The Roberts House
by James T. Herron, Jr.
On the left-hand side of North Central Avenue, Canonsburg, a
little better than halfway up the hill, is a very old house
constructed partly of stone, partly of brick. It is known as the
Roberts House, but why it commemorates John Roberts is not known. He
owned it for just seven years, from 1808 to 1815.
Canonsburg was a real estate development of the 1780s. John
Canon, whose flour and saw mill was down at the foot of the street,
near Chartiers Creek, was the developer and lived on the opposite
side of the street from the old house. Since Canon had bought his
land from Virginia and it had subsequently turned out to be in
Pennsylvania, he could not supply deeds for the lots in his town
until the mid-1790s.
A plat of the town with lot owners and dates from 1787 to 1790
was recorded after John Canon's death. Many lots are blank; including
lot number eight, where the armory now stands. The next two lots,
nine and ten, are inscribed with the name, Andrew Monroe, and the
date, March 15, 1787. The next lots, eleven through thirteen, are
marked "John Todd June 1st 1790."
- Blaine Ewing, ed., Canonsburg Centennial (Canonsburg Pa, 1903), facing 146; The plat is
filed in the Washington County Court House in Plan Book Vol. I,
Part 1, page 13.
When Canon received his patent from Pennsylvania and was able to
provide purchasers with deeds, Andrew Munro [his spelling] received
deeds for lots nine and ten. John Todd, however, was gone. John Canon
deeded Lot 11 on February 3, 1796 to the Rev. John McMillan, educator
and pastor of Chartiers (Hill) Presbyterian Church.
- Deed 1-M-160, John Canon to John
McMillan, Feb. 3, 1796.
The lot was irregular in shape, probably because Andrew Munro had
built a stable too far north and part of it was on the neighboring
lot. This was rectified by the transfer of a piece of land one perch
(16½ feet) wide from lot 10 to lot 11.
- Deed 1-T-817, Andrew Munro to John
Roberts, July 2, 1807. The deed contains the provision: "Except
that the said Andrew Munro and Judith his wife reserve to
themselves the privilege of continuing a stable, a part of which
is built on the above described piece or lot of ground and
occupying it for six years from the present date at the expiration
of which time the said Munro and his wife obligate themselves to
remove the said stable clear of the said piece or lot of
As originally deeded, Lot 11 had 68 feet of frontage. The street
is now called North Central Avenue, but the McMillan deed says it was
Main Street. The neighboring Munro lot was on "the main street," and
the lot below, written in 1795, said Market Street, as did most of
the houses further up the street.
The neighboring lot to the north was the one John Canon gave to
Canonsburg Academy. The trustees received the deed on December 1,
1796, after they had reimbursed Canon for building the stone academy
building. There is an alley between the two lots today, and the deeds
indicate there was a right-of-way to an English school (a grade
school) that may never have existed.
- Deed 1-M-707, John Canon to Trustees of
Canonsburg Academy, Dec. 1, 1796. The survey began at the corner
of McMillan's lot, and the deed mentions there is to be a "free
passage" 15 feet wide from the street to an English school at the
rear of the property.
It is very unlikely that John McMillan lived on the lot, though
he may have begun the building. According to the Federal Direct Tax
of 1798, known as the Window Tax, its occupant was the Rev. John
Watson. He had been educated at Canonsburg Academy and had graduated
from Princeton in 1797, first in his class. On his return home he
taught at the academy and studied theology under John McMillan. He
was licensed as a Presbyterian minister in 1798.
- Helen Coleman, Banners in the Wilderness (Pittsburgh, 1956), 55.
According to the Window Tax, Watson's home was modest. It was
constructed of wood (probably log), 18 by 22 feet, and had two
stories. There were 78 lights of glass in the house's seven windows.
The house was small, but most of the houses in town were small. John
Canon's house, across the street from the McMillan/Watson house, also
was a two-story log structure, 22 by 24 feet. Canon had ten windows
but only 52 panes of glass.
