Category: History

  • A Tiny Piece of Pittsburgh History

    In the time of the French Revolution there was a positive mania in France for descriptions of the newly independent United States, and it occurred to Father Pitt that some of those books might contain valuable and hitherto undiscovered descriptions of late-eighteenth-century Pittsburgh. Here is a curious little story from a footnote in one of those books, a Nouveau voyage dans les Etats-Unis de l’Amérique septentrionale, fait en 1788, par J.-P. Brissot (Warville), Citoyen Français; that is, New Voyage in the United States of North America, Made in 1788, by J.-P. Brissot (Warville), French Citizen. It describes a mixed-race family who became one of the leading households in the young city, and no other apology is necessary for the dated language used to describe the races of the characters. Father Pitt provides a new translation below—the first time, as far as he knows, this passage has ever appeared in English. Note, by the way, that the book manages to spell the name of the place two different ways.

    “There exists at Pittsbourg on the Ohio a white woman of French origin, brought up in London, and taken, at the age of twelve years, by pirates who made a living by taking children and selling them in America to work for a fixed time. —Certain singular circumstances caused her to marry a negro who bought her freedom, and who took her out of the hands of a white man, a barbarous and libidinous master, who had done everything he could to seduce her. —A mulatta produced by that union married a surgeon from Nantes who had established himself in Pittsburgh. —This family is one of the most respectable in that city; the negro runs a very good business, and the mistress of the house makes it her duty to receive and give good treatment to foreigners, and especially to French people whom chance has brought that way.”

    A much longer excerpt, including this footnote, is at Dr. Boli’s Random Translations.

  • The Ancient Pronunciation of “Pittsburgh”

    UPDATE: A revised version of this article may be found at the Historical Miscellany.

    Many historians speculate that the name “Pittsburgh” was originally pronounced “PITTS-burrah,” the way Edinburgh is pronounced “ED-in-burrah.” After all, General Forbes, who gave the place its name, was a Scotsman: it would seem odd that he would not pronounce the “burgh” as in “Edinburgh.”

    Today Father Pitt presents a tiny piece of evidence suggesting that the old pronunciation may have endured into the early 1800s. The evidence is only suggestive, not conclusive; but he thinks you will agree that it is at least very interesting.

    Union Cemetery in Robinson Township is an old graveyard with a number of Revolutionary War veterans in it. Here we find, side by side, two early settlers’ tombstones.

    First is Thomas Thornberry, a Revolutionary War veteran. His stone is regrettably so badly damaged that we can read nothing on it. But a plaque in front of the stone identifies it as belonging to Thomas Thornberry, a Revolutionary War veteran. Presumably the name comes from the church records, but Father Pitt is not sure of that. Perhaps someone from the church could enlighten us more.

    Beside his stone is a legible stone for a woman who is obviously his wife.

    DINAH Wife of
    Thomas Thornburgh

    who departed this life
    July 26th, 1830,
    aged 70 years.

    And here is our evidence. Inscriptions on tombstones of the early 1800s around here are commonly semi-literate; it is common to find variant spellings of the same name. Here we have the same name spelled “Thornburgh” and “Thornberry.” Now, it is not possible to imagine the name “Thornberry” being pronounced “THORN-burg,” but it is quite possible to imagine both “Thornburgh” and “Thornberry” being pronounced “THORN-burrah.” And if that is the case, then we have evidence that, in western Pennsylvania, the spelling “burgh” indicated the sound “burrah” at least to some residents as late as 1830.

    Old Pa Pitt repeats that this is not evidence of very high quality. But it is some evidence.

  • Frederick Osterling’s Grave

    Sometimes one finds things one didn’t know one was looking for. Father Pitt had decided to visit Rosedale Cemetery in Ross Township, a small German cemetery that does not show up on many maps, and here it was: the Osterling family monument, with “Fred J. Osterling” inscribed on it. By the dates we know that this is Frederick Osterling, the great architect, and the monument itself is so strikingly tasteful that one suspects Mr. Osterling designed it himself for his parents.

    Frederick Osterling is responsible for some of the most important buildings in Pittsburgh:

    The Union Trust Building
    The Armstrong Cork Factory
    The Westinghouse “Castle”
    The Arrott Building
    The morgue
    The Times Building

    —among many others. His career pretty much ended with the Union Trust Building, however; the client, Henry Frick, refused to pay Osterling’s fee when the construction ran late, and Osterling sued. After a decade in various courts, the case of Osterling v. Frick ended in victory for Osterling; but meanwhile it seems that Frick, who was good at holding grudges, had made sure Osterling would never work again. On the other hand, it seems he didn’t really need to work: when he died in 1934, Osterling left an estate valued at a million dollars, which was a good bit of money in those days.

