Monday, December 26, 2016

Threatened: Historic Homes in Turtle Creek

It's a common story.  Depressed urban neighborhoods are too often destroyed for the sake of what some consider "progress."  In this case, the controversial, long-awaited Mon-Fayette Expressway is planned to cut through the heart of Turtle Creek, a small, old, industrial borough. It's a rather despised rust-belt style place, if ever there was one. It's not close enough to the right side of city to be both gritty and trendy, and it's not quaint enough or rich enough to be a trendy small town. It was already partly destroyed once, in the 1960s, for an urban renewal project. Its business district was leveled. A lot of very anonymous modern architecture was erected in place of what once had been a historic little city. That was not an uncommon practice in the middle of the 20th century. Still, Turtle Creek has what remains of a 19th century residential neighborhood along Larimer Avenue. Predictably, that is the neighborhood that would be destroyed to build the expressway. That expressway, by the way, is a little redundant..

There is a debate about whether building this final leg of the MFE is a good idea or not. However, it would certainly not be a good thing for the borough of Turtle Creek to have a major highway going through the middle of town. It seems as though not too many people care about the future of Turtle Creek, though. Like many rust-belt villages with declining populations, the historic industrial character of the town is taken for granted, or unappreciated. The residents might wish to live in a modern, cul-de-sac style suburban location, in a vinyl McMansion. The old homes are neglected.  What remains of the business district is either vacant or underutilized. Walkable amenities are ignored. Given all of this, there is little to stand in the way of a project that would destroy the town and push more people out.  The question is, why aren't there more people who love their town, and are willing to fight for its existence and its history?  Is this apathy exclusive to western Pennsylvania?  

I photographed all of the houses that would be destroyed for the proposed MFE.  While the topic here is historic preservation, and the idea that these buildings should be saved, remember that the town itself is a special place, and deserves better than this. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Bellaire, Ohio

After exploring Wheeling for the first time in years, I decided to take a side-trip to nearby Bellaire, Ohio. Bellaire is a small rust-belt city that peaked in population in 1920, at about 15,000 people. Only about 4,000 people live in the town today. It still has the built environment of a real city, with tall buildings and an intact (if eerily empty) business district. Bellaire has the potential to be what it must have been in the not-too-distant past -- a vibrant urban place. However, whether because of population decline, changing tastes, suburbanization, or de-industrialization, this place is a ghost of its former self.  One does not have to have memories of the city to sense its former importance. The architecture tells the story.  The condition of these buildings today also tells something of the place's current economic situation. It looks downtrodden and forlorn, but it speaks to urbanists and historic preservationists who find the beauty in the industrial decay and the substantial old buildings.

A little about Bellaire's history from Wikipedia: "The first big boost for growth came with the construction of the Central Ohio Railway in 1853, later absorbed by the Baltimore and Ohio, and the Stone Viaduct Bridge (opened in 1871) that carried it to Wheeling, Virginia. The B&O reached Wheeling in January 1853, having started construction at Baltimore, Maryland in 1827. It was the means by which the East Coast city, a port on Chesapeake Bay, could connect with western markets and compete with New York City and the Erie Canal. Col. John Sullivan campaigned for the connection from Bellaire. The town was renamed Bellaire by the railroad company."

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Johnstown, Pennsylvania

Johnstown is a rust-belt city of some historical significance, forever associated with the tragic Johnstown Flood of 1889. That flood took over 2,200 lives and was one of the greatest disasters in American history.

Walking around the old city of Johnstown, which has declined in population from 67,000 at its peak in 1920, to just 20,000 people today, one can sense the ghosts of the past. There are countless historic buildings, some of which pre-date the great flood, and are documented with historical plaques indicating their significance. There are five National Historic Districts in the city of Johnstown.  I wandered around the downtown Johnstown Historic District, as well as the Old Conemaugh Borough Historic District, which is a mostly residential neighborhood adjacent to downtown. I also walked around the residential neighborhood directly south of downtown. Here are some of the highlights of my visit to this fascinating place. My favorite was the charming central square park, with fountain, in the heart of the city. 

A historic plaque in Johnstown ;)

Old Conemaugh Borough Historic District

Napoleon Street

Interesting Victorian Era dwellings are scattered around the central business district.

Old Conemaugh Borough Historic District

St. John Qualbert Cathedral - built 1896.

Old Conemaugh Borough Historic District

It would be easy, but not true, to say these historic buildings would have fared better in a more vibrant city than Johnstown.
In Pittsburgh, they replace these with apartments no working person can afford.

Old Conemaugh Borough Historic District

Downtown Johnstown Historic District

Napoleon Street

Johnstown YWCA

Napoleon Street

Fountain at downtown Johnstown's charming Central Park

Monday, April 25, 2016

ENDANGERED: Historic Homes in Spring Garden

On the city of Pittsburgh demolition list are two historic homes in the Spring Garden neighborhood (North Side). The listed properties are 1214 and 1219 Voskamp Street. There may still be some time to save these houses from demolition. They represent important urban vernacular, and their preservation is essential to the historic character of Pittsburgh's working class neighborhoods. Spring Garden is one of the oldest surviving neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, but also one of the more distressed. There are many vacant and deteriorating homes in the district. Homes end up on the demolition list simply because of absentee building owners, unpaid taxes, and neglect. Some of these houses are not beyond repair.

