Uptown is a neighborhood in transition, and it still is not entirely clear what it will become. Will these rowhouses become valuable properties worth restoring? Or will they be knocked down for skyscraper apartments? Or will the development mania grind to a halt before it reaches this block? These two houses are in pretty good shape and worth preserving for their nearly intact fronts. Both have some fine woodwork. The one on the left has had some unfortunate renovation done to the dormer, but otherwise nothing bad has happened to it. It has newer windows, but in the right size and shape, and if you painted those aluminum frames they would be indistinguishable from the originals. The one on the right is even more perfectly intact. Note its proper Pittsburgh stair railing: in Pittsburgh, railings are a plumber’s art.
A good example of how a frame house can be restored to look very attractive without breaking the bank. The most important thing is to preserve the trim if at all possible, or to substitute new trim that has the same proportions as the old. This house in what we might call vernacular Second-Empire style is on Pius Street.
This is a particularly grand rowhouse: note how much taller it is than its neighbor, indicating high ceilings. It seems to be abandoned right now, but perhaps it has a chance if the urban pioneers moving into the neighborhood get to it before it mysteriously catches fire. There is much worth preserving: the woodwork is in fairly good shape, and the windows—mostly unbroken—are still original and proper for the period. The location of the house on Fifth Avenue might make it attractive, but also might put it in the way if development mania reaches this part of the street.
Aluminum, vinyl, Insulbrick, and Perma-Stone: old Pa Pitt calls them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They are the four most common artificial sidings applied to Pittsburgh houses, especially frame houses. (But not exclusively frame houses: siding salesmen were aggressive enough to go for brick houses if they sensed weakness in the buyer.) They are responsible for more uglification in the city than any other single force. That is not to say that it is impossible to use them well, only that they are almost never used well. We can find perfect illustrations within a block of each other on the South Side.
Aluminum is usually easy to recognize by the rust stains, which probably come from the fasteners rather than the aluminum itself.
Vinyl siding is the closest in appearance to wood siding, and if applied well can be hard to distinguish from a distance. But instead of removing the wood siding and replacing it with vinyl, the contractors usually stick the vinyl over the wood siding. That means two bad things: first, that there is an invisible layer of decaying wood; second, that all the trim on the house is swallowed up, leaving the house a cartoon shell. In the picture above, the whole process has been taken to its logical conclusion in the right-hand house. A good deal of money was spent on new windows in the wrongest possible shapes, vinyl trim, and paste-on fake shutters that could not possibly cover the windows, leaving the house an expensive architectural wreck.
Insulbrick is a trademark name (though there were disputes over the trademark) for siding made up of asphalt sheets stamped with a brick pattern. When the siding is new, it looks as if a child drew bricks on the house with crayons. When it is older, it looks like the picture above. In spite of the name, it is very bad at insulating.
Perma-Stone is another trademark name: it is siding that imitates stonework, once again in a cartoonish fashion.
Sometimes more than one of these sidings can grow on a house, either because the owner loved variety, or because different generations attacked different maintenance problems in different halfhearted ways.
Insulbrick and vinyl.
Aluminum and Perma-Stone.
If you are the owner of a frame house that still has wooden siding, congratulations! You are a member of a small elite minority in Pittsburgh. Keep a good coat of paint on that siding, and attack problems while they are still young, and you will keep your house beautiful for generations to come.
If the time comes to replace that siding, though, consider the long term. Contractors will tell you that their artificial sidings will last forever. Look around you. You can see that they are misinformed. Consider replacing wood with wood, or—if wood is not in your budget—consider replacing it with vinyl rather than covering it over with vinyl.
A splendid row of Second Empire houses on Lincoln Avenue, with their wood trim picked out in tasteful polychrome paint. They were built in 1872 and 1873.
It was not really a black-and-white camera; it was old Pa Pitt’s nineteen-year-old Samsung Digimax V4, a strange beast that was made for photography enthusiasts who wanted something that would fit in the pocket but still had most of the options of a sophisticated enthusiast’s camera. Father Pitt has set the user options to black-and-white. There is no good reason for doing so: obviously the camera collects color data and throws the colors away, and the colors could just as well be thrown away in software after returning from the expedition. But knowing that the picture must be black and white forces one to think in terms of forms rather than colors. So here are half a dozen pictures from a walk through the South Side Flats.
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.
Uptown is a good-news/bad-news sort of neighborhood right now. The good news is that, after decades of gradual abandonment and decay, the neighborhood is rapidly turning upward. The bad news is that much of the neighborhood is still in danger. The Soho end of Uptown, near the Birmingham Bridge, is not yet feeling the effects of the prosperity radiating from the new arena, the restoration of Fifth Avenue High School, and the proximity of downtown to the western end of Uptown.
Here is a row of houses on Seneca Street that probably will not be here much longer. The blue CONDEMNATION stickers have appeared on several of them. These are houses from the Civil War era, which are not as common as they used to be. A few more such rows remain Uptown, and some of those are also in danger—either from decay or from the even more dangerous force of prosperity. On two of these houses, the façades have been replaced with architecturally worthless curtains of brick; but the remaining four retain many of their original features.
Until recently, it was inevitable that condemned houses like these would be razed to leave an empty space behind them. Now it is just possible that at least the space will not be empty forever. That would be moderately good news; unfortunately, the rolling waves of prosperity will not reach Seneca Street in time to make it profitable to save these houses. A century and a half of history will vanish, and almost no one will notice. But at least these pictures will serve as a memorial and a document.
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.