Notable buildings

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 House.

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.

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 Alexander Short.

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 College.

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.

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 Washington.

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.


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 Pennsylvania.

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.

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 society's means.


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, and color.