Unlocking Pittsburgh’s Past and Personality

savannah1Home preservation in the United States is somewhat of a conundrum. From the eyes of a European, there may not be anything old here to save. From the eyes of many an American, the value is too often in remaking rather than restoring.

That hasn’t kept others from trying to save old buildings and preserve a sense of the past for the future. Sometimes one old building is saved and in rare instances, buildings are preserved in some sort of context.

With eyes on a preserved, stately Southern city called Savannah, I have a friend who has spent a large part of his adult life trying to restore a small neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Full of character and architecture, there was a time when Savannah was nothing special, at least not so compared to other towns like it. What gave Savannah its appeal was that the towns around it changed while it grasped onto the way it was, or if not that, worked to preserve what it had.

Like many neighborhoods in Pittsburgh today, there was a point in Savannah when the future stood before it like a fork in the road. In fact, prior to 1950, many buildings that would have later (and even then) been labeled as “historic” were demolished for parking lots. The historic “squares,” that made up the city were increasingly seen as impediments to traffic flow. The demolition and threat to demolish several significant buildings prompted seven Georgia women, to create the Historic Savannah Foundation, which set the city on the course to the preserved gem it exists as today.

Savannah is not alone in standing as a national treasure that almost wasn’t. Places we can’t imagine the United States without including Grand Central Terminal and San Francisco’s cable cars were at one point or another threatened with destruction.

Pittsburgh may have crossed such an axis a few years ago when a plan threatened to destroy several blocks of downtown known as the Fifth-Forbes corridor in order to create an urban mall. Forces that included the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation successfully fought the plan. [During that time, some was lost as well. The interior of the great Mellon Bank building was destroyed to transform its cavernous spaces into a department store, which subsequently closed. Likewise had the Lawrence Paint near Station Square building stood another decade it would surely appeal to the loft developers who have transformed the Heinz factory and soon the Armstrong Cork Factory in the Strip District.]

These of course are big projects, often larger than life. No less important is each homeowner who decides to preserve a piece of history.

Today a new interest in urban lifestyles has spawned more preservation of the city’s homes on the part of individuals and community development corporations. Some are restored on the outside and brought up to modern standards on the inside. Some are built new to mimic their century-old counterparts. And a select few are sensitively preserved to reflect the lifestyles of their earliest occupants.

alleghenywest1As many owners of historic homes will tell you, home preservation is much more than staying the same. It’s about restoring, but also about uncovering and renewing. There is the obvious: stairways and doors and mantles and windows. There are also the stories. If you’ve seen the movie, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, you’ll know the stories give the city of Savannah as much of its appeal as the buildings.

And so owning an old home is about recreating a space, but it’s also about uncovering the personalities of the past and sometimes even bringing those personalities to life in the present day.

Pittsburgh certainly has more than the personalities it needs to bring its history to life. We’ve touched the surface by visiting two homes to which countless hours have been devoted painting, sanding, restoring, rebuilding and uncovering. Each house has its own architectural dignity, and yet into that house was also built some of the personalities of those who at some point left their mark on its walls.

I’ve heard it said that there is less interest in preservation in Pittsburgh than in many areas of the country. Perhaps that’s because we’ve had the necessity for change pounded into our psyche for at least a century.

[Our geography, which limits our available land, has blessed us in a way with less of the “sprawl” problem much of the country faces. Over the years, it’s also meant we lacked space to build and so instead chose to rebuild. From Gateway Center to Allegheny Center to Penn Circle in East Liberty, large parcels of our history have been completely removed from the landscape. This is not to minimize the great preservation work that has been done.]

From the Duquesne Inclines and Station Square to the homes in the Mexican War Streets and Penn Station, our city is alive today with countless examples of Preservation successes.

Yet some say they are far too few, that we as a city are unaware of our history and don’t see the necessity of preserving it. It’s hard to imagine what we could be without it.

Pittsburgh is known world-over for its industrial might. Many of us think of our history in terms of the industrial age, a time of smoke and soot to which we don’t wish to return. Overshadowed by the age of steel, we are unaware of what existed here before. Certainly the history of Pittsburgh is one where the rise of steel is perhaps the most important historical incident. Yet the rise of the industrial age was so dramatic it virtually wiped away the Pittsburgh that had been here.

[Most houses in Pittsburgh we think of as old date to the 1890s. Those are on the Northside, Southside, Bloomfield, Lawrenceville and to a lesser extent Oakland, Shadyside, Hill District and other areas. If we move back to the 1850s, there are far fewer examples, mostly on the Northside or Southside. Back then of course Northside and Southside weren’t Pittsburgh, they were the cities of Birmingham and Allegheny. Pittsburgh of course had these houses too. Many of the free-standing restored old houses from this period and earlier we find today were actually summer houses for people who lived in the city, often in what is now downtown Pittsburgh.]

