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East Carson Street Historic District


East Carson Street, Pittsburgh, PA, with Southside Slopes in the background.

Photo: East Carson Street, Pittsburgh, PA, with Southside Slopes in the background. Photographed by Tom Murphy VII (own work), 20007, [cc0-by-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed April, 2014.

The East Carson Street Historic District (also known as the Southside Flats) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Portions of the text below were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [1] Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.

Description

The East Carson Street Historic District is located on the south bank of the Monongehela River approximately 4 miles from the point and covers about 32 acres in the central section of the South Side Flats neighborhood. A green hillside (South Side Slopes neighborhood) punctuated with 19th century hill housing forms a backdrop for the area.

It is a low rise commercial district stretching a mile from South 9th to South 24th Streets and includes all structures facing East Carson Street. Some buildings to the north between South 9th on Bingham east to include Bedford Square and ending at South 15th Street have also been include.

Minutes from downtown Pittsburgh and the Oakland Civic Center, the district is the best example of a late 19th century low rise commercial district in Allegheny County. East Carson Street is one of the many streets which make up the extensive grid pattern of the South Side neighborhood, built up with adjoining houses reminiscent of Europe.

East Carson Street which runs the length of the district, is the main business artery. It was named for a sea captain friend of Dr. Nathaniel Bedford who laid out Birmingham, and its role as a historic highway when it was incorporated into the Washington Pike in 1818, accounts for its beginnings as a commercial district.

Survey data forms were used to record entire blocks of buildings on each side of East Carson Street. Buildings of exceptional quality were recorded separately on individual forms.

The vast majority of extant structures date from between 1870 and 1910. A few earlier buildings from 1850 to 1870 can be found in the western section and around Bedford Square, in the old Birmingham section of the district west of South 17th Street. Very little new construction has occurred since 1910. There have, however, been some facade renovations during the last 60 years which give the district a heterogeneous character. These renovations, however, have been mostly confined to street level, while the upper floors maintain a high degree of integrity.

Brick is the major building material with frame buildings interspersed throughout. The buildings were constructed in flush rows with contiguous facades forming even street walls. They are generally 2 to 4 stories high and 2 to 4 bays wide. Most buildings are rectangular in plan stretching back twice their street width and doorways open directly onto the sidewalks.

Many buildings are ornamented in the predominant styles of the late 19th century — Romanesque, Italianate and Second Empire. Classical Victorian style row houses and commercial buildings ornamented with brackets, corbelling, ornamental down spouts, catch basins, carved doorways, cornices, leaded glass transoms, cast iron hood ornaments and geometric slate patterns in mansards; some alleys and ways still have their herring bone brick walks.

Contractors often repeated buildings with variations as is evidenced throughout the district, and both residential and commercial structures reflect competence and pride in workmanship. Ornamental details were produced and distributed throughout the building trades and plans were available through widely circulated publications.

Original storefronts can be seen at 1928, 2116 and 2338 East Carson Street. A particularly interesting block for architectural details — 1700 East Carson Street, has been fairly well maintained along with the 2200 block.

Buildings of exceptional architectural quality are a Second Empire at 1102 East Carson Street although little is known of its history, and another of the same style at 1737 East Carson Street. The latter was constructed in 1873 for Mohrhoff Millinery and later served as the Farmers & Mechanics Bank and the Manufacturers Bank. It has a cast iron facade.

In 1874, J. H. Sorg constructed the building at 1805 East Carson Street, now the Carson City Saloon, as a residence for his family and as an office for his real estate firm. It is a high Victorian Italianate style. Frequently, the builder and owner were the same person.

The Benz Brothers (see significance) were responsible for a good deal of the construction in the district from 1848 to the early 20th century. The 1902 Pittsburgh National Bank formerly Peoples Trust Company and the rebuilt 1915 Market House are examples of their finer works.

John Seibert, another well known builder on the South Side, was responsible for the French Art Furniture Store at 1825 East Carson Street, the 1897 South Side High School on East Carson Street, both are Romanesque in style.

94 South 18th Street is a Queen Anne style and was built by George Troutman, owner of the A&G grocery at 1801 East Carson Street, as a testimony to his success.

In 1910, Frederick Maul, president of the German Savings & Deposit Bank, built the terra-cotta Maul Building at 1704 East Carson Street. Terra-cotta was once a popular building material since its mass production made it economical and it could provide a steel framed building with a sculptural effect similar to more costly carved stone buildings.

There are a few institutional buildings in the district. The 1850 Greek Revival Bedford School is the city's oldest extant school building.

Two 1850s vintage brick Greek Revival churches also survive in the old Birmingham area not far from Bedford Square. The 1854 Ninth United Presbyterian Church (First Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church) and the 1859 Bingham Street Methodist Church (Birmingham Methodist Episcopal Church).