    The Bertha Osterling whose name appears below Fred’s name is one of Frederick’s sisters, who apparently never married. Frederick never married, either; but, when he died with a million dollars in his estate, he left $10,000 of it to a certain Martha O. Aber in a handwritten codicil to his will (the rest went to his sisters Bertha and Anna). This woman then claimed to be his secret wife, and demanded a much larger share of the estate. Old Pa Pitt does not know what happened after that.

    Camera: Canon PowerShot A540 (hacked).
  • Charles Taze Russell Grave and Pyramid

    Father Pitt has just published this article on his Pittsburgh Cemeteries site, but he thought it might also be of interest to students of local history in general.

    “Pastor Russell,” as his followers called him, founded the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society and the International Bible Students Association, the organization that—after various schisms and defections—came to be known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. He was born in Allegheny (now the North Side), and when he died he was buried in what is now (after a number of changes of ownership) the Rosemont, Mt. Hope, & Evergreen United Cemeteries in Ross Township.

    His fairly modest grave monument includes a photograph of Pastor Russell, lovingly preserved (and perhaps replaced more than once over the years).

    Note the inscription identifying Pastor Russell as the Laodicean Messenger, or “the angel of the church of the Laodiceans,” as the King James Bible translates it (Revelation 3:14). Russell’s followers believed that he himself was that angel or messenger.

    Russell died in 1916. In 1921, some of his followers erected a showier monument in the form of a pyramid. One of Russell’s odd beliefs was that the Great Pyramid in Egypt was designed by God himself as a prophecy in stone. Like most such prophecies, it was meant to be uninterpretable until the correct clever interpreter came along—in this case, Pastor Russell.

    This is actually one of the few cemetery pyramids in the Pittsburgh area whose proportions are Egyptian rather than classical Roman. It is meant to have the same proportions as the Great Pyramid, and in particular the capstone is carefully proportioned to match the Great Pyramid’s capstone, which in Pastor Russell’s interpretation represents the Christ.

    The pyramid was meant as a marker not only for Russell, but for a number of other members of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, who owned this plot in the cemetery. A few names are inscribed in the open Bibles on the four sides of the pyramid, but most of the blank space was never used. It seems that the separate ownership of this plot has been preserved through the various changes of ownership the rest of the cemetery has gone through.

  • Schenley High School in 1916

    Grant Boulevard (now Bigelow Boulevard) Front.

    Abandoned for some time because it would have been too costly to restore for use by students, this magnificent building by Edward Stotz may soon be luxury apartments for yuppies. Here we see it as it was when it was newly built in 1916, from the Year Book of the Pittsburgh Architectural Club.


    Main Entrance Hall.

    Would you like to build your own Schenley High School? Here are the original plans:

  • Design for the City-County Building

    This rendering was published in 1916, before the building opened in 1917; but this is how the City-County Building still looks today. “Diamond Street” is now part of Forbes Avenue, except for the remnant of the outer end that veers off Forbes for one scraggly diagonal block to meet Fifth Avenue.

  • Belmar Theater, Homewood

    This movie house was newly built in 1915, when this picture was published. It was open until the late 1960s; it was torn down in the 1970s.

  • The Regent Theater, Newly Built

    From a movie trade magazine of 1915 we take this interesting article about the newly opened Regent in East Liberty, now the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. Click on the image for a much larger version.

    “The foyer is decorated in the Adams period” probably means in the Adam style—that is, the neoclassical style made popular by the Adam brothers in the 1700s and undergoing a revival in the early twentieth century.

    The picture below shows how the theater looks today: stripped of its projecting awning, but otherwise very much the same.

  • Wm. G. Johnston & Co. Building

    William G. Johnston & Co. was a very successful printing and bookbinding firm that put up this building on Ninth Street at Penn Avenue in 1886. Mr. Johnston would probably be pleased to see that his building looks very much as it did when he knew it, except that—like every other building downtown—it is doubtless cleaner. If you look very closely, you may see a small stitching error, which comes from the fact that this picture is put together from multiple photographs. The lesson, obviously, is not to look so closely.

  • Two Movie Theaters in 1912

    From Motion Picture World, 1912.

    Father Pitt does not know the exact location of either of these establishments. The fact that the Casino was remarkable for having been in the same place for eight years shows how temporary these early theaters often were. Pittsburgh, of course, invented the movie theater, and by 1912 no neighborhood was complete without one. The larger ones, like the Casino below, also booked vaudeville acts.

    From Motion Picture World, 1912.