Steel City architecture: Exploring Pittsburgh’s historic homes

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Zian Meng | Staff Photographer

The Frick family’s Clayton House in Point Breeze.

By Diana Velasquez, Senior Staff Writer

A student not native to the Pittsburgh area may easily pass by the Frick Fine Arts Building and give it no more than a cursory glance to its name. But Henry Clay Frick was more than a passing footnote in Pittsburgh’s history — he was one of the notorious industrialists who built it.

If you were looking around the Pittsburgh area for a museum to frequent or an old house to tour, chances are that it was built by one of these famed industrialists. These historic homes range from the Frick family’s old 23-room mansion, to the Alan Frank House’s pristine 1940s interior, to Fallingwater — a vacation home for the famed Kaufmanns of Pittsburgh.

Drew Armstrong, director and associate professor of architectural studies, said the reason Pittsburgh and the surrounding area is so rife with historical buildings is because of the City’s history as an industrial boomtown.

“Pittsburgh was a hotbed for major industries,” he said. “Which means that people like the Kaufmanns and the Fricks, who are globally significant people, these are people who are up to date.”

Dawn Reid Brean, the associate curator of decorative arts for The Frick Pittsburgh, said a part of maintaining a historic home like the Frick family’s Clayton House in Point Breeze is telling a story while remaining conscious of the history of its previous owners.

Henry Clay Frick, the family’s founder, was known just as well for his union-busting in the late 1800s as he was for his contributions to the City’s history. His family’s legacy is tainted with injustice against steelworkers. Brean said she strives to acknowledge this in tandem with his historical home, rather than championing the Frick family blindly.

“A huge part of what we’re doing is just the storytelling we can do about this house,” she said.For a long time history has focused on Frick as an industrialist, everyone knows his name in Pittsburgh, but the house is not meant to stand purely as a celebration or a monument to him.”

As a curator, Brean said she tries to keep everything in the house in its most authentic state. According to Brean, 93% of the artifacts inside Clayton House originally belong to the site and the Frick family. To keep these pieces of history intact, Brean said she does her best to interfere with them as little as possible.

“I had an old coworker who used to say, ‘A good conservator is a lazy conservator.’ Really the less that you do to objects, leaving them in the current condition, the better,” she said. “If you’re handling them, even if it’s to clean them, the chances are higher that it won’t retain its original image.”

According to Brean, the Clayton House can be authentic in its depictions of a Gilded Age home in part due to the set of photos the estate has maintained from about 1901. Brean said she uses these albumed pictures as a benchmark for how the house should look.

“It’s kind of our bible, how the Frick family was decorating, where objects were, how they lived,” she said. “That gives us clues of where to put things and how to place things.

Tours of the Clayton House are currently suspended due to COVID-19, and the public is not allowed to touch any of the artifacts inside. But Fallingwater, a historic home located in nearby Mill Run, is more of a marvel in terms of structure rather than the things inside.

Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, who was famed for “organic architecture” constructing his buildings in tandem with the environment, Fallingwater is considered to be one of the most important architectural buildings in the country.

Connor Scanlon, a junior neuroscience and chemistry major and architecture enthusiast, said Fallingwater was one of the central focuses of his modern architecture class last semester due to how significant it is for modernism. He said Fallingwater stood out to him because it is, as the name implies, constructed on a waterfall in the middle of the woods.

“It has a creek running right through it. It’s amazing,” he said. “It plays off the area around it, as in it couldn’t have been built anywhere else.”

According to Armstrong, many of Pittsburgh’s historical buildings are built off this sense of “modernity.” The philanthropists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries aimed for their homes to be a picture of an evolving world. The Alan Frank House near Squirrel Hill, privately owned and available for visit only by a lucky few individuals, is another example of modernism on the minds of Pittsburgh philanthropists.

The house, which was constructed between 1939 and 1940, has remained in its original state. According to Armstrong, there have been no remodelings and no change to the architecture or the interior contents of the home. Armstrong said it’s importance to architectural history falls into the likes of Fallingwater.

“It would also rank up there with Fallingwater as one of the most important buildings of its time, certainly in the United States,” he said.

Pittsburgh’s reputation as a Steel City is no figment of the past. The legacy of the people who toiled away in the mills on the dime of industrialists is built quite literally into the foundations of the City’s buildings today, according to Armstrong. He said the legacy of the people behind their construction is part of the reason why the houses are so significant.

“These houses essentially reflect the industrial history of the City, which I think everyone should be familiar with,” he said.

For Brean, this means tying the Clayton House and the history of the Frick family to the present day. The houses reflect not just the rich industrialists of the past but highlight issues in the present day in terms of wealth gaps, something we should all be more aware of nowadays.

“We’re pulling together all those elements of history together and making them relevant,” she said. “Because as we’ve seen over the last few months, a lot of the issues that plagued the Gilded Age are still relevant today.”

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