to build much cheaper than could have been done in more prosperous times.”

Despite that insistence, Gallatin returned to Friendship Hill to find the house built according to the original, more lavish plans. Still, he didn’t like what he saw and long remained perplexed about how best to connect the freestanding stone house with the brick-and-frame structures.

“Our house has been built by a new Irish carpenter [Graham], who was always head over heels and added much to the disorder inseparable from the building,” Gallatin wrote his daughter Frances. “Being unacquainted with the Grecian architecture, he adopted a Hyberno-teutonic [Irish-Denmark] style, so that the outside of the house, with its porthole-looking windows, has the appearance of an Irish barracks, while the inside ornaments are similar to those of a Dutch tavern, and I must acknowledge that these form a singular contrast with the French marble chimney-pieces, paper and mirrors.”

He also was upset to find the grounds “overgrown with elders, ironweeds, stinking weeds, laurel, several varieties of brier, impenetrable thickets of brush, vines and underwood, amongst which are discovered vestiges of old asparagus and new artichoke-beds and now and then a spontaneous apple or peach tree.”

Gallatin also admonished his son for turning the place into a bachelor pad including a billiard table “the pockets of which are made with his stockings.” He also found his mills and farm “in a most deplorable state.”

Unfortunately, there is little written about the house thereinafter, save for accounts of the Marquis de Lafayette’s visit to Friendship Hill in 1825.

“After October of 1825, Gallatin never returned to live at Friendship Hill,” the report says. His family aspired to live in New York and Paris rather than New Geneva. After he sold the property in 1832, subsequent owners added their own Scrabble pieces to complete its piecemeal architecture.

David Templeton: or 412-263-1578.