Historic Pittsburgh Home Bears Benign Swastika
By Bob Bauder
Sunday, October 31, 2010
Thelma J. Smith and her late husband faced a moral dilemma nearly 30 years ago: As black Americans, they had to decide whether they wanted a universal symbol of hate to remain imprinted on the front of their historic Hill District home.
The swastika was covered for decades by previous owners, and no one in the neighborhood, not even the Smiths until after they bought the house, knew it was there.
Thelma Smith thought of the Jewish neighbors, Holocaust survivors with concentration camp numbers tattooed on their arms.
What would they say? she asked herself.
More importantly, what would people in the community say?
The Smiths researched the subject. What they found, combined with what they knew about the house, swayed them.
The swastika predates Nazis by thousands of years. Before fascism, it was viewed as a good-luck symbol. The one in question was an original feature on a house that was then about 69 years old, the second-oldest home on an old street.
Smith, 72, had to explain all of that to the Jewish neighbors, who came to her upset but later agreed the swastika in this case is benign. It differs from the Nazi symbol in that it is not positioned at an angle.
“I just felt it was important historically to keep it,” Smith said.
The house on Andover Place was built in 1912 for Herman S. Davis, who christened his new home “Swastika,” according to a photograph album that Smith inherited from previous owners and the March 1913 issue of Concrete-Cement Age magazine, which featured a story on the house.
Davis, whom Concrete-Cement Age identifies as a consulting engineer and astronomer, had his house built of poured concrete, a new architectural technique at the turn of the last century. He had the swastika, which Thelma Smith estimated is two feet square, imprinted in a prominent location on an exterior wall facing the street. Nobody knows why.
The house has 13 rooms and 48 windows. It is the only house in the region known to have a swastika as a design feature, according to representatives of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.
Thelma Smith said the swastika was covered by wood when they bought the house in 1976. About 1981, they had the concrete cleaned and the wood removed.
Ever since, the house has been a conversation piece and curiosity for people traveling the narrow, tree-lined street. The house is technically in the Upper Hill, but it’s on the last street before Schenley Farms Historic District. It seems secluded with its large trees, empty lots on either side and a steep hill in back rising about 60 feet to Dakota Street.
Numerous people stopped over the years to ask Smith and her family about the swastika. Cars slow down as they pass. Smith said police officers patrolling at night have shined spotlights on the swastika, presumably for new officers to see.
The family doesn’t mind the attention, but an event in May was a bit much. Somebody came in the middle of the night and attempted to cover the swastika with cement. Smith’s youngest son, Lee, noticed it and found imprints from a ladder in the yard.
His mother, who didn’t hear anything that night — probably because of the thick concrete walls — suspects a student prank. The University of Pittsburgh campus is just down the street. She said the kids probably were scared away before completing the job, which would explain why the swastika was partially filled in.
“They needed to be scared if I would have caught them,” said Lee Smith, 35, a Pittsburgh City Football League most valuable player for Schenley High during the 1990s and still in good shape.
He said a run-in with his father, Donald L. Smith, who died in September, would have been worse. In his younger days, Donald “Toro” Smith was a professional heavyweight boxer, who once fought Joe Frazier before Frazier became world champion.
The family cleaned out the cement without damage to the swastika.
There it remains for all to see, just as Herman S. Davis intended. And there it will stay, as far as Lee Smith is concerned.
Smith intends to buy the house in December from his mother. He said she can live there with him for the rest of her life. That suits his mother just fine.
“I always loved this street,” she said. “It’s country living in the city.”