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Pittsburgh’s East End – A Legacy of Innovation

By Mark Vernalis

Dear ACE Hotel:

I am looking forward to my first ACE hotel visit tonight and dining at Whitfield.

Not long ago I read in The Architect’s Newspaper (archpaper.com) that you would be coming to Pittsburgh. The archpaper.com writer expected to see Edison bulbs in the Pittsburgh ACE, which got me thinking about the neighborhood you will be joining and motivated me to pass along some history.

The Pittsburgh ACE is squarely in Pittsburgh’s East End which is comprised of the Point Breeze, Highland Park, Shadyside and East Liberty neighborhoods. The East End’s heyday was around 1900 when it was the world’s richest neighborhood whose inhabitants controlled 40% of the nation’s assets.

In 1900 more millionaires lived in Pittsburgh’s East End than anywhere on earth.

It would not be uncommon at that time to take a walk along Penn Avenue and see a Carnegie or Frick (steel), H.J. Heinz (pickles), George Westinghouse (airbrakes, natural gas & electricity), Richard or Andrew Mellon (banking), Alfred Hunt (founder of ALCOA aluminum), Robert Pitcairn (founder of PPG glass), Charles Lockhart (co-founder of Rockefeller’s Standard oil), Thomas Armstrong (cork), James McCrea (president of the Pennsylvania Railroad), James Guffey (founder of Gulf Oil), Charles Schwab (first president of J.P. Morgan’s United States Steel Corporation), Henry Laughlin (Jones & Laughlin Steel), Lillian Russell (national theatre star) or a congressman, an ambassador or cabinet secretary and many others of wealth and influence.

Before the Civil War East Liberty was a village with rural charm. It had several popular taverns with sleighing and equestrian parties being common. Things began to change with the opening of the East Liberty Passenger Railway in 1860 when the neighborhood would become a commuter suburb of Pittsburgh. Much of East Liberty was owned by the Negley family who operated a steam gristmill and were farmers. One of the Negley girls married neighbor Thomas Mellon, a rising lawyer and banker, whose sons would amass one of the world’s great fortunes.

Many East Enders were of Scotch-Irish or German descent who believed in thrift, hard work, and giving back to the community. They tended to be Presbyterians, Freemasons, Republicans, abolitionists, staunch supporters of Abraham Lincoln and became the world’s models for philanthropy.

East Enders had a distaste and distrust for New York City society; East Enders stood out like boring sore thumbs in the glitz of the eastern elites. New Yorkers looked down on Pittsburghers because they ‘made things’ while Pittsburghers had a similar disdain for New Yorkers because they inherited everything or manipulated stocks. Pittsburgh’s East Enders were largely a dour and sober group.

The Pittsburgh ACE’s most important neighbor is the East Liberty Presbyterian Church known as one of the neighborhood’s “cathedrals of capitalism.” The Mellon sons presented it as their Mother’s Day gift in 1933 and was the largest construction project in the city during the Depression. The Mellon’s often had a formal lunch after Sunday church service where reportedly silence was only broken when the conversation turned to business. The church was designed by Ralph Cram who, with his earlier partner, Bertram Goodhue, were the pre-eminent Gothicists of their age, perhaps best known for the iconic architecture at the US Military Academy at West Point. 

A similarly important building stands nearby, the Highland Building (1910), a Frick project, designed by the visionary architect and planner D.H. Burnham of Chicago. Burnham reshaped the face of American cities whose commissions spanned the country. He headed the architectural design for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and famous commissions include New York’s Flatiron Building and Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania Railroad Station. The East Liberty Highland Building was a later Burnham design and showed the evolution of the skyscraper’s base-shaft-capital format. The entire building is much more homogenous from street level to top, compared to predecessor skyscrapers, which would become standard. Sadly, the facades have been ‘modernized’ over the years losing important Burnham refinements such as a topside molding that presented a wonderful scalloped skyline.

The first car purported to be in Pittsburgh was a Panhard Tonneau purchased in Paris in the summer of 1900 by Howard C. Heinz, son of Henry J. Heinz of Pittsburgh’s pickle dynasty. It reached a top speed of 40 miles an hour and was known in the neighborhood as the “Red Devil.” This car is now on display at the Frick automobile museum on Penn Avenue. 

In 1906 there were 12 automobile dealerships in the East End, two of which sold electric cars. The city’s first traffic light was at the intersection of Penn and Highland Avenues, a few steps from the ACE. Gulf Oil built the world’s first drive-in gas station on Baum Boulevard. It is believed that the nation’s first traffic accident occurred in Pittsburgh’s East End. 

The East End industrialists had conveniences too: the U. S. Post Office delivered the mail seven (7) times a day to East End residences, the first alternating current electrical power plant illuminated East End homes, the first private telephone lines were installed in East End homes so their residents could care for their business affairs downtown without going through a switchboard and, they were the first to use aluminum in their homes and natural gas for heating and cooking. The first electric light installed by Westinghouse was at the home of James Mellon at 401 Negley Avenue. The Pennsylvania Railroad had a private station in the East End where the Pittsburgher made direct trips to Wall Street. Westinghouse, Frick and others had private railroad cars.