John Watson brought his bride to the house next to the academy in
1800. The same year, his first son, also named John Watson, was born.
Watson returned to Princeton for postgraduate studies. He was elected
principal of the newly chartered Jefferson College on April 27, 1802.
- Daniel M. Bennett, Life and Work of Rev. John
McMillan (Bridgeville PA, 1935),
367; Coleman, Banners, 55. The references give only the year of
the marriage and the son's birth, though the birth date of
Watson's second son is noted.
The photograph at the top was
taken by Force C. Dunlevy in 1894. The woman at the door,
seen in an enlargement, center, is identified as "Miss
Snyder." In the photograph at right, taken in 1998, most of
the house is hidden by trees, but the front door no longer
is obscured by ivy.
The Borough of Canonsburg was incorporated in 1802 as well, and
the route the tax assessor walked can be traced as he meandered along
the streets of town. The second page of assessments in the borough
council minutes begins Reynolds Neill, Andw. Munro, Widow Canon, and
Revd. J. Watson. Neill had a store on the northwest corner of what is
now the intersection of Central and College, Munro had his tavern on
a double lot next to McMillan's lot, and John Canon's widow (he died
in 1798) lived on a very large lot that became, successively, the
college, Jefferson Academy, Canonsburg High School, and junior
high/middle school campuses.
- Canonsburg Borough Council
Minutes, Book 1, 13
The buildings on Lot 11 are not described, but the assessment was
$365, somewhat higher than average, but lower than the neighbors.
Reynolds Neill was assessed $410, Munro's tavern, $1205, and Jennett
Canon, $418. Part of the assessment was for property value and part
based on income; there are people on the list valued at just $10.
The tax collected in 1802 apparently was sufficient, and most of
the assessments were the same in 1803. John Watson died of
tuberculosis in November 1802, so his widow, John McMillan's
daughter, was listed as the taxpayer in 1803. Her assessment was
$450, an increase of about one-fourth. Her neighbor, Andrew Munro,
saw his assessment rise from $1205 to $1300, about a tenth, and
Reynolds Neill, from $410 to 670, an increase of more than a half.
Widow Canon, however, was assessed the same $418.
There is no consistency here. The Watson assessment should have
gone down after his death, but it went up. Margaret Watson, a 22-year
old widow with two young children (the second was born on the day her
husband died), did not have a taxable occupation. So, the property
must have been improved.
The following year, 1804, John Roberts' name replaced that of
Mrs. Watson, but he was assessed the same amount, $450, "for his
house and field." He also was taxed for "18 Acres bottom" ($400) and
"for the red house," $350. Roberts was a new resident, as his name
did not appear on the previous tax lists. There is no indication why
he needed two houses.
In 1805 two houses and outlots were assessed at $700; in 1806,
$800; from 1807 through 1810 the assessment for two houses was $1000.
In 1811 he had just one house, and the amount dipped to $800, but it
was up to $1000 again in 1813 and remained there in 1814.
In 1815, John Roberts' assessment was only $400, for half a house
and lot. The house next to the college was now in new hands. It is
likely that John Roberts had lived there since 1803, though the deed
from John McMillan to John Roberts was dated 1808. The deed of sale
is consistent to Roberts selling the property to Abraham Lattimore in
1815. Lattimore's assessment in 1815 was the same as John Roberts',
"half a house and lot," presumably the house we know as the Roberts
- Deed 1-U-351, John McMillan to John
Roberts, Aug. 31, 1808; deed 1-Z-150, John Roberts to Abraham
Lattimore, Mar. 23, 1815.
Charles Stotz included the Roberts House in his book on early
Western Pennsylvania architecture. He assigned the date 1804 to his
illustrations of the stone part of the house, but he included the
brick northeastern part on the plan with a note that ths part was
supposed to have replaced an earlier log or frame structure.
