Thursday, December 10, 2015

Scenes from McKeesport: The Disappearing Mill Town Vernacular

This is a collection of four years worth of photographs documenting the crumbling historic buildings of McKeesport, where I live. I created this video with the goal of educating people about the historic architecture of McKeesport, and encouraging preservation of these structures.

*NOTE: This video does not cover the more stable, newer sections of McKeesport on the periphery of the city. This video is about the oldest and most historically significant sections of the city, which are threatened by long-term neglect and demolition.

Music by: Sufjan Stevens ("Redford") and Coldplay ("The Scientist").

Toledo - Vistula Historic District

Vistula Historic District. Toledo, Ohio.

This is not in Pittsburgh, but I thought you would appreciate a small sample of the architecture in Toledo's oldest neighborhood.

Lost Historic Home in Hays


This beautiful, well-preserved 19th century home on Mifflin Road in the Hays neighborhood of Pittsburgh was apparently demolished recently for a road construction project. I drove by the site three times to make sure it was really gone, and now I'm just glad I took this photograph of the house in 2013. We never know how long historic homes will be with us, even when they are in outstanding condition and as well-loved as this one seemed to be. This is why I do what I do. I want people to develop an appreciation for the old buildings around them, so they can be appreciated while they are still with us. Only those that see value in history will see that it is spared from demolition.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Jeannette, Pennsylvania

This house in Jeannette caught my eye. I love how it sits right up next to the street, in the downtown area. They don't make houses like this any more, do they?  Now we all must pay a premium and live in expensive lofts, if we expect to reside downtown. In Jeannette, you can buy a house in the business district. This house in this little town seems so much more urban in spirit to me than, say, a four square in Squirrel Hill.

McKeesport, PA

McKeesport, once the vital, prosperous heart of the Mon Valley, America's Steel Capital, and the largest city therein. Now, largely a ghost city, where the ruins of the past convey more than words possibly could. There is a haunting energy here, a hopelessness, and a tragic, quiet beauty. McKeesport is where I choose to live, and where I find constant inspiration. 

Abandoned church

The intriguing mill town vernacular

Woods Run (North Side)

Photographs by writer -- Fall of 2015. The Woods Run district of the North Side contains many disheveled, working class homes from the Victorian era. As such, it is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. It is here that my interests in labor and immigant history and small Victorian homes converge.

Woods Run Ave.

Woods Run Ave.

Lecky Ave.

Lecky Ave.

Lecky Ave.

Lecky Ave.

Woods Run Ave.

Woods Run Ave.

Grand Ave.

1115 Grand Ave. (For Sale, as of 11/2/15)

Manchester (North Side)

Photographs by writer - Fall of 2015. This is the Manchester neighborhood on the North Side of Pittsburgh, which contains many notably well-preserved Victorian era homes. In the 1960s, this was the neighborhood to which Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation devoted much preservation advocacy and restoration work, saving many old houses.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015


The Uptown section of Pittsburgh has the distinction of being adjacent and walkable to downtown Pittsburgh, and has the added distinction of containing a residential section with some of the city's oldest surviving houses.
When the Lower Hill was demolished as part of a mid-century urban renewal project, Pittsburgh lost its greatest and most historic neighborhood adjacent to downtown (downtown being the original and oldest part of the city). However, the Strip District and Uptown remained, and today are dotted with the remnants of the historical residential neighborhood that has gradually been eroded by parking lots, hospital expansions, university expansions, and the blight of the modern age. Uptown is our focus here, and still contains some very old houses.
Since I moved to Pittsburgh in 2007, I have seen countless architecturally and historically valuable homes demolished in the Uptown section of the city. Some were demolished for parking, others were lost due to the city's backwards demolition program, which encourages houses that are abandoned and tax delinquent to be relegated only to demolition lists, instead of given a new life with new owners! One can only imagine how many homes even older than these might have been lost over the decades.
Here we have surviving pieces of a puzzle that was once a walkable downtown residential neighborhood; a neighborhood that was deemed unfashionable and, for the most part, thrown away. Even the beautiful surviving homes are often in extreme disrepair. There is hope that this neighborhood will see continued revitalization, and not at the expense of the fabulous old housing stock.