Also extant in the district is a relic of Birmingham's days as the nucleus of American glass industry. It is the 1891 Ripley Glass Company built by the Benz Brothers, which became Factory F of the United States Glass Company Cartel and is currently being used as the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center.

The Romanesque market house, however, remains the centre of old Birmingham serving as a community center today. Bedford Square itself is an extant example of pre-Victorian town planning.

The streets themselves reflect the different periods of growth in the area. When Birmingham was originally laid out there were wide fields adjacent. Planners did not anticipate that it would become crowded to capacity, so consequently narrow throughfares were laid out. East of South 17th Street in East Birmingham, the streets are wider. Each borough laid out its own streets and in East Birmingham, many streets did not extend into the borough of Birmingham and Sarah Street is offset.

By restoring and preserving what is left of the original architecture, most of which cannot be duplicated today; the physical appearance of a thriving 19th century community can be documented.

Significance

The East Carson Street Historic District, located on the south bank of the Monongahela River, was the commercial core for one of Pittsburgh's most important industrial and transportation centers during the mid to late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. High quality intact three to four story brick commercial structures built in the Romanesque, Italianate and Second Empire styles characterize the East Carson Street Historic District, a fine turn-of-the-century Main Street.

The original landowner of Birmingham was John Ormsby, who in 1763 was warranted two to three thousand acres of land by the King of England in recognition of his service in the French & Indian War. Ormsby was with General Forbes when Fort Duquesne was taken in 1758 and helped to build Fort Pitt. His patent included the historical borders of the present South Side Flats neighborhood which was subsequently divided into small boroughs. The East Carson Street District contains structures that were part of each of 3 of these separate contiguous boroughs: South Pittsburgh, known also as Sydneyville, which extended from the Smithfield Street Bridge to South Tenth Street; Birmingham which extended from South Tenth Street to Seventeenth Street; and East Birmingham which extended from South Seventeenth Street to South 27th Street. These boroughs were collectively annexed to the city of Pittsburgh in 1872.

In the 1770s, Ormsby built an estate called Homestead Farms in the area later known as East Birmingham, and established a ferry connecting his home with Pittsburgh. He deeded the land between Sixth and Seventeenth Streets to his daughter Jane, who later married Dr. Nathaniel Bedford. It was Bedford, who in 1811, laid out a town which he called Birmingham after his native city in England, a noted iron and coal producing area. The name was appropriate since the borough eventually surpassed its namesake in production of iron and coal.

Birmingham in the center of three boroughs was the original settlement (the streets here are narrower, but widen again at South 17th Street) and Diamond Square was the core of the new village. The present market house is the last of a series of Market houses that stood on the site in the center of the square. Dr. Bedford (for whom the square was later named) gave the land to the community in 1816, with the condition it be used for public purposes only and his wishes have been respected. Today Bedford Square remains as a notable example of pre-Victorian town planning.

East Carson Street which runs the complete length of the district, was part of the original town plan of Birmingham. When the Monongahela River Bridge (at the site of the Smithfield Street Bridge) opened in 1818, Carson Street was incorporated into the Washington Pike. This was the chief route between Pittsburgh and Washington, PA where it connected with the National Road. The street is much wider from Seventeenth Street, the eastern boundary of the old borough of Birmingham to the eastern edge of the district at 24th Street.

Mr. Ormsby provided the additional width through East Birmingham and an ordinance was passed naming the street Ormsby.[1] East Carson Street was later known as the Elizabeth Town Turnpike Road, but by 1872, it was known once again as Carson Street, its original name in honor of a sea captain friend of Dr. Bedford. Today East Carson Street is the main business artery of the South Side neighborhood. The borders of the East Carson Street Historic District from South 9 to South 24 Street were chosen because this impressive stretch features Allegheny County's best collection of Victorian commercial row buildings. Elsewhere on East Carson Street, the visual character has been too altered.

The Borough of Birmingham grew rapidly from its 1872 size of 50 houses to a sizeable industrial center due to its proximity to river transportation and abundant coal supplies. Metal foundries and glass factories supported its growth throughout the nineteenth century. By 1836, Birmingham had become the nucleus of America's glass industry, with nine major local factories in operation; by 1872, 31 glass houses operated in the area. In 1886, Pittsburgh was manufacturing one half of the glass being used in the United States.

The glass industry was eventually replaced by the steel industry at the end of the century. The South Side's location on the river proved ideal for Andrew Carnegie and other industrialists to build their mills for the manufacturing of steel. In 1850, B. F. Jones invested in a puddling iron works and in 1873, formed a partnership with a banker named G. M. Laughlin. The firm of Jones and Laughlin eventually became the area's largest employer, with the Iron & Glass Bank at 1114 East Carson Street a physical landmark symbolizing both the steel and glass industry's economic contribution to and domination of the neighborhood.