While princes, artists, politicians and scientists often visited the East End a hundred years ago perhaps its most famous gathering was a July 4th luncheon held for President Teddy Roosevelt in 1902. Roosevelt had come to pay tribute to the East End industrialists who, while staunch Republicans, were not pleased with Teddy’s progressive ‘trust busting’ ways. The lunch occurred at Clayton, the East End home of Henry Clay Frick and was catered by New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Frick never warmed up to Roosevelt but gave generously to his campaigns. Frick (like Carnegie) had written $250,000 checks to McKinley’s campaigns, whom he admired, but only $50,000 to Roosevelt. Frick would nonetheless call in his marker asking Roosevelt for the formation of U. S. Steel to be done without trust review. Politics had always played a huge role in the East End. It has been said that four US Presidents were nominated in the parlors of the East End industrialists.

Pittsburgh’s East Enders were fine art collectors. It is believed that in the late 1800’s no museum in the world could match the paintings and Egyptian antiquities contained within an eight-block residential section of the East End. Ultimately the vast art collections of Carnegie and Frick departed for New York while Mellon’s established the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. It was believed that artwork would succumb to Pittsburgh’s harsh industrial air.

East Liberty’s future as a transportation hub was foretold when the first through trains from Philadelphia began to stop on December 10, 1852. On the platform that day in East Liberty was a 17-year old Pennsylvania Rail Road telegraph operator named Andrew Carnegie who was on hand to meet the incoming Philadelphia train. Traffic expanded over the years and in 1905 a greatly enlarged new station was built of handsome red brick and terra cotta. In 1913 more trains ran through the East Liberty station than Broad Street in Philadelphia. The station had wide sweeping driveways, landscaped lawns and manicured flowerbeds that spelled out “East Liberty.” The East Liberty station, which had been one of the most elegant on the Pennsylvania line, was demolished in 1963. 

East Liberty along with most of the East End neighborhoods was annexed into the City of Pittsburgh in 1867.

East Enders were prominent members of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club near Johnstown, PA. It was a retreat for the exceptionally successful. But while sparing the opulence of Newport, Road Island, for example, South Fork was without peer for wealth and influence. It’s members, limited to 100, were mostly East Enders such as Frick, Carnegie, Mellon a future Ambassador to Great Britain and Secretary of the Treasury, Philander Knox, a future US Attorney General and Secretary of State, Samuel Rea, future president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, steel magnate Thaw, (whose son Harry would murder one of America’s greatest architect’s, Sanford White, over a woman and go on to successfully plead the first ever temporary insanity defense), Scaife, and others. The central feature of South Fork was the world’s largest man-made lake, created by a vast earthen dam. Members used the lake for boating and fishing. Fish were brought in on rail tankers to provide excellent fishing at an extraordinary cost of $1.00 each. When it rained the fish often overflowed into the spillways which caused the members to install grates to keep the fish contained during periods of rain. While never proven, it was believed that when the rains fell and the dam broke on May 31, 1889 that the fish grates became clogged with debris and were a key factor in the dam’s demise. Over two thousand people died in ten minutes when the flood waters reached Johnstown. The East Enders who were so prominent in the South Fork membership were never absolved of blame for the calamity.

Bakery Square is housed in the 1917 National Biscuit Company plant, founded by innovative entrepreneur Sylvester Marvin who pioneered efficient production methods. For many decades the sweet aroma of baking Lorna Doone’s often filled the air for blocks.

Beginning in the 1880s bicycles became the rage. Many cyclist clubs were formed in the East End and the heretofore pastoral equestrian trails became frenetic byways for bikers. Many residents grumbled about the cyclists. Not much has changed.

Heinz, who taught Sunday school regularly in Pittsburgh and even internationally, and Westinghouse were national supporters of the YMCA. Doubtless they along with many other East Enders materially supported the former YMCA building where ACE now calls home.

The only industry truly birthed in Pittsburgh was aluminum by East Ender Alfred Hunt. Hunt, an MIT trained metallurgist, early believed that aluminum would revolutionize the metals industry.

He lived at 272 Shady Avenue in East Liberty. He founded the Pittsburgh Reduction Company that would become ALCOA. Hunt provided aluminum parts for the Wright Brother’s first airplane.

Pittsburgh’s first industry was glass. East Ender Benjamin Bakewell (1767-1844) revolutionized American glass making by mass producing clear glass with Pittsburgh glass being extensively shipped throughout the world. Bakewell’s daughter married bird artist James Audubon. Audubon painted his famous Passenger Pidgeon portrait in the East End and ran a gristmill there for a while, but it failed. The first President to visit Pittsburgh was James Monroe, who visited with Bakewell in the East End. Edward Dithridge would make a fortune by creating oil chimney lamps made of glass. John Pitcairin, whose brother would become president of the Pennsylvania Rail Road, made a killing in the emerging oil industry and subsequently invested it in glass forming Pittsburgh Plate Glass in 1883.

