Architecture: Pittsburgh history in 10 houses
We can learn a lot about our region’s history from studying the houses and, conversely, can understand why our houses look the way they do by understanding a little of their histories. Here are 10 houses from the 1770s to the 1970s that help tell the story of Pittsburgh.
Log houses, 1770s
The first settlers in our area were English and then Scots-Irish, and they are the ones who built the nascent city, originally with log houses. When Pittsburgh became a borough in 1794, eight of every 10 houses were still made of logs. The best of them had two stories and plastered interiors. This more rustic log farmhouse, one of two preserved in Schenley Park, belonged in the 1770s to a Robert Neill and his family.
Stylish farmhouses, early 1800s
As our region prospered with shipbuilding and then iron and glass factories, so too did farms on the periphery of the city. As early as 1800, landowners were building substantial and stylish brick houses. The Gilfillan family was one of the earliest to settle the South Hills, and this farmhouse was built in 1855 with a touch of the then-trendy Greek Revival style by third-generation family member John Gilfillan and his wife, Eleanor. It is now home to the Historical Society of Upper St. Clair.
Brick townhouses, 1850s
Pittsburgh grew rapidly in the 1800s as industry began to define the city. Quickly built wooden houses proliferated. Then, on April 10, 1845, the city burned. In seven hours, some 60 acres and 1,200 buildings were destroyed across much of what is now Downtown. Masonry became standard afterward. Small brick houses were built Downtown after the fire, about 1850. They have somehow survived on Strawberry Way among the city’s forest of modern day skyscrapers.
Millworker housing, 1870s
The novel “Out of This Furnace” describes early steelworker houses as little more than hovels in a slightly fictionalized account of three generations of a Slovak millworker family in Braddock. Substandard housing persisted well into the 1920s and ’30s. The Scots-Irish and the Germans — the earliest steelworkers — gradually moved to better housing higher up the hillsides, while the more recent Eastern European immigrants lived in the flats by the mills. This is a 19th-century house on the South Side, still in use when this photograph was made in 1918.
Upper middle class, 1886
The modern corporation — requiring managers, salesmen and accountants — was born as the Pennsylvania Railroad expanded in the 19th century. Andrew Carnegie learned management as a young superintendent at the railroad and, later, adapted its corporate style for steelmaking. Shadyside, Friendship and Highland Park then became home to a new class of “white collar” employees and their families. This Shadyside house and the family who lived in it are portrayed in a memoir, “The Spencers of Amberson Avenue.” The father, Charles Hart Spencer, was an agent for Henry Clay Frick.
Millworker boarding house, 1913
It was common for millworker families to take in boarders to make ends meet. An early 1900s Pittsburgh newspaper tells of enterprising steelworkers who scrupulously saved enough to build boarding rooms attached to their own living quarters. This house in Ambridge belonged to John Maletic, a Croatian immigrant who was a riveter at American Bridge. He lived with his wife and six children in six rooms at the rear, with three floors of small rental units in front.
Mellon mansion, 1897 and 1917
The most famous of our town’s early industrialists — George Westinghouse, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and H.J. Heinz among them — built mansions in Shadyside, Homewood and Point Breeze. This 1897 Tudor-style house was built on Woodland Road for George Laughlin of the Jones & Laughlin Steel family, and it was acquired and more than doubled in size in 1917 by Andrew Mellon. Mellon added many details of authentic Tudor and Jacobean architecture that were imported from England. It is now an administration building for Chatham University.
Foursquare, 1905 to 1930
As Pittsburgh grew beyond the rivers, the six-room, two-and-half-story foursquare became the stylish middle-class house throughout the region. After the trolley tunnel under Mt. Washington linked the South Hills to the city in 1902, builders covered hillsides in Beechview and Dormont with foursquares. These are in a part of Beechview where William Flinn and partners developed the land. Flinn was a longtime boss of the Republican political machine that dominated Pittsburgh politics and government at the turn of the century. Not coincidentally, he and his partners also built the trolley tunnel.
Suburban small ranch, 1950s
Single-family housing construction came to a halt in the 1940s because of World War II. But after the war, returning veterans were starting new families, creating the “Baby Boom” generation. “We needed a lot of new homes, and we needed them fast,” the late Ed Ryan, founder of Ryan Homes and himself a veteran, once said. The foursquare was replaced by the familiar one-story brick ranch homes that proliferated in places as diverse as Monroeville, West Mifflin and Castle Shannon. This 1950s house is in a Ryan development in Scott.
Big ranches and split-levels, 1950s to 1970s
Bigger ranch houses became common in the prosperous postwar years, along with a related style called the “split-level.” Two features stand out for both: most didn’t have front porches; they had back patios, as the growth of automobile use in the suburbs made front porch-sitting old-fashioned. These also were the first houses to feature separate formal and informal living spaces, such as a family room — especially useful as the television became ubiquitous. The clean lines of this big ranch in Hampton make it a classic. By the 1980s and ’90s, new houses continued to get bigger and bigger, with more features, more rooms, more garages and so on. That trend persists, having eventually created what we today call “McMansions.” But that’s another story, to be told on another day.
John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.