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Thornburg’s Own: Exploring the charm, history of the Craftsman-style home built for the community’s founder

Saturday, August 25, 2001

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

With its great sandstone porches and deeply overhanging eaves that seem almost to touch the ground, the Frank Thornburg house feels as rooted in its landscape as the native trees and perennials that surround it.

On a pleasantly cool summer morning, with breezes gently wafting through the porches, it seems a bit like the house is just an excuse to hold up these rugged, expansive picnic pavilions — empty now but echoing in the imagination with the music, conversation and child’s play of almost a century of living.

“It was a great place to roller skate,” said Gretchen Haller, whose parents bought the 18-room house in 1944. There they raised two daughters who have decided that, after 57 years, it’s time to sell the house Frank Thornburg built in 1907.

The 4 1/2 acres of hillside on which the house now sits once was part of “Drummondsfield,” a 402-acre tract the state deeded to Margaret Drummond in 1785. Thomas Thornburg purchased the land in 1806, and in 1899, two of his great-great-grandsons, cousins Frank and David Thornburg, formed the Thornburg Land Co. to develop 250 acres into “a high-class residence district,” as they advertised in the Chartiers Valley Mirror.

Houses had to be brick or stone for at least the first story and cost not less than $2,500. Likely by late 1900, the first five houses had been built along Princeton Road, in a modest Queen Anne style. One was for Frank Thornburg, a handsome man with a full mustache who ran his real estate venture from an office in the Park Building, Downtown.

By about 1903, Thornburg was living in his second house, an odd duck of a building with a crenellated tower — one that would look right at home on a Queen Anne house — popping out of the side of a stone-and-shingle, Craftsman-style house.

His third house, with seven bedrooms and 10 fireplaces, was and still is the largest house in Thornburg, but one so simpatico with its site that, from almost any vantage point, it seems little more than a rambling, cozy bungalow.

The V-shaped house is anchored to the hillside by its sandstone blocks, joined together by Italian stone masons with a dark, gritty mortar that, Haller said, also came from Italy. It makes a prominent pattern against the light-colored stones, bringing out the handmade, rustic character of the exterior.

“It’s really the ultimate Western Pennsylvania Craftsman house,” said Albert Tannler, historical collections director at Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, who has been researching and writing about houses in Thornburg since 1992.

If anyone had an educated guess as to why Frank Thornburg built three houses in the space of seven years, it would be Tannler.

“I think his knowledge grows apace,” he said. “His taste becomes more sophisticated as time goes on.”

Every winter, Thornburg took his family to California to visit his mother, who lived in Los Angeles. He’d return with photographs of Craftsman and Mission-style houses to uses as models for Thornburg houses, interpreted and adapted by his cousin, architect Samuel Thornburg McClarren.

McClarren, who earlier had designed Woolslair and John Morrow elementary schools in Pittsburgh, is known to have been the architect of six houses in Thornburg, including two for himself; Tannler expects he’ll be able to identify others.

In a letter to Alice Crist Christner (author of “Here’s to Thornburg,” a community history published in 1966), Frank Thornburg’s daughter Florence wrote that their second home was inspired by one in California, but made no mention of any West Coast influence on the third home.

“It isn’t a very California house,” Tannler said. “It’s a perfect house for this climate — all that stone, all that shingle.”

Although he hasn’t found a source yet, he suspects there may be a California house that inspired the third Frank Thornburg house’s most singular, dramatic element: the central, two-story brick chimney that greets the visitor upon opening the heavy oak front door. In winter, with a blazing fire in its belly, it must be a warm and welcoming sight.

The entrance hall, with a low, beamed ceiling just inside the door, suddenly opens up to accommodate the soaring chimney and the stairs that wrap around it, leading to the second floor. Coupled with wide openings to the flanking dining and living rooms, it has the effect of turning a mere foyer into a great hall.

A left turn from the center hall of the Thornburg house leads to the living room, 21 by 26 feet, with a stone fireplace flanked by built-in cabinets with leaded-glass fronts. At the far end, a door leads onto the largest of the two open porches, 12 by 36 feet, which overlooks chokecherries, lilacs and an ancient sprawling oak (known to be more than 250 years old). It feels a bit like sitting in a treehouse.

To the right of the hall is the 16- by-21-foot dining room, with access to the knotty pine kitchen, located just behind the center-hall chimney. The kitchen, installed by the Hallers in the 1950s, was designed by their friend, architect and songwriter Robert Schmertz. Small and cozy, this low-ceilinged room has a window-wall view into the hillside rock garden.

Gretchen Haller’s father, Fred Haller, studied architecture at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) with Schmertz. Haller had to leave school when his father died to take over the family business, the Mt. Lebanon Garage Co., but the two remained close, lifelong friends.

During the Depression, as many as five families lived in the house, which still has what could be a separate, first-floor apartment, with the house’s original (but remodeled) kitchen, just beyond the dining room.

Josiah and Lillie Stevenson owned the house for much of the 1920s and 1930s. Their son, John, married Livonia Osborn, who in 1926 became the first female to graduate from Carnegie Tech’s architecture department.

Livonia brought her friend and fellow Carnegie Tech student, artist Joe Huot, to see the house. In Thornburg, “he thought he was in paradise,” said his daughter, Sylvia Huot Wyatt. A year later, in 1932, he moved his family into one of the Stevensons’ apartments. Wyatt has a rocking chair given to her by Josiah Stevenson, who told her it had been used by William Jennings Bryan during a visit to his house.

Upstairs in the Frank Thornburg house, oral tradition has it that a sleeping porch off one of the bedrooms was used by Bryan, the lawyer, perennial presidential candidate and evangelist who died in 1925, just a few days after arguing against the teaching of evolution in the Scopes “Monkey Trial.”

While many have savored the charms of Frank Thornburg’s house, its builder didn’t enjoy it for long. In 1909, the Thornburg Land Co. declared bankruptcy, and by 1912, Tannler reports, Frank Thornburg was living in Los Angeles, where he died 15 years later.

But during the Hallers’ tenure, his house often was alive with music. In the late 1940s or early ’50s, pianist and composer Billy Strayhorn, who worked at Rakuen Lakes, a local amusement park owned by Haller’s great-aunt, visited and played in their living room.

Benny Benack and Jack Purcell also brought their bands to the great side porch, playing old standards while the Hallers and their friends from the Fellows Club danced the night away above the darkening silhouette of the majestic oak, perfectly framed within a pair of sandstone pillars.

For information about the Frank Thornburg house, which is being offered for $750,000, call Gretchen Haller at (412) 276-4006.

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

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