Patient work provides big key for retired couple


“Do you cut keys?” the customer asked the clerk. The customer must be smiling inwardly if not outwardly, because the clerk is standing right near the key cutting machine.


“Yes,” the clerk answers.


And that’s when the smile grows. The customer, who happens to own and live in a house built between 1772 and 1776, pulls out a key about 8 inches long. It’s the key to his front door.


That customer is Robert J. Cook, a resident along Cook Road, Washington Township, Fayette County, just south of the Westmoreland County line. He smiles for many reasons.


First, he’s living in one of the oldest houses in western PA. As owner of a house that was nearing completion as Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence, Mr. Cook has both the patience to work on a long restoration process and a vision of what the old house has been.


House first built by Edward Cook


While traveling on Rehoboth Road, just east of Belle Vernon, the old Cook house is visible with its precise red tin roof. There’s a lot of history packed into the eleven-room, stone structure.


Located near Rehoboth Road and I-70, we can see the most visible sign of the long history behind the house. That reminder, a historical plaque placed by the Commonwealth of PA Museum Commission in 1994, commemorates Col Edward Cook and his role in the whiskey rebellion of 1794. After being prominent in public meetings that preceded the insurrection, Cook had the class to turn himself in to Thomas McKean, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, before the warrant for his arrest could be served.


According to the History of Fayette County, by Franklin Ellis, published in Philadelphia by L H Everts and Company, 1882, Col. Cook built the house on the 402-acre Mansion tract. The book also states, “Edward Cook was one of the most extensive landowners in Southwestern Pennsylvania” and estimates his landholdings at 3,000 acres.


Rented out but never sold outside the Cook family


The present occupants of the house have had their hands full from the beginning. Robert Cook grew up in the house with his family but the house has had many occupants between those days and now. It even sat empty and unoccupied for eight years before Robert and his wife Marlene, moved in.


Robert describes at least eight major areas of work he’s addressed to bring the house to it’s present state.


1. The basement has been deepened with new concrete footers and floor poured.

2. Sagging floors have been jacked up and new supports added.

“They used very good material in the original construction,” says Mr. Cook. “But their technique was poor.” He found that supporting walls on the second floor were not places above weight bearing walls on the first floor.

3. New tin roof installed.

4. The outside masonry has been pointed / restored.

5. The windows are being restored. To preserve and reuse the original glass, which Cook believes was imported from England, the windows have been remanufactured following the pattern of the original materials. They have completed several window restorations, but have a further number to go.

6. Heating. In Mr. Cooks memory, there have been four different heating systems including the present gas/hot water system.

7. Wiring. The house, where it had been wired, included knob and tube wiring. Part of the process of rewiring included cutting groves in the plaster for new wiring.

8. The interior woodwork has been restored.

Part of this process included recording the profile of the original chair rail, door moldings, fire place trim and using new wood made to match the old.


How has he had the patience to work with all those craftsmen who are used to building new, such as plastering contractor who wanted to remake it like a new house, squaring up corners that were not completely plumb and square?


“It’s a labor of love” states Mr. Cook. “And the time I had preparing for this restoration has made me more careful.” Though his wife disagrees.


“You have always wanted to preserve things,” she says. And the retired USAirways mechanic agrees.


When will the restoration be complete? It is unlikely that it will be done in his lifetime, but Robert J. Cook plans to pass a strong heritage to other family members. And the house is only part of that family tradition.



For more on Edward Cook and his career as a merchant, civil servant, judge and landowner, see the web page Robert J. Cook the current home owner, is also active in the Rostraver Township Historical Society.




The Cook homestead in Washington Township, Fayette County, Belle Vernon, PA. One source says: “In 1772 [Edward Cook] began the erection of a pretentious mansion, constructing it entirely of the limestone that was found in abundance on his land.”






Antique hunters took the original key and lock but Mr. Cook found one he feels is quite close to the lock installed in 1776 when occupants first moved into the house. He likes to tease hardware clerks by asking them to duplicate this one for him.






The window wells which penetrate thick stone walls make a nice setting for seasonal decorations in the Cook house in Belle Vernon, PA.














Restoration involved uncovering two centuries of remodeling. Here Mr. Cook describes how this huge wedge-shaped fireplace looked when he started restoration. The stone mason replaced several missing stones to bring the appearance back to “original.”


David Hiebert

311 Market

Scottdale, PA 15683