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Mexican War Streets Historic District


The Mexican War Streets Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. Portions of the text below were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [1] Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.

Description

The Mexican War Streets Historic District is a 27 acre tract of land on Pittsburgh's North Side. The District includes the following streets and alleys (from west to east), Drovers Way, an alley, Buena Vista St., Mimosa Way, an alley, Monterey St., Day Way, an alley, Resaca Place, Filson St., an alley, and Palo Alto St. These streets and alleys are parallel and run south to north. These streets are bound by Jacksonia St., Armandale and O'Hern St. to the north and by North Avenue to the south. Opposite North Avenue is West Park, a city park. Houses were first built in this area in 1846-47. Construction continued through the 1850's; and there was a building boom here in the 1860's. All tracts of land are shown as well built up in Hopkins Atlas of 1882. Thus the architectural styles vary from Greek Revival, Italianate, Second Empire Mansards, Richardson Romanesque, and early 20th Century retardataire styles of the previous century. All of the streets have a consistent scale of two and three bay; two to four story houses. The houses on Monterey, Resaca Place, Palo Alto and Taylor are basically three bay, two and half story brick structures in Greek Revival or Italianate modes. Buena Vista is most noteworthy for a row of three story Romanesque masonry houses; across from these are very early 20th century brick houses, two and three bays, two and a half stories, with roof dormers, fine brick corbeling patterns at the cornice levels, and stone belt courses connecting the stone lintels. The houses on North Avenue are larger three, and four story structures with small front yards; these are, for the most part, Italianate. Various smaller brick and frame houses abut the alleys that parallel these streets. (The brick sidewalks enhance the architectural character and quality of the streets.) The first building restored in the area by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation was at 1233 Resaca Place. The three bay three story brick building is characteristic of the house form of the district. To emphasize their rich details, the elaborate molds and sills of the windows and doors, and the bracketed cornice were painted mustard gold. The interior was subdivided into three apartments. An original Victorian fireplace was restored, brick walls were exposed and artifacts from other North Side buildings that have been demolished were reused. Most of the houses in the area have been divided into apartment units. "The reason is that tenants have less to lose than owners and are more willing to risk moving into an older yet interesting area." Other houses have been sandblasted to clean the facades; wood trim, lintels, hood molds, brackets, cornices, and brick walls have been repainted; stained and etched glass has been cleaned and repaired; cast and wrought iron crestings and grill work has been repaired and Victorian window forms and other facade components have been reinstated to return the houses to their original appearance. Many houses have brick surfaced patios and gardens. But, in any event, the yards are clean and well kept. The interiors have been creatively divided into single and multi-level units. Brick walls and ceiling joists have been exposed, stained and etched glass has been cleaned and authentic ceiling moldings and rosettes have been repaired. In addition, the interiors offer the resident original white or black marble fireplaces, tall oak mirrored mantles, wide plank floors and high windows and high ceilings. Many houses also incorporate artifacts such as paneling from demolished buildings; and other houses have added skylights in order to use previously dark attic space.

The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation painted the exteriors and remodeled some of the interiors for low income tenant houses. Some of the tenants did their own redecorating in which they were sensitive to the original moldings and fireplaces.

The Mexican War Streets is once again a diverse urban neighborhood in terms of its inhabitants and its architectural structures. Architectural, urban, and the psychological renewal of the inhabitants have successfully taken place within the Mexican War Streets. Because of the manageable sizes of the houses and the close proximity of Allegheny Center and Community College, the restoration process will assuredly continue.

Significance

Prior to 1788, the land on which the Mexican War Streets now stand sat idle. It was Indian country. In 1788, the legislature directed a survey of 3,000 acres with the intention of bringing it onto the market to pay claims of Pennsylvania soldiers. The land was named "The Reserve Tract Opposite Pittsburgh."

The first white man to settle in Old Allegheny was William Robinson. He lived in a log cabin and earned his keep by ferrying across the river, passengers who wanted to journey West. His son was General Robinson who later became the first Mayor of Allegheny. The importance of these facts in relation to the Mexican War Streets, is that the Robinsons held onto the land where they were located (city lots 9 & 10) from 1788 into the 1840's, when streets were finally laid down and houses built. It was from the Robinson estate that the Buena Vista Tract north of the Commons was developed. The streets are named for battles of the Mexican War (1846-47).

Robinson's Buena Vista Extension was sold off to 12 buyers between 1848 and 1859.

All tracts of land are shown well built up in Hopkins Atlas of 1882.

The 27 acre proposed historic district include the following streets: (from West to East) Drovers Way, an alley, Buena Vista St., Mimosa Way, an alley, Monterey St., Day Way, an alley, Resaca Place, Filson St., an alley, and Palo Alto St. These streets and alleys are parallel and all run South to North. This area is bound by Jacksonia St., Armandale, and O'Hern Street to the North and by North Avenue to the South. Opposite North Avenue is West Park.

Houses were first built in the area in 1846-47. In the 1860's there was another period of housing construction. All the streets have a consistent scale of 3 bay, 2 to 4 , story houses. Architectural styles vary from Greek Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, Richardsonian Romanesque, and early 20th century. The Romanesque houses were most probably influenced by Henry Hobson Richardson's Allegheny County Courthouse and jail and later by Smithmeyer and Pelz's Allegheny Library.