Today there is a big push to get people living in downtown Pittsburgh, yet we are unaware there was a time when there were as many houses in downtown Pittsburgh as businesses. Time has changed that of course, as well as much of the cities of Birmingham and Allegheny.

Finding a free-standing house in Pittsburgh or in older towns surrounding built before 1850 is rare. Finding one built before 1830 is extremely uncommon. Yet they are there. It takes a little knowledge of architecture and some imagination to remove the years of additions, sidings and remodeling to find them, but every once in a while someone has the foresight, initiative and skill to uncover one, unlocking not only some of Pittsburgh’s architectural history, but revealing some of her personality as well.

Preserving A Home and Changing Landscape

Nestled behind trees and atop a well known street sat a house covered in insulbrick. So many of its details were removed the history of a home on Pittsburgh’s Spring Hill was far from apparent. It had once sat alone, now surrounded by houses built after 1900. The sidewalk leading to the front street had been removed. Stories passed down over the years reveal that was because a previous owner had distaste for salesmen knocking at the door.

The homes present owner had seen what her brother having fun restoring an old home, and having retired, wanted to find one of her own and relocate to Pittsburgh from her condo outside Washington DC.

The change in both the lifestyle and living space we see today could hardly be more dramatic. We found our way to the home off an alleyway. We pulled into a circular driveway and parked near a welcoming porch. I had been to the home before and on each occasion, except one, the garage door was open. Each time I entered through the garage and found the brother of the owner busy working on one project or another. The exception was an open house reception held a year or so before. This day the garage door was closed. It was apparent we were to ascend the front staircase and enter through the red door at the front of the house.

This door had undoubtedly been opened many times, and many different eyes looked out onto its wide porch. Today we saw the pride in ownership and accomplishment in the faces as the door pulled open.

hetzel1The past came alive as we entered into the front hall. Eyes that undoubtedly looked onto visitors in previous decades now glanced at them from inside gold frames. Paintings lining the wall revealed the stories of the homes earliest days. Not long after purchase, it had been discovered the home was owned by John Hetzel, the brother of George Hetzel, a well known landscape painter from Pittsburgh.

The front hall was set up as a “Hetzel memorial” with a reproduction of a painting of Carolyn Hetzel, the wife of John, hanging in a location that seemed to provide her with the continued ability to greet visitors.

Alongside the stairway hangs a portrait of George Hetzel. While there is no known painting of John Hetzel, it is assumed the walls of the home were decorated with some of his brother’s work, which the present owners have been working to return to the house.

It’s said we can find our passion at any time during life and come upon it quite by chance. The present owner began her collection after acquiring the house. She didn’t know who George Hetzel was and never intended to restore a home with such precision and attention to period furnishings. That started with the house, a house history she received as a Christmas gift from her brother, and a subsequent trip to the Westmoreland Museum of Art, the location of some of George Hetzels most notable work.

We moved from the hall into the dining room, a space that may have actually served as a parlor in earlier years. The room is lined with wallpaper that, the owner points out, may seem ostentatious to the modern viewer but was not uncommon for a middle-class home of the 1870s. Just as modern styling favors beige and white walls, fashion of the period preferred colorful and detailed wallpaper.

The room has been decorated with many inherited and some acquired period furnishings. A later neo-classical mantle had been removed and replaced with a more appropriate marble one with simpler lines. The long table leads to a door, a door which exists as a modern replica. It looks like it belongs, yet the area behind it wasn’t built until the 1950s.

We toured a kitchen with all the modern amenities. Like most people who fall for old houses, the taste for kitchens and bathrooms from any era other than our own, isn’t acquired. “I like to cook and entertain,” the home’s owner explained justifying her decision to create a modern kitchen.

We ascended the stairway, passing more paintings to tour the bedrooms. Much of the upstairs had also been reconstructed to better support sagging floors and add a bathroom. The rooms remain as future decorating projects, but not until after the parlor, the next room to be decorated. Downstairs, we entered the parlor and sat with our backs to an old map of the City of Allegheny, a map that marks the site of the Hetzel property. We looked through some scrap books chronicling the homes progress. We saw the insulbrick covering being removed, the clapboard siding, much of it suffering from years of water damage, being replaced and the outline of many decorative brackets, long ago removed, now replicated and soon to be returned.

hetzel2The owner explained that she had been looking for a house for quite some time. Returning to Washington DC from a house-searching trip, she received a call from her brother. “You need to come back to Pittsburgh,” he said. “I found a house.”

Built between 1867 and 1869, the house was last acquired in April, 2002. It took two people working full-time to get the home into a habitable state by October of 2003. “I fell in love with Pittsburgh and decided to move here,” our homeowner said recalling her urban condo in Washington, DC. “The other day I looked out and saw a fawn frolicking in the brush.” Yet on Spring Hill, her one acre estate is minutes from Downtown Pittsburgh.

When George Hetzel was painting the landscape scenes in Western Pennsylvania, he was trying to capture rapidly disappearing settings. The industrial age was spreading factories across the landscape. Mining was disrupting pristine settings and contaminants were polluting air and water.
I couldn’t help but think how appropriate it was then to preserve this home, one of so few of its kind still remaining in our region.

