Drive to revive Civil War post, library branch
Randy Dunlop knew he'd found a treasure as soon as he stepped into the room where Civil War veterans once met.
"We were aware the room was there," Dunlop, a Civil War reenactor, said of the long-neglected Grand Army of the Republic post on the second floor of the Andrew Carnegie Free Library.
Still, "The first time I saw it, I said, `This is incredible. This has to be restored.'"
Dunlop's group, the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves, adopted the well-lit, carpeted room lined with photographs, medals, maps and flags around 1993. Now, the reenactors are launching a fund-raising campaign to restore the room with an April production of "Our American Cousin" - the play President Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was fatally shot.
The problem is that little maintenance has been done since 1905.
The post's last meeting was in the early 1930s. The room was locked and forgotten for decades, reopened briefly in the 1980s and now is available for tours each Wednesday night and during the monthly winter meetings of the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves.
It remains impressive. But its leather-bound books are musty and mildewed, silk flags and wool uniforms have faded and pistols and sabers from the bloodiest war in American history have grown rusty.
"We like to think it's the last intact GAR post in the country," said Keith Kammenzind of Brookline, co-chairman of the post preservation committee.
While the re-enactors can't say this for sure, Kammenzind said artifacts from most GAR posts were sold off or donated to museums, and the original quarters were torn down or converted to new uses.
During an inventory of the room's contents, he said, "we even found cancelled checks in a desk, and cigars."
The play will be the first major fund-raiser to benefit the room, said Dunlop, a Castle Shannon resident and past president of the reserves. The idea is to preserve the artifacts as well as the room itself.
The 9th Pennsylvania Reserves moved its meetings to the rust brick library on the Carnegie hilltop in 1993 because the 100-member organization outgrew its previous meeting place in the Schoolhouse Arts Center in Bethel Park.
The reenactors also don dark blue Union infantry coats and hats to portray infantry soldiers in battles and at campsites. They give school presentations and march in parades.
The 9th Pennsylvania members reopened the Civil War room for tours in 1994.
The reenactors now are the unofficial curators. They want to keep the room open as an educational resource, and because they fear the remaining artifacts would be taken, Kammenzind said.
Only about 100 are there now - including the silk flag the ladies of Bridgeville presented to Co. K, 1st Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry, 44th Regiment when it left for Harrisburg in August 1861.
"If it closes again, we're going to lose the whole thing," Kammenzind said.
The initial fund-raising goal is about $25,000, said Bill McLaughlin of Whitehall, current president of the reserves and co-chairman of the Espy post preservation committee.
The money would go toward some initial preservation work, such as matting pictures and mounting newspapers on acid-free paper. But most of it would pay for studies on how to preserve the relics.
The library generally is in disrepair. Jim White, another member of the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves, said at one point a window in the Civil War room was close to falling out of its frame.
The unit offered to replace it, but a worker for the library later fixed it.
White said the analysis also will determine the price of renovations. "It could be quite expensive, but I have no earthly idea what it'll cost," said White, of Shadyside.
Trustees for the library, meanwhile, are trying to raise $5 million to restore the entire, century-old building, which includes a music hall.
Betsy Martin, president of the trustees, said she favors restoring the Civil War artifacts even though the library will take no official part in the play production or in the 9th Pennsylvania Reserve's efforts.
"We'll certainly support it," she said.
Marcella McGrogan, president of the Carnegie Historical Society, said the room represents a big piece of national history, but an even bigger piece of local history.
"It's the history of the town," she said. "It's so rich."
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