Circa 1870s. Forbes Avenue.

Circa 1860s

Circa 1860s

Circa 1860s. Chatham Square.

Dutch Lutheran Church on Pride Street - 1872.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Demolition Planned in North Oakland

In the 4500 block of Centre Avenue (North Oakland) is a row of five handsome 1890s Victorian homes. At 4504 Centre is this large house, which I photographed in 2011. Soon these beautiful old houses will be demolished for a new housing development. The revitalization of Pitsburgh can be bittersweet. While some historic buildings are preserved, others are destroyed for new development. It is hard to imagine a development that could be more attractive than these five homes, even in their somewhat neglected condition.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Closing and First Projects at Woods Cottage: June - July, 2015

In June, 2015, I closed on my first major scale preservation and renovation project: a small 1880s frame house in the Woods Run section of the North Side of Pittsburgh. I named the house "Woods Cottage" in reference to the name of the street it's on, and the size of the house.

Clearing away yard debris and dirt that was piled against the back wall of the house.
As I surveyed the scene upon arrival to the house the first evening after closing, I noticed countless potential repairs that were needed. It was overwhelming, to say the least. At the same time, I was filled with excitement and optimism as I considered the adventures that were to come, restoring what was in essence my dream house.

My obsession with urban, working class, industrial, labor, and immigrant history all converge in the history of this little house. The Woods Run section of Pittsburgh (originally Allegheny City) was an urban industrial neighborhood which was mostly populated by European immigrants. It was seemingly always a low income district, as newspaper articles from the turn of the century report the slum conditions and poverty present in the neighborhood at the time. Much of the poverty may have been relegated to the original neighborhood, surrounding Western Penitentiary, which was demolished during a mid-century urban renewal project.  Still, the further east portions of the Woods Run District, closer to Brighton Road, were populated and built up during this time. This is the area in which my little house has withstood over a century of urban decline and neglect.

The living room and ornate staircase.

As I considered the significant expenses involved in the restoration of the house, that day after closing, all of these thoughts crossed my mind. In spite of the costs involved, the house deserved to be saved and cherished, rather than thrown away, like so many other modest older homes in Pittsburgh.

Original shutters

Original wood four-panel door and hardware

Like homes that I have seen on city demolition lists, Woods Cottage was in a marginal state of repair. If it had been neglected for just a few more years, the roof would have inevitably failed, and potential repair costs would have drastically increased. Home renovation costs are sometimes higher than the after-repair value of a home, particularly in depressed neighborhoods. This means that many homes are consigned to demolition lists, if their after-repair value or value as a rental property is not sufficient to make a profit. I have hope that I have caught this house in time, and that repairs now will be sufficient to preserve the house for the remainder of my lifetime and beyond.  I also believe that the house has not reached the point where its after-repair value is less than the cost of a sensible and practical restoration.  More importantly, the house is historic, and deserves to be restored for reasons other than profit! 

View showing the cliff and landing, after it was cleared of trees and overgrowth.
My first step was to prioritize needed repairs. The roof on the house was at least 30 years-old. While the front portion was intact, the rear side of the roof had been compromised by debris and leaves falling on it from overhanging trees. This debris was not cleaned off the roof for many years, and caused some rot.  I immediately hired a contractor to install a tarp over the back of the roof, until I could address other problems and have a new roof installed.

Next priority was a huge Oak tree overhanging the house. Behind the house is a small cliff, with many trees sitting on the edge. There were numerous branches hanging over the house, some with vines hanging down and touching the roof.  I intended to have the Oak tree pruned, as there appeared to be some dead branches.  This proved to be a daunting task. As I met many tree experts, each one told me of the dangers the tree presented. Many told me that the tree was unsafe and needed to be taken down.  I was given quotes to remove the tree, which were above $4,000.  According to inspectors, the tree had two trunks, which meant that the tree could fall at any moment. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps I had received quotes from unscrupulous tree guys, who were perhaps looking to make money and cut down a tree that did not need to be taken down. This was my hope, anyway, as I really did not want to spend a fortune removing a tree!  Needless to say, this became a huge dilemma, and my stress levels were already high.

