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Preserving part of Pa., the Buchanan house

June 13, 1999

Stephen G. Del SordoBy DON AINES / Staff Writer, Chambersburg

photo: DON AINES




MERCERSBURG, Pa. - As ambassador to Russia and Great Britain and president of the United States, James Buchanan traveled a lot in his life.

So did his birthplace.

The one-room log cab sits nestled in a copse of trees on the campus of Mercersburg Academy. Buchanan, the nation's 15th president, was born inside in 1791 when it was located in Stony Batter, about three miles west of Mercersburg, according to Henry A. Kittredge, chairman of Mercersburg's Historic Architechure Review Board.

His birthplace was moved to Mercersburg in 1850, and in 1920 moved to Chambersburg. The cabin was rebuilt at the Academy in 1953, according to Stephen G. Del Sordo, of Cambridge, Md., a consultant to the board.

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On Sunday, Del Sordo told a dozen people outside the historic home that 208 years and three relocations have taken their toll on the cabin and altered its appearance.

"You have an Irishman living in a German house," Del Sordo said, explaining it was northern Europeans who brought log cabin designs to the New World. It was not, however, a good example, with wide spaces between indifferently hewn logs.

Concrete was used to chink the gaps when it was rebuilt at the academy, and a different roof and chimney were added. Del Sordo said the house was once clad in clapboard and whitewashed. The interior walls were plastered.

Exposed to the weather, logs have split and rotted. Mercersburg Councilman Robert Brindle noted a carpenter bee had drilled into one timber.

"Buchanan was used as a scapegoat for a lot of things that happened before the Civil War," Del Sordo said of Abraham Lincoln's predecessor. Nevertheless, presidential birthplaces are valuable recources, he said.

"You could easily spend $100,000, but I don't think you have to do that," he said about restoring the cabin. He said it could be preserved for $25,000.

Del Sordo said the academy and borough should cooperate in asking for state and federal assistance for a restoration. Brindle agreed, but said he believed the cabin sits just outside of town in Montgomery Township.

The tiny cabin is one of dozens of historic buildings in and around Mercersburg, a borough trying to preserve its historic downtown. Kittredge said the review board was established in 1976 to maintain the character of buildings dating to the 18th century.

"What HARB is trying to do is not freeze a building in a particular period ... but preserve its overall character," Del Sordo said. Whether it's indoor plumbing, electricity or siding, changes happen to a building over a century or two, he added.

Brindle said the council is not bound by board recommendations. It issues certificates of appropriateness for changes to downtown commercial and residential properties.

"I think HARB is the single biggest disappointment in town," Frank Hayman said later Sunday afternoon. He owns the Harriett Lane House at 14 N. Main St.

Lane was the niece of Buchanan, who was the only president to remain a bachelor throughout his life. She served as White House hostess during his administration.

Hayman helped form the review board two decades ago. Under the gilded vaulted ceiling at the entrance of the house, he told Kittredge it should be stricter in its recommendations.

Hayman said historic districts are an economic boon to communities. He said he'd spent so much restoring the Lane House that "I stopped counting."

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