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Arts & Crafts movement leaves its mark in quiet western suburb of Pittsburgh

Saturday, January 20, 2001

By Bette McDevitt

Certain places are associated with the Craftsman movement in America: Syracuse, N.Y., where Gustav Stickley first made his Arts & Crafts-style furniture; Pasadena, Calif., where the Greene brothers created a softer, Asian-influenced version of what’s also called Mission style; and Chicago, where Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style was born.

Thornburg doesn’t make that list, but for local lovers of Arts & Crafts, maybe it should.

The tiny borough west of Pittsburgh was an early suburb, founded in 1900 by two cousins,

Frank and Dave Thornburg. Heirs to the family farm, they and their Thornburg Land Development Co. laid out 200 lots on 250 acres of farmland in 1899. They first built five homes along Princeton Road, adding nearly 60 more in the next 20 years.

Frank Thornburg traveled to California frequently, apparently admiring the work of Charles and Henry Greene and others. He engaged his cousin, Samuel T. McClarren, to build homes like those he had seen. Though they built a few simplified Queen Anne-style homes, most are Arts & Crafts, constructed of field stone, brick, stucco and wood shingle. They’re not all perfect examples of the style, but they’re ours.

“Thornburg houses fascinate partly because they appear to be one step behind — but only one step behind — Gustav Stickley in upper New York, the Greene brothers in California and Frank Lloyd Wright as they were creating and defining an indigenous American residential architecture,” Albert Tannler, historical collections director for the Pittsburgh History and Landmark Foundations, has written.

To the residents of what is now called Lower Thornburg, the homes are as important for the community they create as their style.

“I could walk on every street here, and name every person in each house,” said Tom Mackin, sitting beside the fireplace in his comfortable living room.

Mackin and his wife, Eileen, both 45, have lived in Thornburg for 13 years, and raised their two sons, Tom Jr. and Michael here.

Their house was built in the California Mission style, with sand-colored stucco walls, dark red tile roof, a large overhang and curved porticoes across the front entrance.

Tom Mackin, who has a contracting business in Carnegie, and his wife, the clinical manger of the Wound Care Center at Ohio Valley General Hospital, have remodeled almost every room in the house, rewiring and plastering as they went. The home has four bedrooms, all with fireplaces, and a finished third floor where their sons roost.

The living room has typical Arts & Crafts features, including an Inglenook fireplace with built-in benches and bookcases. The dining room has a beamed ceiling, mahogany wainscoting and built-in buffet, all warmed by period sconces. A small “chauffeur’s room” off the kitchen, with a fireplace, window seat and chaise lounge, is the perfect hideaway for a nap.

Lower Thornburg was designated as a historic district in 1982. The Mackins, who have made major changes only in their kitchen, say residents accept the responsibility to keep the facades intact and retain the interiors as best they can.

Restoration-minded homeowners can get lots of cyber advice from Tom Stermitz, who is renovating his own 1915 Arts and Crafts bungalow in Denver and maintains a very informative Web site (

“The most common renovation mistake,” says Stermitz, “is for someone to think they have a Victorian house and proceed to polish or replace all the dark brass, add shiny brass lanterns to the doorway and a Victorian chandelier over the dining room table.”

Don’t paint the woodwork, he warns.

“The dark woodwork and the wide, overhanging eaves leave the interiors fairly dark by modern standards. But painting the woodwork will destroy the attraction to a real lover of the style and have a strong negative effect on the house value. One way to get past this psychological difficulty is to learn to appreciate ‘pools’ of light and to remember romantic candlelight dinners.”

Although Stermitz is in Denver, he could have been speaking of the Walther home, on Stanford Road. The house was built in 1903 for Albert Daschbach, the real estate salesman for the Thornburg Land Development Co. and was featured in House Beautiful in 1911 for its beauty, comfort and moderate price, $8,000.

The Daschbach family raised nine children in the house, and the Walthers, with daughter Victoria, are using every square foot. David Walther, 42, is manager of Izzy Miller’s Furniture in Carnegie. He’s also a collector.

“You name it and I collect it,” he said.

He caught the collecting bug when he and Donna managed house and estate sales. Now, he’s a regular at local flea markets.

“I always have another little spot for this or a niche for that,” he said.

His fondness for the old goes for houses, too.

“I don’t like people to bastardize old houses. If they want modern, then buy modern.”

The Walthers came to Thornburg from a similar but smaller house in Rosslyn Farms, which also has its share of Arts & Crafts-style homes. This house has some of the style’s standard features — the “sleeping porch” on the second floor; window seats by the fireplaces in the living room, dining room and bedrooms; built-in cabinetry; large pocket doors between rooms; and leaded glass in the front door.

Tom Walther keeps an eye on the real estate market and estimates that homes in Thornburg sell from $275,00 and up. There are some very large new homes at the top of the hill, which no doubt raise the ante.

The Schneider home on Hamilton Road is one of Thornburg’s classic Craftsman bungalows. Reflecting the movement’s reliance on native materials, the fieldstone on the first level was gathered from the nearby hillside. The second story is soft creme-colored shingles with deep red and blue trim.

Jeff , 47, and Laure, 43, Schneider moved here from California two years ago with their daughter, Caroline, 12, and son, Lew, 8. They were familiar with the Arts & Crafts style from homes built by Greene and Greene in the Pasadena area.

“We saw this ad in the paper, a long, detailed ad describing this Arts & Crafts house in Thornburg, and we didn’t even look any further,” said Laure.

The house had been restored by Gail and George Wasson of Washington County, who put in 4,000 hours of work but never lived in it.

“The neighbors tell me that Gail carried the fieldstone up from the hill and rebuilt the fireplace in our bedroom, stone by stone,” said Laure.

Like many homes in Thornburg, this is a center hall plan with a living room to the left, dining room to the right and a kitchen at the back of the house. A large gas fireplace warms the living room on a chilly morning.

The simple dark woodwork has been maintained throughout the house. Jeff’s black-and-white photography collection lines the walls of the living room. The only addition was a powder room off the center hall, done in earth-tone tile that is repeated in the kitchen and master bath.

The sleeping porch, now enclosed and used as a dining area by the Schneiders, was built into many Arts & Crafts homes. Amid a tuberculosis epidemic, health experts counseled sleeping quarters where fresh “healing” air circulated freely.

The Schneiders found both a house ready to move into and a community where they immediately felt at home. Jeff Schneider, who owns the Funny Bone comedy club in Station Square with his brother Keith, said, “This is the vortex of activity right here.”

Laure is heavily involved in children’s activities at the Community Club, founded in 1930. Every holiday is observed with a parade, a picnic or a celebration.

“If there are seven annual activities for children, there must be 20 for adults, including book groups and the oldest continuous theater group in the county, the Village Players. I have never lived in a community where there is so much involvement,” Laure said.

Lately, community involvement in Thornburg has extended beyond the community center. Some residents have banded together to oppose a plan to build headquarters for Burns & Scalo Inc., a Bridgeville roofing and real estate company, on the 47-acre site of the Crafton Golf Club. In hopes of preserving the land as green space, the group is trying to raise $1.5 million to buy the property.

Other residents favor the development, seeing it as a way to reduce taxes in a town without a commercial tax base. Local leaders have asked both sides to be considerate of each others’ feelings, a neighborly way to approach a problem. The Thornburg cousins, who lived in the town they built, would no doubt approve.

Bette McDevitt is a free-lance writer.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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