Immigration brought a varied ethnic culture to the South Side represented today by homes, social halls and churches which reflect these heritages.

The South Side Flats (and especially East Carson Street Historic District) was a fully developed residential, industrial, commercial and institutional neighborhood by the first decade of the 20th century. The architecture here documents the physical appearance of a thriving nineteenth century working class community and is a monument to the builders who demonstrated the importance of skilled craftsmen and took pride in their workmanship. Both residential and commercial buildings reflect this pride, and could not be duplicated today. Of the many contractors and builders on the South Side in the late 19th century, two prominent firms stand out due to the quality of their buildings and their involvement in the community. These are John Siebert and Sons and the Benz Brothers.

Landelin Benz immigrated from Germany to America in the 1840s and found L. Benz and Company in 1848. In 1873, the firm passed into the hands of his sons. They had a diversified clientele — churches, schools, merchants, bankers, industry, private social clubs and individual residences. John Benz studied architecture in Germany and in 1889, the Pittsburgh and Allegheny Illustrated Review stated:

"They (Benz Brothers) give steady employment to a force ranging from 75-100 men and have filled many of the most important contracts for buildings in Pittsburgh: The business premises include large yards and shops at the corner of Thirteenth and Water Streets, the factory being equipped with all the most highly improved machinery and appliances adapted to the finishing of lumber, which they use in the execution of the large contracts which they receive from all classes of buildings."

Relatively few modern intrusions have occurred along East Carson Street since the first decade of the 20th century and the district retains most of its historic character today.

Endnote

[1]This has not been documented by maps.

References

Albrhant R. and Cunningham, Pittsburgh Neighborhood Atlas. Pittsburgh: 74 volumes on the separate neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, 1978 and update.

Birmingham Union Collection of Historical Materials on the South Side, Archives of Industrial Society, Hillman Library, University of Pittsburgh.

Brashear Association Records, Archives of Industrial Society, Hillman Library, University of Pittsburgh.

Durant, Samuel, History of Allegheny County 1753-1876. Philadelphia: L. H. Everts & Company. 1876, pp. 102, 112-14, 140.

Fleming, George T. The History of Pittsburgh and Environs: Volume II. The American Historical Society, 1922, pp. 642, 651, 764.

Innes, Lowell. Pittsburgh Glass 1797-1891. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976.

Killikelly, Sarah Hutchins. The History of Pittsburgh: Its Rise and Progress. Pittsburgh: Montgomery Publishing Company, 1906, pp. 120-123, 157, 165, 170, 192, 241, 248, 401-402, 521.

Miller, Annie Clark. Chronicles of Families Houses and Estates of Pittsburgh and its Environs. Pittsburgh, 1927, pp. 5, 21-25.

Official Municipal Program of the Sesqui-centennial of the City of Pittsburgh. 1758-1908.

Ohler, Samuel. Pittsburgh's Inclines. Pittsburgh; privately published book, 1972.

Pittsburgh: 1880-1930. Engineers Society of Western Pennsylvania.

Reiser, C. E. Pittsburgh's Commercial Development 1880-1850. Harrisburg: PHMC, 1951.

Swetham, George and Smith, Helene. A Guidebook to Historic Western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1976. pp. 20.

South Side and Birmingham Files, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

Thurston, George. Pittsburgh's Progress Industries and Resources, Pittsburgh: A.A. Anderson & Son, 1886.

Van Trump, J. D. and Ziegler, A. Landmark Architecture of Allegheny County. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, 1967.

Atlas of the Cities of Pittsburgh, Allegheny and the Adjoining Boroughs. Edward Busch, engraver. Philadelphia, G.M. Hopkins & Company, 1872.

Atlas of the Vicinity of the Cities of Pittsburgh and Allegheny, PA. Philadelphia, G. M. Hopkins, 1886.

Insurance Map of Business and Manufactories of Pittsburgh, Allegheny and Birmingham New York City. Sanborn, 1871.

Map of the Cities of Pittsburgh and Allegheny and of the Boroughs of South Pittsburgh, Birmingham, East Birmingham, Lawrenceville, Duquesne and Manchester. by R. E. Gowin, Pittsburgh, Schuchman & Haunlein, 1851.

Plan von Pittsburgh and Umbebungen. In Carl Herzog van Sachsen -Weimar -Eisenach Bernard, Reise, Sr., Hoheit ...durch Nord America, Weimar, W. Hoffman, 1828. A copy of this map is on page 165 of Killikelly's History of Pittsburgh (see above).

Warrantee Atlas of Allegheny County Pennsylvania ... survey from records on file in the Pennsylvania Department of Internal Affairs under the direction of Henry Houck, 1907. Maps of the original grants of land by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh and vicinity.

  1. Cole, Peta Harrington, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, East Carson Street Historic District, nomination document, 1980, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

See Map

Street Names: Carson Street East

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