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Pieces of history – Five eastern suburban sites among those being honored


By Brandon Keat – TRIBUNE-REVIEW

The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation has awarded plaques recognizing the historic significance of five structures in the eastern suburbs

The structures, among 27 sites designated by the foundation this year, include two homes, two churches and a bridge. The foundation has been awarding the plaques to Allegheny County landmarks since 1968.

“The Mon Valley has been a little weak as far as plaque building, but yet it has a lot of great architecture,” said Cathy McCollom of the foundation.

Many historic structures are nominated by their owners, while others are nominated by the foundation staff.

Staff members are responsible for nominating all five of the structures that were selected in the Mon Valley this year.

McCollom said staff members working in the Homestead historic district have been struck by the impressive structures in the Mon Valley.

“Whenever staff sees these things, they have a tendency to nominate them,” she said.

The most well known of the historic sites is the Homestead High Level Bridge, which connects Homestead to the city of Pittsburgh.

It was selected largely because it utilized cutting-edge technology when it was constructed from 1935 to 1937.

Its innovative Wichert truss allows the bridge to automatically adjust to unpredictable stresses and settling.

“This was at a time when there were no computers and you didn’t know quite how the stresses would pile under loads,” said Walter Kidney, an architectural historian with the History & Landmarks Foundation.

The two residential houses – the 1820 Muse house in McKeesport and the 1844 Walker house in Elizabeth – remain much as they were when constructed.

“There aren’t many houses of that period in that condition of integrity,” Kidney said.

Ted Erkman, a McKeesport native, jumped at the chance to buy the Muse house about 30 years ago.

He said he and his family have worked to maintain the house’s historic aspects.

He said the house, which was built by slave labor and has only had four owners since it was constructed, is “probably the oldest in McKeesport. We tried to save what we could in it. We’ve tried to keep it up.”

The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh owns the two churches that received the historic designation this year – St. Mary Magdalene at the corner of 10th Avenue and Amity Street in Homestead, and St. Michael Archangel on Ninth Avenue and Library Place in Munhall.

Kidney said both churches were designed by noted architects.

The Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese, said the diocese has not decided if it will participate in the plaque program.

He said in light of the recent controversy surrounding St. Nicholas Church on the North Side, the diocese has decided to take a hard look at historic designations for its buildings.

Some St. Nicholas parishioners have fought the diocese’s decision to allow the demolition of the church to make way for the Route 28 expansion project.

St. Nicholas received a different type of historic designation – from City Council – in July.

“We’re just looking at the whole idea and determining what our position is going to be,” Lengwin said.

The nonprofit Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation was formed in 1964 to identify, preserve and educate people about important architectural landmarks, historic neighborhoods and designed landscapes.

Since 1969, it has awarded more than 400 plaques to remarkable pieces of architecture, engineering or construction that are a least 50 years old and have not been extensively altered. The plaques are expected to go up within the next six weeks.

The History & Landmarks Foundation designation does not confer any type of protection on the sites selected. And it does not prevent the property owners from making changes to their structures, though the foundation can remove the plaque if it believes the changes lessen the historical value of the site.

“It’s an acknowledgement by expert archaeologists and historians who know that the building is significant, but it does not prevent owners from changing it or affecting it,” McCollom said.

The cost of the plaque, which typically includes the structure’s name, the date it was built and the name of the architect, is shared by the property owner and History & Landmarks.

Bronze plaques cost about $200, and cast aluminum runs about $130.

McCollom said the foundation recognition can help property owners interested in pursuing historic designations from the state or federal government.

“What it does is offer some significant public acknowledgement, which sometimes plays out to help it in the future,” she said. “People know right up front it’s an important building. It’s a sign they’ve been judged by people who know.”


Local landmarks

The following have been designated significant historic structures by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation:

– Homestead High Level Bridge – Constructed between 1935 and 1937, it was designed by engineer George F. Richardson. The bridge utilized cutting edge technology for the time.

– The Muse House – Located at 4222 Third St. in McKeesport, the house was built in 1820.

– The Walker House – A Greek revival- style house located at 1026 Third Ave. overlooking the Monongahela River in Elizabeth. It was constructed in 1844.

– St. Mary Magdalene Church – A Romanesque church located at the corner of 10th Avenue and Amity Street in Homestead, designed by Frederick Sauer and built in 1895. A 1936 restoration was done by Button and MacLean.

– St. Michael Archangel Church – An Italian Romanesque church located at the corner of 9th Avenue and Library Place in Munhall, designed by Comes, Perry & McMullen and built in 1927. It features a statue of St. Joseph the Worker by noted sculptor Frank Vittor.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. © Tribune Review

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