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End may be near for H. Samson

By Ron DaParma
Tuesday, April 27, 2004

For 145 years, the H. Samson Funeral Home has served a Pittsburgh clientele that includes the city’s most prominent, historic and best-known families — Heinz, Mellon, Scaife, Hunt and Hillman, to name a few.
Soon, Samson itself could become history, if plans to sell the funeral home property are completed.

Possible uses for the property, at 537 N. Neville St., Oakland, include housing, possibly condominiums.

A spokeswoman for Samson’s owner, the Cincinnati-based Alderwoods Group, confirmed Monday that a deal to sell the property is pending.

“The property currently is under a conditional contract at this time, but no deal has been finalized so we can’t disclose any terms,” said Tamara Malone.

The county values the property at $1.26 million.

If Samson does close, Malone said, its business will be transferred to Alderwoods’ two other local funeral homes: the more than 100-year-old H.P. Brandt Funeral Home in the Perrysville section of Ross and the Burton Hirsch Funeral Home in Squirrel Hill.

What is certain is the pedigree of the business, founded in 1859 by undertaker Hudson Samson, a Pulaski, N.Y., native who moved here at the age of 19.

“Hudson was an innovator who made strides to be in the forefront of the funeral service business,” said Heather Rady, the funeral director at Samson. “And the reason the funeral home became so prominent, I believe, was the caring, compassionate nature of the Samson family. They were very much involved in the community and established a rapport with many people.”

“In their heyday, they probably were the most prominent funeral home in the city,” said Kermit D. Dyer of Monroeville, who served as funeral director at Samson from 1954 to 1977. He recalls the names of such famous Pittsburgh personalities as Rosey Rowswell, who preceded Bob Prince as the voice of the Pittsburgh Pirates; Hall of Fame Pirates third baseman Pie Traynor; and William Larimer Jones, of Jones & Laughlin Steel, among those whose funeral arrangements were handled there.

“I can still see people lined clear up Neville Street to see Rosey Rowswell,” said Dyer.

“They had a really good reputation of being the creme de la creme of funeral homes,” said Rose Carfagna Au of Ralph Schugar Chapel Inc., and a board member of the Allegheny County Funeral Directors Association.

According to the firm’s history, Samson’s original location was on the site of the old post office building at Smithfield Street in the heart of the city’s Golden Triangle. There, beginning in 1859, Samson ran a one-man operation, making his own coffins and then hitching up a horse to deliver them to homes or cemeteries.

After a short time operating at another location on Seventh Avenue, Samson eventually moved in 1884 to a new building at 433 Sixth Ave., which is believed to be the first structure in the United States built exclusively for a funeral home. It housed, among other things, the first crematory installed within a municipality in the nation, and a chapel, now a standard funeral home feature.

The three-story building “was the expression of remarkable imagination and foresight for the year 1884, and many architects and morticians from other cities came to Pittsburgh to examine the facilities and consult with the owner,” according to the company’s Internet site. “There were also living quarters for employees who remained on call 24 hours a day.”

After Samson’s death in 1902, the business was passed to his son, Harry G. Samson, who moved the funeral home to North Neville Street in 1922. The move to “an attractive residential area with the quiet of wide, tree-shaded lawns” was made to escape the growing congestion Downtown, the company said.

The property, which consists of two buildings connected by a glass-enclosed walkway, can be likened to a mid-Victorian Italian villa, according to Walter Kidney, historian for the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

Through most of its years, the business was in Samson family hands, with Harry’s son, Howard, taking control after Harry’s death in 1948. Howard’s wife, Elinor, assumed responsibility when he died in 1974.

Other innovations pioneered by the family included the first motorized funeral hearse to be used in Pittsburgh, in 1910. In later years, the business also owned a private plane that was used to transport the deceased from other locations back to Pittsburgh, Rady said.

Family involvement ended with Elinor’s death in 1995. The business was transferred to another family-owned funeral home organization, CMS West, owned by the Stoecklein family.

In 1997, Samson was among six funeral homes and about 35 cemeteries sold by CMS to the Loewen Group International of Canada. Loewen declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1999 and in 2002 emerged as the reorganized company known as Alderwoods Group.

Alderwoods is the second-largest operator of funeral homes and cemeteries in North America, behind Service Corporation International of Houston. As of January, Alderwoods operated 730 funeral homes, 150 cemeteries and 60 combination funeral home-cemeteries in the United States and Canada.

Mighty Samson
The H. Samson Funeral Home has handled funeral arrangements for the following families and individuals:
Heinz (H.J. Heinz Co.)

Mellon (Mellon Bank)

Hunt (Alcoa Inc.)

Scaife (philanthropy)

Jones (Jones & Laughlin Steel)

Hillman (Hillman Co.)

Richard S. Caliguiri (Pittsburgh mayor)

Pie Traynor (Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman)

Rosey Rowswell (Pirates announcer)

Ron DaParma can be reached at or 412-320-7907.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633