A Southern Estate

Long before industrialists built there mansions along Fifth Avenue and long before transportation afforded the living in such places as could be called “suburbs,” before industrial growth changed the fabric and psyche of a city, Pittsburgh was enjoying early prosperity and had grown to a town of about 300 people.

Merchants had built townhomes in what is now Gateway Center, Neville Island was an asparagus farm and large estates lined the hillsides and surrounding lands.

One such estate was that of John Neville. Neville was a general and a former commandant of Fort Pitt. He didn’t live in this estate located near present-day Bridgeville full time. Spending time at his town home near the present-day Post-Gazette building in downtown Pittsburgh and in Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital, Neville built the first building on a five thousand acre estate around 1775. It would be expanded and become known as “Woodville.”

In those days it may have taken a half day to travel from downtown Pittsburgh. The trip from Philadelphia would have taken more than a week.

Not long after building Woodville, John built a second home on nearby Bower Hill and gave Woodville to his son Presley.

woodville1From the first log building, generations have added to the house and a walk through the interior reveals an unfamiliar way of life. The Virginia origins of its first inhabitants are apparent from the steep roof and dormers well up on its slopes.

We entered the center hallway with wide plank floors and early tile coverings and entered a parlor. In a house this old, not much is what it seems. It was explained that the parlor wasn’t likely to be part of the original home and the center hall would have been used for several purposes.

“The hallway would have been used for reading or playing cards in the evening,” our guide Rob Windhorst explained. With a door opening onto two sides of the house, the hall would provide a breeze and cool retreat away from hot sun and warm kitchen.

While it may seem like a modern invention, I found it curious the parlor had wall-to-wall carpeting. Our guides explained that it dates to the 1750s. It currently is lined with a modern Brussels carpet, woven in England to a design of the late eighteenth century, while the furniture is of the period but not of the house. The wallpaper reproduces one actually used in the parlor, with a few needed rolls discovered by chance.

Also notable is the generous size of the rooms. The parlor in particular is large by modern standards and the furnishings seem far apart. What we see as a parlor would have had multiple purposes, however. It wasn’t uncommon to see a new four-poster bed inconspicuously placed in a main room in part in order to display it as a sign of wealth and prosperity. With as many as nine children living in the house at one time, there was much need for space.

woodville2Next we entered what was now decorated as a dining room. The room is painted in a glossy green color, chosen to liven up the evening hours. This was a time before electricity. The glaze is the result of a copper-based lead paint which was intended to magnify the light from the candles. At the time, candles were so expensive they were traded as a commodity in Philadelphia. The cost was 36 cents a dozen at a time when a laborer made 50 cents a day. Except in public buildings, rooms lacked overhead lighting in part because candles were too expensive to leave burning and were instead carried on sticks throughout the house.

We noticed panes of glass in the windows with names scratched in them. It was common for visitors to scratch their names in the glass using a diamond. It would seem remarkable in such a center for glass making such as Pittsburgh that these panes survived. Later many small panes such as the ones that make up the windows in Neville would have been replaced with larger panes and technology and wealth afforded. A short-lived glass tax in 1797 also might have enticed their removal.

The room that seems most awkward to the modern eye is the kitchen. A kitchen in a house of this era was rarely “in” the house, rather next to it. Absent modern amenities, such a room was likely to be hot an unpleasant. Before refrigeration, animals that were to be consumed or in the process of being consumed were nearby, and once slaughtered, hung on a hook.

The kitchen also posed some danger. A fire in this room would have been burning day and night, and the potential for calamity was great. The kitchen at Woodville, is now attached to the house, but that’s because a later addition filled the space between the home and kitchen.

John Neville’s nearby home at Bower Hill was destroyed soon after its construction by local farmers who rebelled against a tax on Whiskey by burning the home of a tax collector, John Neville.

Woodville met no such fate.

In 1973 Mary Wrenshall Fauset, the last occupant, died, and Woodville stood deserted. In 1976, though, the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation bought the house from the Wrenshalls and sought a means of saving it. Landmarks and willing friends have since brought Woodville, one of eight National Historic Landmarks in Allegheny County, to its present state.

woodville3Did You Know?

If you’re one of those in Allegheny County upset about property tax today, consider the types of tax’s that existed in the late 18th Century. The tax on Whiskey that lead to a rebellion in 1794, tax’s were placed chimneys, closets and even panes of glass.

John Neville wanted to limit the number of chimneys in order to lessen his tax burden. To accomplish this he built several openings at the base of each chimney.

Closets were also taxed as rooms. The space under the stairway has a closet original to the house. This would have been a symbol of opulence to visitors.

Luckily a tax on panes of glass was short lived. This fortunately didn’t result in replacing the small panes of glass for one larger one. If it had, recorded history in the form of etchings scratched into the windows would have been lost.

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