Preserving Pennsylania: A Journey Through the Last 20 Years, Part 6


Preservation Pennsylvania has released their “Pennsylvania At-Risk: Twenty-Year Retrospective of Pennsylvania’s Endangered Historic Properties, Where Are They Now” edition. It’s a fascinating look at preservation in action and we’ll be posting a look at each property in a series of posts over the next several months.

Preservation Pennsylvania established the annual Pennsylvania At Risk list in 1992, making us the first statewide preservation organization in the United States to have an annual roster of endangered historic properties. Since 1992, we have listed and worked to
preserve more than 200 endangered historic resources, including individual buildings, historic districts and thematic resources statewide. For 2012, as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of our organization, we are presenting a 20-year retrospective edition of Pennsylvania At Risk. In this issue, we revisit some of the amazing historic places across the Commonwealth, some of which have been rescued from extinction through preservation and rehabilitation efforts, and others that still need our help.

Approximately 18% of Pennsylvania’s At Risk properties have been lost, having been demolished or substantially altered. Another 32% have been saved or are in a condition or situation where the identified threat no longer poses a problem for the historic property. Approximately 50% of the 201 At Risk resources remain in danger, or we have not been able to confirm their current status as either saved or lost.

By monitoring these properties over the past 20 years and working with individuals and organizations trying to preserve them, we have learned many valuable lessons. Those lessons are called out throughout this publication.


1997 – Coal Oil Johnny House, Venango County

Coal Oil Johnny



Commonly known as “Coal Oil Johnny,” John Washington Steele was the Pennsylvania oil boom’s prodigal prince.  Adopted at a young age by the McClintock family, John resided in this circa 1850 wood-frame farmhouse for much of his life.  In return for decades of helping the widow McClintock run the farm and manage oil leases on the property, John inherited the estate when Mrs. McClintock died in 1864.  His inheritance included well royalties of $2,000 to $3,000 per day, plus a huge reserve that the widow had stored in a safe in the farmhouse.

Almost overnight, John stopped working hard and started playing hard.  He left his wife of two years and young son in western Pennsylvania and adopted a flamboyant, expensive lifestyle that included extended stays in New York and Philadelphia, where he rode in a bright red carriage decorated with pictures of oil wells gushing dollar signs.  According to local lore, Johnny once spent $100,000 in a day; he bought a hotel for  a night; he lit cigars with hundred-dollar bills; and diamonds dripped from his fingers.  His life was reflective of the boom and bust of the industry.  After living the high life and drinking heavily in cities along the eastern seaboard while poorly managing his money, Coal Oil Johnny quickly depleted his fortune.  He returned to this farmhouse and his wife and son in 1866, and filed for bankruptcy in 1867.  Johnny returned to work.  After hauling other people’s oil to market and dabbling in business, he moved his family farther west, dying nearly penniless in 1921.

After sitting vacant for more than 50 years and subjected to water infiltration as well as insect and rodent infestation, the structural integrity of the building’s foundation was in jeopardy. Its support beams had rotted, and the building’s exterior cladding was damaged beyond repair.  Unable to find a new owner for the house, the owners announced plans to demolish the building in 1996.  By 1997, when the house was listed in Pennsylvania at Risk, the Oil Heritage Region, Inc. (now Oil Region Alliance) had stepped forward to coordinate emergency stabilization measures.  Making good use of both public funds and private donations, they succeeded in moving the house across Oil Creek to the Rynd Farm in Oil Creek State Park in 2001, where they were able to rehabilitate the house over the following years.  The Coal Oil Johnny House is open for special events, an annual open house, and by appointment.  The immediate threat of demolition has been overcome, and the building is currently safe from harm.  But the Oil Region Alliance could still use additional financial support for expanded programming at the house.

To support this project, please contribute to the Oil region Alliance via their website:


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Lessons Learned:

Intervention tools such as grants and tax credits are helping to make preservation projects possible.

The Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission’s Keystone Historic Preservation grants make a significant impact on the ability of municipalities and non-profits to preserve endangered historic buildings for public use. At least 48 grants have been given to 25 of Pennsylvania’s 201 At Risk properties as a result of the Keystone Recreation, Park & Conservation Fund. The federal Save America’s Treasures program assisted at least six additional projects that were once at risk of being lost. At least nine additional endangered historic properties in Pennsylvania have benefited from grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP). The NTHP has invested additional funds into initiatives started to address the threats identified in Pennsylvania at Risk, such as the demolition of historic properties for construction of new, large houses and stores, and addressing problems common among specific property types, such as churches and schools.

At least 20 historic properties that were included in Pennsylvania At Risk over the past 20 years have benefited from the federal Rehabilitation Investment Tax Credit. All relatively large commercial rehabilitation projects, these projects are scattered all around the state, occurring in Allegheny, Bedford, Blair, Crawford, Dauphin, Erie, Lehigh, Luzerne, Lycoming, and Philadelphia Counties. With the new state tax credit in place, rehabilitation tax credits will certainly continue to provide important financial incentives for preserving Pennsylvania endangered historic properties in years to come. [/sws_grey_box]


The Central Pennsylvania Preservation Society recently hosted representatives from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for a presentation on the brand new state historic tax credit program.  You can read their summary of the presentation here.