 I was fortunate to receive advice from an arborist who worked for the city, thanks to a friend who provided a referral on my blog. I was assured that the tree was healthy, and removal was unnecessary, although trimming was advised.  This eased my fears for the time being, and I was confident enough to move on to other projects. 

Of paramount importance, aside from the tree and roof, was removing the large amount of dirt and yard debris which had been piled against the back wall of the house. This was necessary in order to prevent and discourage rot, moisture, and wood destroying insects from attacking the house.

A friend helping me clean up yard debris near "the cliff." These steps go up to a landing adjacent to the cliff behind the house, which connects to a rear porch on the house. The landing was completely overgrown with trees and brush.
Brick walkway and patio discovered underneath decades of dirt!

The interior of the house was also filled with junk. I was told that the previous owner was a hoarder. Sadly, there was little of value among the many items stored in the house. As a collector of vintage items and antiques, I was hoping that there would be some valuables hidden in the junk, which would have offset restoration costs. I was not so lucky!  I did salvage some 1950s metal kitchen stools, a small maple end table, a vintage Sears vaccuum, and assorted small, kitschy items. Friends also came to take some of the things I did not have use for. The junk hauler took the rest.  Within a couple weeks, the house had been emptied, except for the basement, and the yard cleared..Underneath decades of dirt piled behind the house was a beautiful brick walkway and patio.

The junk inside

There is still junk to be removed from the basement, as the basement stairway steps are in disrepair. This is a small project that my dad will help me with. He also agreed to help me repair the toilet, replace the exterior doors with antique wood four-panel doors, and other assorted repairs. My dad has always been a huge help with old properties I've purchased. He is a true handyman, skilled in almost every form of building repair, and always taught me to do things right.

Close-up of trim profile and fiber cement siding.

This last evening, noticed some carpenter ants around the exterior of the house. I was able to find some ant traps at Home Depot, and placed them around the perimeter of the house. Hopefully, this will be sufficient until I am able to have the house completely treated for potential insect pests.

As I look forward to tackling the two biggest projects as of now, the roof and the tree trimming, I am also aware of the looming electrical inspection. The utilities have been off for some time, and I will soon be turning them on, one at a time. First will come the updating of the electrical. Next will come inspection of the (newer) furnace, and the plumbing system, which is fortunately intact.

I will continue to provide updates here over the next several months, until the house is up and running. I hope to have this project mostly completed by next summer, but if expenses run over-budget, I may not meet that goal.  Either way, the house is saved, and I love it.

Woods Cottage, circa 1880s, is my first major preservation project. It is the first property I've bought that has needed complete rehab.  It was originally owned by a teamster, Philip Shoup, and his wife, Maria. They lost it at Sheriff sale in the 1890s. It was later owned by a German immigrant bartender, Edward Buehn, who purchased it in 1896. It had many other interesting owners and occupants throughout the 20th century. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Etna, PA (Photo Tour)

Etna, one of the older surviving urban villages in Allegheny County, was originally known as Stewartstown. The village came into being around 1820, in conjuction with a factory producing "scythes and sickles," according to The History of Allegheny County by Thomas Cushing (1885). This factory later became the Spang Steel and Iron Company. The Spang Mansion of circa 1828 still stands on Locust Street in Etna. Etna is a fascinating place to walk around and explore, due to the abundance of very old homes, some perhaps dating to the early or mid 19th century.  Many of these homes have been remodeled or covered with aluminum or vinyl siding, which makes it difficult to identify their age. Etna, being a working class type of town, does not have many grand homes. Like neighboring Sharpsburg, it is an excellent and intact example of a 19th century urban industrial village.

Spang Mansion, circa 1828

My guess is this is one of the older frame houses in the town.