The houses on Monterey Street, Resaca Place, and Palo Alto Street are basically 3 bay, 2 story brick structures; either Greek Revival or Italianate. Buena Vista is most noteworthy for a row of stone Romanesque masonry houses; across from these are very early 20th century brick houses, 2 1/2 stories, 2 and 3 bays, with fine brick corbeling patterns at the cornice levels and stone belt courses. On North Taylor, the houses are 3 bay 2 or 3 story brick houses either Greek Revival or Italianate. The houses on North Avenue are large 3 and 4 story structures with small front yards; these are for the most part Italianate. Various smaller brick and frame houses abut the alleys that parallel these streets. (The brick sidewalks enhance the architectural character and quality of the streets.)

By the late 19th and early 20th century, the Mexican War Street area was a thriving middle class community. Most people owned their own property and the population consisted largely of Irish and German professional and working class families. The family business and residence were commonly housed in the same building; shops and houses were interspersed along the streets. For example, across from Resaca on North Taylor are 2 yellow brick houses built by the grandfather of Mr. Pivorotto of Hornes Department Store. There was originally a macaroni factory in the back of these houses. Down the street on North Taylor was a grocery store; number 600 North Taylor was a tobacco shop; number 1246 was a barber shop; and 1241 was a bakery. This street also had a beer garden, and a church. It was also a common practice for doctors to have their office in their homes.

The Mexican War Streets are architecturally homogeneous in scale, proportion and style, and formerly supported a diverse commercial and residential community. Beginning in the 1920's and continuing through the 1940's the original population and their decedents were leaving the area. The area remained in a neglected dilapidated condition until 1966 when the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation became interested in the area.

The Sarah Mellon Scaife Foundation granted the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation $100,000.00 to establish a fund for the restoration of significant residential structures as deemed appropriate by Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. The primary area of concern was to be the Mexican War Streets district in central North Side.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation initial goals for the area involved more than architectural restoration. After purchasing houses in the poorest condition and those owned by absentee landlords, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, conducted housing experiments involving different levels of restoration. This concept was heretofore untried by preservation groups in America, i.e., complete restorations for all income groups.

The Foundation also induces sympathetic investors to purchase houses in poor condition from absentee landlords and restore them. They encourage owners occupying property in the district to remain and to invest in restoring and maintaining their houses. Also, the Foundation attempts to bolster neighborhood efforts to renew the area and to improve city and county services affecting it.

Four houses were initially purchased and restored in compliance with the goals of selling and renting to various income levels.

In relation to the problems of maintaining the indigenous tenant population in the district, the Foundation thoroughly studied the problems of ghetto housing and the federal programs that are available to try to solve them. The Foundation entered into a leased housing agreement with the Pittsburgh Housing Authority. Under this program, the upper floors of 1220 Monterey Street were restored as a 3 bedroom apartment and rented to the Housing Authority who in turn lease the unit to a low income family at a rate it can afford. Through this arrangement, a vital piece of architecture was preserved, a low income family has a good dwelling, no federal red-tape was required, an abandoned unit was brought back on the market, and no dislocation or demolition occurred. This program has never been attempted by a preservation organization in the United States.

Dr. S. K. Stevens, Chairman of the Presidents's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation has said that this experimental program is of national significance both for the preservation movement and for the problem of renewing ghetto housing without wholesale dislocation and demolition.

In 1970 a national conference held in Pittsburgh to review this method of architectural preservation was called for by the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Prior to this, 115 members of the American Institute of Planners from throughout the country attended a conference here to review the program.

The Department of City Planning has declared the area a preservation district and recognizes the Foundation to be the chief force for renewal in the area.

Simultaneously, the Foundation and private owners were restoring numerous other properties in the area for higher rentals. By encouraging mixed income levels in the area, the district was stabilized. To date, [at the time of this writing] 96 properties have been restored; 23 are in the process of restoration.

The decay of the Mexican War Streets has been arrested, the area has been infused with new life and given the beginnings of a sound future. More notably than any other renewal area in Pittsburgh, the Mexican War Streets district is a balanced neighborhood, properties have been sold and rented to professional persons, business executives, retired middle income persons, white collar workers, blue collar workers and low income families.

Because the houses and apartments are a manageable, restorable size and within a close proximity to Allegheny Center and Community College, the trend of restoring this 19th century neighborhood is assured to continue.

The restored areas have brought a new awareness of the value of the houses and location of the neighborhood to the people who live there, instilled civic pride at a time when the people needed it, and showed them how they could renew their own area without dislocation, demolition and massive federal spending.

The Mexican War Streets restoration program is unique from any other preservation program in the country. The different levels of restorations have aimed for and achieved a healthy, balanced neighborhood. This is a small but ideal solution both, to preserving our architectural heritage and solving critical urban problems. Private enterprises, civic pride, and notable architecture have been brought together in an urban environment and worked out a solution for urban renewal based on the efforts of individuals.

References

Van Trump, James D. and Ziegler, Jr. Arthur P. Jr. Architecture of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania; Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, 1967 pp 23-26

  1. Van Trump, James D., Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, The Mexican War Streets, 1973, nomination document, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

See Map

Street Names: Armandale Street, Buena Vista Street, Day Way, Drovers Way, Filson Street, Jacksonia Street, Mimosa Way, Monterey Street, North Avenue, OHern Street, Palo Alto Street, Resaca Place

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