Iron, and later steel, was to become Pittsburgh’s signature trade. When Charles Dickens visited Pittsburgh in 1842 he called it “hell with the lid off” owing to Pittsburgh’s furnaces that boasted the world’s largest production of iron at that time. During the Civil War Pittsburgh was the Union’s forge and principal provider of most heavy military equipment and munitions.

Evidence exists that Confederate General JEB Stuart planned raids on the Pittsburgh iron facilities including the homes of the East End so-called “Pig Iron Aristocrats.” A number of panics occurred in East End neighborhoods during the Civil War that resulted in valuables being buried in the woods for fear of raids by JEB Stuart’s cavalry.

Other metal magnates were created too such as East Ender Curtis Hussey who started in copper but moved into crucible steel making in 1858. In dollar terms he was Pittsburgh’s first millionaire. Hussey was a medical doctor and gave George Westinghouse a loan to help start his business.

Few realize that even before Edwin Drake drilled the first oil well in Titusville, PA that the world’s first oil market and refineries were in Pittsburgh with East Enders being prominently involved. In 1867 Pittsburgh had 58 oil refineries and set the world’s oil prices. Everyone connects Rockefeller and Standard Oil with Cleveland, but Standard Oil was founded in Charles Lockhart’s East Liberty home on 608 North Highland Avenue, not far from the ACE. In 1906 the Mellon’s took over Gulf Oil which solidified Pittsburgh’s place as an oil town.

The New York Times reported in 1906 that Lockhart’s estate was worth an eye-popping $200 million ranking him among America’s 10 richest capitalists, a list that included Andrew Carnegie at $300 million, John Rockefeller at $250 million, Henry Clay Frick at $70 million and J. P. Morgan at $60 million. Even accounting for inflation these may seem like paltry sums but as a percentage of the nation’s wealth they were staggering. When Carnegie sold his steel business to JP Morgan he had more cash than any person, business or government on earth (the gold standard was still in effect so printing money did not occur as it does today.) Carnegie had over 1% of the wealth of the entire nation at one time. So, using this measure there were a handful of East End industrialists who comparatively make Bill Gates look like a pauper.

Oswald Werner, who lived at 830 North Highland Avenue, was one of many East End inventors, making a fortune by developing dry cleaning.

The East End’s greatest inventor was George Westinghouse who lived on Thomas Boulevard. He really had three amazing technical careers: first he revolutionized the railroad industry by inventing the airbrake; second, and not well known, he did the design and engineering for the natural gas industry (he actually drilled natural gas wells on his estate property in the east End the more easily perfect his inventions) and: third was electricity. A prolific inventor in his own right, Westinghouse paid Nicola Tesla $60,000 (over $1.4 million dollars today) for his patents in the 1880s, and proved that electrical alternating current was superior to Thomas Edison’s direct current methods, which was fiercely backed by JP Morgan.

Around 1900 the East Enders led the world in the manufacture of steel, iron, coal, oil, gas, aluminum, electrical equipment and pickles, to name a few.

The zenith of the East End’s business and political power came during the administration of President William McKinley who was elected in 1896 and again in 1900. McKinley owed much to the East End for financing his campaigns allowing him to by-pass New York interests. The East Enders were rewarded with tariffs that set off an export and growth boom that was unprecedented. McKinley’s assassination in 1901 came as a severe blow to the East Enders. Many would attend his funeral travelling in special Pennsylvania Railroad cars. Shortly after McKinley’s death a memorial was planned for his birthplace in Niles, OH. The McKinley memorial is perhaps the single most important yet unknown recognition of Pittsburgh’s East Enders. It includes busts of 42 individuals for which Pittsburgh’s East End is the most represented. Prominently displayed is the bust of Henry Clay Frick surrounded by Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, Philander Knox, Benjamin Jones and George Westinghouse.

Perhaps the East Enders most lasting legacy has been philanthropy. It’s hard to get beyond the enormous gifts and renown of Carnegie, but giving back to the community had been a core value since the early 1800s, well before the East End’s heyday. New York millionaires tended to think of giving their money away as “feeding the birds.” Or even in the case of Vanderbilt as actually being destructive to society. While New York families were building dynasties, the East Enders believed there was no honor in money alone. They gave generously to the poor. The East Enders tended to give anonymously, unlike Carnegie, aiming to help rather than direct. In an age where social welfare organizations lacked government support, the East Enders routinely gave donations, large and small, for everything from hospitals to musical instruments. They were particularly generous to schools, libraries, and cultural organizations because they believed that free access to education was critical for capitalism to succeed. They distained inherited wealth and rejected the European class system so admired by their New York counterparts. Their Presbyterianism taught them to care for the less fortunate and Freemasonry promoted sharing and helping. For example, Carnegie gave away approximately $350 million. Frick gave 5/6th of his $143 million to charity. The East Enders, in their day, were simply the nation’s best philanthropists.

So ACE hotel, you are in the midst of a very unique neighborhood. The East End is again on the rise and you are part of it. Who knows, maybe some of your patrons will be creating new unheard-of industries that will join the legacy of their East End forbearers. But please, in deference to former neighbor George Westinghouse, no Edison light bulbs ever at the ACE!

I am looking forward to tonight!

 

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