If you are interested in saving one of these houses, please contact the city and persuade them to delay demolition while you attempt to contact the building's owner and purchase the property. If the property's owner cannot be located, you can try to arrange to buy the property with help from the city.
1214 Voskamp Street (on demolition list)

1219 Voskamp Street (on demolition list)

I blogged about the house at 1214 Voskamp Street first in 2012. Conditions were bad then, and the house was in a state of neglect. Sadly, no one stepped forward to purchase or renovate the house, and the owner continued to let the property decline. The taxes have been paid on the house, and hopefully a potential buyer could still contact and negotiate to buy the property from the owner. One should assess the property's condition and viability of restoration before purchasing, however.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Downtown McKeesport Mansion For Sale

For Sale in downtown #McKeesport. 559 Shaw Ave. Grand, historic turn of the century house, zoned commercial. Solid bones. Needs complete restoration. Call 412-401-3585. Most woodwork is intact. Owner is asking $8,700. I hope someone who loves old houses will buy it.

McKeesport Vernacular

"A district of wooden two-story, two and three bay gable workers' homes east of Walnut St. on Penny Ave., Ninth Ave., Jenny Lind Ave., Olive St. and Grant St. in the Second Ward is worthy of note. These simple, rapidly deteriorating structures deserve attention as a group; their number and age (c. 1880) make them valuable." -- PHLF McKeesport Historic Building Survey (1981).

Photographed 30 years later, in 2011. Today, those that still stand are often in a state of complete abandonment and decay.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Braddock Vernacular

It seems that the historic architecture of the Mon Valley is seldom appreciated or even acknowledged.  It is rare to find documentation or historic interest in modest vernacular structures. Most of the attention is given to substantial commercial buildings or grand homes, when it is given at all.

Here we have a small sample of the historic working class architecture in Braddock and North Braddock, which I feel represents the essence and character of the town, as well as the greater Mon Valley. 

Wilkinsburg: Early Housing

This is likely one of the earliest urban dwellings in Wilkinsburg, and possibly built circa 1830s or 1840s. It seems to have been designed for a village setting, making it unique among the other surviving homes of the era, which tend to be larger farmhouses. Little seems to be known about the early frontier town history of Wilkinsburg. This home tells us something.

Endangered: East End

I don't usually write about the East End, because I feel like it is so trendy and happening nowadays that it doesn't necessarily need a champion. Of course, that doesn't apply to depressed East End neighborhoods like Garfield, Hazelwood, Larimer, Lincoln-Lemington, or Homewood, but certainly the overall perception of the East End seems to be that it is prospering and, unfortunately, gentrifying.  My heart has always been with the neighborhoods that were in need of attention and stewardship and advocacy. I never cared much about the places that everyone else cared about, for better or worse.

Right now, in the growing sections of the city, there is a trend to knock down the old buildings and replace them with new, modern structures. Sometimes that may be acceptable, if not ideal. Some old buildings (admittedly few) may not seem to be worthy candidates of preservation. That is, until you factor in how green it is to recycle and adaptively re-use old buildings for new purposes, or until you look beyond the beautiful (or ugly) appearance or condition of a building, and consider the history that building may have witnessed. An old building can tell many stories, and some of those stories are untold. Is there enough focus on racial history, gay history, immigrant history, labor history, or industrial history among our landmark buildings?

Currently, there are many endangered buildings in the city. We lost a few recently on Forbes Avenue downtown for the new Point Park development, and on Penn Avenue in the East Liberty Commercial Historic District for an upscale apartment building (I blogged about both here). The East Liberty district was a National Historic District, but not recognized as a city historic district. If it had been recognized by the city, the buildings would have had a better chance at survival. As it turned out, the prospect of new development won out over the more noble cause of preservation, but where money is concerned, that is too often the case.

In Bloomfield, the Albright Church on Centre Avenue is endangered. A developer intends to demolish the structure and build a drive-through Starbucks on the site. There is currently an effort to have the church listed as a historic landmark by the city, which would theoretically protect it from impending doom. Hopefully, this handsome building will not be sacrificed for the retail whims of the East End, where there are already several other coffee shops within walking distance!

Albright Church, Centre Avenue, Pittsburgh. Photographed by writer 2/25/16
Also on Centre Avenue, in North Oakland, is a block of intact, if disheveled, late Victorian era homes. These are not ordinary houses, but rather handsome and well-built examples of the type. I'll let my photographs speak for the architectural integrity and quality. Note the deteriorated conditions, representative of the lack of investment in much of the older housing in this district close to universities and hospitals, and known to many as "student slums." The property here commands high value and rent, because it is close to so much, which is what has prompted a developer's plans to build an upscale apartment building on the block.  This development would sacrifice these potentially beautiful historic homes.

In closing, many older buildings remain threatened in the Pittsburgh area, of which these are just a few. What is significant is that these buildings are not in depressed locations, but in gentrifying neighborhoods. It seems that even in the most prosperous urban neighborhoods, there is a disturbing trend to replace the historic architectural fabric with modern crap. 


One of Allegheny County's oldest intact urban villages, Sharpsburg contains a fascinating collection of some of the region's oldest urban dwellings.

One can imagine what some of downtown Pittsburgh's early buildings might have looked like by visiting Sharpsburg.