- Charles M. Stotz, The Architectural
Heritage of Early Western Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh, 1966),
Abraham Lattimore did not hold onto the property for long. He
sold it to Washington lawyer Joseph Pentecost in 1817. Pentecost, two
years later, deeded it, another town lot, and two out-lots to David
Hoge. Hoge had the property for ten years, selling it in 1829 to
- Deed 2-A-549, Abraham Lattimore to
Joseph Pentecost, May 1, 1817; deed 2-D-374, Joseph Pentecost to
David Hoge, Oct. 6, 1819; deed 2-N-1, David Hoge to Alexander
Short, Oct. 23, 1829.
Alexander Short conducted a store in the house, but in 1832 his
property was sold at auction by the county sheriff. The house was
purchased by John K. Wilson, who owned it until 1840. The next owner
was Matthew Brown, president of Jefferson College, who had moved to
Canonsburg from Washington in 1822. Brown had previously been pastor
of the Presbyterian church in Washington and president of Washington
While he was in Washington, he had acquired property there, which
he had retained. Brown exchanged five lots in Washington, plus one
dollar, to Wilson for the Roberts property, 80 or 85 feet on Main
Street and approximately 132 feet deep. Matthew Brown deeded the lot
to Jefferson College the same day, for $1600.
- Property of Alexander Short, by sheriff,
to John K. Wilson, Dec. 6, 1832; deed 2-Z-361, John K. Wilson to
Matthew Brown, May 13, 1840; deed 2-Z-362 Matthew Brown to
Trustees of Jefferson College, May 13, 1840.
The Roberts House was, for many years, the home of William Smith,
Professor of Greek and vice-president of Jefferson College. Ownership
was transferred to Washington and Jefferson College when the colleges
united in 1865. In 1868, W&J left the Canonsburg campus for
After a false start or two, an academy was established in the old
college buildings. It was first known as Canonsburg Academy, later
Jefferson Academy. W&J deeded property that had been owned by
Jefferson College in May 1874, including the Roberts House.
The academy divested itself of the Roberts House in 1882. The
purchaser was John Boon, and the property again was in private hands.
It continued to be a residence. At the turn-of-the-century, the
Snyder girls, Bettie and Natalie, lived there. They were maiden-lady
school teachers, the daughters of Henry Snyder, who had been a
professor at Jefferson College.
- Deed 5-B-375, Washington and Jefferson
College to The Canonsburg Academy, May 5, 1874; deed 5-W-375,
Canonsburg Academy to John Boon, July 12, 1882.
The drawing at left is from the Sanborn insurance map
published in 1913. The Roberts house is at 223-225 North
Central Avenue, below the North Central School. The drawing
of the house in the 1925 map book is in the box in the
property's back yard.
Above, left, is a drawing on the back of one of Force
Dunlevy's photographs of the Roberts house, made nearly
twenty years after the photograph was taken. He believed
that the original part of the house had been the 1791
college building. The source of the 1796 date is not known.
At right is a drawing of the Roberts House from Charles M.
Stotz's The Architectural Heritage of Early Western
In 1925, Miss Natalie Snyder undertook major renovations. An
addition and a new roof with dormers were constructed and at long
last, the building was wired for electricity.
- "Local Happenings," Notes, Sept. 2,
For many years, Huck Croker and his wife, Catherine Munnell
Croker, organist at the First Presbyterian Church, lived there. She
taught piano in the front room to the left of the front door, in the
stone part of the house.
The old house still stands, the last remaining college building.
Over the years it has been proposed repeatedly that the historical
society buy the property and rescue the venerable old building.
Unfortunately, the cost of restoration and upkeep would be beyond the
These photographs, taken in
August 1999, show the rear part of the house. The one at
left shows the northern side, along the alley; the one on
the right, the southern side. The front and rear of a VW
microbus can be seen in the respective photographs.
Note: Annotations are
included within the text, but differentiated by a bullet, type face,