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.