Carson Street is famous for its Victorian commercial buildings, but here and there among the Victorian masterpieces, and the later fillers, are a few that we might call pre-Victorian. Even though they were built during the long reign of Queen Victoria across the sea, these buildings betray little of the style that we think of as Victorian. They are hardly architecture at all. They are built in the simple vernacular style that was current for decades in the early and middle nineteenth century—and had indeed been inherited from the eighteenth. They are identical to houses of the same era, except with the front of the first floor modified into a storefront.
Here are two of them. Both of them have been through various alterations over the years, but they are easily recognized by their peaked roofs with narrow projecting dormers, making them look almost like a child’s drawing of a house. From our 1872 map, it seems fairly certain that both of them were here in 1872, when East Birmingham was taken into the city of Pittsburgh; they probably date from the period of rapid development in East Birmingham during and right after the Civil War.
These three buildings date from before 1872, since they appear on our 1872 map. The two exceptionally large houses on the left look like Civil War engravings of street scenes. Some of the details, like the gutters, have changed, but the overall appearance is very 1860s. The smaller frame house on the right has suffered every external indignity a house can suffer, but the simple shape with narrow projecting dormer still says middle 1800s.
From both the old maps and the style it seems fairly certain that this row of four identical houses dates from before 1872. On the whole they are very well preserved, with a few alterations, but nothing to change the essentials.
The larger house on the end probably dates from before 1872 as well, although it looks newer than its neighbors; its original front is mostly intact, but it has sprouted an ugly third floor that could be removed or rebuilt by some future owner.
It is remarkable how unremarkable these two tiny houses on 24th Street are. The one on the left has had its parlor windows replaced with the usual mid-twentieth-century picture window, but most of the rest of the detail is intact; the one on the right probably looks not much different from the day it was built. And it was built at about the time of the Civil War or right after. These two houses appear on maps all the way back to 1872, the earliest detailed map of the area Father Pitt has been able to find. Brick houses from that time are common, but tiny frame houses like these seldom survive with original (or equivalent) wooden siding, which is almost always replaced with one of the Four Horsemen: aluminum, vinyl, Insulbrick, and Perma-Stone. If old Pa Pitt were dictator (and let it be known that if chosen dictator he would not serve), he would make these two houses a preservation priority.
In the picture below, note the size of the houses relative to the cars parked in front of them.
Our 1872 map shows the house on the left as belonging to J. Rolfe and the one on the right to H. H. Rolfe. At some point the one on the left had a storefront added, which at some later point was blocked in by a competent contractor who was certainly not an architect. Otherwise, these two elegant houses on Carson Street probably look very much the way they looked a century and a half ago, when they entered the city of Pittsburgh with the annexation of Birmingham.
These houses on South 26th Street are more than 150 years old, and nobody cares. That is one of the fascinating and delightful things about the South Side: you have to discover history for yourself, because history is not labeled and pickled in brine for you here.
As of this year, the South Side has been part of Pittsburgh for a century and a half. In 1872, the boroughs of South Pittsburgh, Birmingham, East Birmingham, and Ormsby were taken into the city. Since then quite a lot has changed, but it’s surprising how much has not changed. Father Pitt has decided to celebrate the 150 years of the South Side by looking for the things that were there in 1872 and are still there now. In the coming weeks you’ll see quite a few more remnants of old Birmingham and East Birmingham.
But how do we know which buildings date from that era? The Pittsburgh Historic Maps site is Father Pitt’s favorite research tool. You can look at a detailed house-by-house map from 1872, and then switch to a current satellite view. Many familiar shapes will appear on both maps. This row of once-identical houses is one of them.
Most of the oldest houses on the South Side are fairly modest, and these were more modest than most. In the years since they were built, each house has had its separate adventures. Today they all look different, each one bearing alterations from different eras. One of them has sprouted an outsized dormer that gives it a third floor. One has ornamental shutters by the windows. One has star bolts holding it together. One has smaller horizontal windows upstairs. Two of them have mid-twentieth-century picture windows in the front parlors. Two have aluminum awnings. Several have had the front doors reconfigured, losing the wooden doorframe and transom.
There were originally two identical rows of seven houses in this block of 26th Street, separated by the alley (Larkins Way). The second row is down to four houses now, all of which have been through similarly various adventures.
But if we put all these houses together in our minds, we can come up with the Platonic ideal of the South Side rowhouse of the middle 1800s. This is what we’ll be doing as we celebrate 150 years of the South Side: looking through the modern accretions to find the Birmingham and East Birmingham (and maybe South Pittsburgh and Ormsby) of a century and a half ago.