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Thornburg Historic District


The Thornburg Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [1] Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.

Description

Thornburg, as an example of an early twentieth century planned suburban residential development, has remained remarkably intact considering its proximity (4 miles) to downtown Pittsburgh and the more recent residential and commercial development in the areas surrounding it. It is relatively isolated due to the surrounding topography which includes hillsides undermined by coal extraction, precluding large scale development.

The community is situated on a terraced bluff with a southeasterly orientation overlooking Chartiers Creek and its valley. Crafton Golf Course, formerly the Thornburg Country Club, rests in the valley plane on the west side of Chartiers Creek. The Pittsburgh, Chartiers and Youghiogheny Railroad line, formerly the Pennsylvania Railroad, rides the ridge one hundred feet above the valley floor and delineates the southern and eastern edges of Thornburg's residential area. The district is distinctly bound on all sides by undeveloped hillsides with coal pits and sink holes, but covered with vegetation. There is a rise of nearly one hundred feet from the highest home in the older district, the third Thornburg mansion at 1132 Lehigh Road, and the newer district bounded by Baldwin Road.

Of the 75 buildings in the district, all but one are residential, and 63 date to the 1900-1919 period, 5 were built between 1920 and 1939, 2 date to 1940 and 5 have been built since 1960. Individual survey forms have been prepared for 70 of the structures.

Thornburg's substantial early suburban homes were laid out in contiguous square or rectangular lots, varying between 50 and 150 feet in width, which appear to be regularly shaped on a map, but which visually are often irregular due to the hilly contours of the land. Homes along Princeton Road, Cornell Road, Dartmouth Place, and parts of Hamilton Road are set back 30 feet from the sidewalks and face each other along tree lined streets. Harvard, Lehigh, Stanford, and upper Hamilton Road have homes terraced along a ridge on one side of the street overlooking wooded hillsides. All Thornburg homes have modest yards.

The architecture of a majority of the homes in Thornburg can be classified as Bungaloid or Shingle style. Also represented in smaller quantities are the Mission style, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, and Tudor Revival modes. Some of the houses reflect Frank Thornburg's penchant for California domestic architecture, developed through his travels. The strictly residential nature of the area is greatly enhanced by the use of these informal, domestic designs. These styles, closely associated with the romantic revival ideal of the late nineteenth century, illustrate the nostalgic flavor of suburban development at this time and a characteristic yearning for a "country cottage" without the isolation of the farm. With a few exceptions, the Thornburg homes are a mixture of one and one-half to two story, two to three bay bungalow adaptations. The primary building materials are fieldstone, emphasis on browns, greys, and beiges. Most homes have minimal decoration, relying instead on exposed rafters and half-timbering for detail. They were designed by unknown or local architects, with two basic restrictions placed upon them by the developers. The first restriction was that each home cost a minimum of $2,500 to build, and the second was that each home have a first floor of masonry to prevent fires.

Additions to the neighborhood between 1920 and 1940 included seven brick or stone houses representing the Colonial and English styles popular for suburban residences during that era. The five post-1960 houses in the district are scattered among the rest. They are undistinguished designs of the suburban tract variety which do not significantly detract from the ambience of the development.

A few houses are distinguished from the rest by their size or design. The Mathews/Fleck house at 1080 Stanford Road, built in 1906, is a copy of Morris/Jumel house in New York City. The two story, five bay Georgian mansion rests on the crest of a hill at the intersection of Stanford and Harvard Roads above Cornell Road, and features a grand central portico on Ionic columns.

The second house whose scale belies the rule of modesty is the Thornburg/Haller house at 1132 Lehigh Road sited to overlook the rest of Thornburg from its corner site. It is a sprawling one and one-half story Shingle style mansion of ashlar and black Italian mortar with a hip roof, shed and hip roof dormers with shingling and a polygonal porch which winds around one and one-half sides. The roofline is interesting for its numerous elongated chimneys at the ridge pole which balance the horizontal massing and the overhanging eaves with exposed rafters. The total effect is one of rustic grandeur.

The one story, multi-bay Thornburg school building, designed by local architect Press C. Dowler in 1910 has been a continuing focal point for the Thornburg district and remains its only non-residential structure. Due to its modest scale and subtle Mission style architecture, however, it is not obtrusive. The grounds provide a park-like area with their tennis courts and picnic areas, while the Thornburg Community Club has made excellent use of the former school as a community center.

In keeping with the size and scale of homes in Thornburg, the thirteen homes on upper Hamilton Road known as "Bungalow Row" illustrated the essence of the district. But for two post-war modern intrusions at 658 and 608 Hamilton Road, all of the homes are one and one-half story, three bay bungalows or cottages with a delightful variety of detail. Their high terraced siting overlooking the hillside vegetation and their native fieldstone foundations lend these homes an air of country charm.

Most homes in Thornburg are in good or excellent condition with resident owners who actively maintain them. Few drastic alterations have been done other than the enclosing of formerly open porches.

In the advertisements of 1900 free spring water for "eternity" was promised potential lot-buyers, and residents recall several springs about the properties. Unfortunately, this water supply was spoiled by coal extraction at the end of Hamilton Road, beginning in 1912, by Benjamin S. Hammill, a Thornburg resident.

A bridge connects Thornburg with the neighboring community of Crafton across Chartiers Creek.

Significance

The Thornburg Historic District is notable as a document of a nationwide movement in community planning and landscape design. As one of Pittsburgh's earliest planned dormitory imaginative domestic architecture which were the goals of such developments. In addition the district carries associations with Pittsburgh's business and industrial history through the activities of its residents and the location there of the first coal railroad in Pennsylvania.

The early history of the area may be briefly outlined. Chartiers Creek was named for Peter Chartiers, a French-Indian Shawnee who lived at the mouth of the creek in the 1740's and used it as a base for his thievery. The same valley was claimed by the French in 1749, and counter-claimed by the British in 1753. The British, finding the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers more strategic for their purposes, saved the Chartiers Valley from experiencing warfare, and it remained primarily farmland.

Thornburg in 1849 was the site of the first railroad built in Pennsylvania to take coal to market, the Chartiers Valley Railroad. The Chartier Coal Company of Allegheny was to be transported from the mine to Coal Harbor located in a cove behind Brunet's Island near the present site of Chartiers Country Club on Baldwin Road. Coal was to be transported from the mine to Coal Harbor, located in a cove behind Brunot's Island near present-day McKees Rocks on the Ohio River. According to a letter from the engineer of the company, Edwood Morris, this train had the first soft coal powered locomotive west of the Alleghenies. The demise of the Chartiers Valley Railroad and the Chartiers Coal Company appears to have been sometime in 1855, but the cause of its collapse has not been determined.

The Thornburg Historic District's greatest significance lies in its role as a document of the phenomenon of suburban development in the early twentieth century. Thornburg was by no means the first planned suburban community in Pittsburgh. Precedents and paralleled developments may be cited, from an early attempt in the 1870's at Wildwood Park, an unrealized plan on the site of the present Longue Vue Country Club to Rosslyn Farms, the suburb adjacent to Thornburg, in 1903 and Schenley Farms, a suburb within the City of Pittsburgh, in 1905. Unlike many of its counterparts, however, Thornburg has suffered few intrusions and remains intact as an isolated suburban community. Conceived along the lines of Bruce Price's Tuxedo Park in New York State, the ideal was a park-like preserve in which to build comfortable, sprawling homes, while maintaining accessibility to the commercial and social services of a large city. Tuxedo Park succeeded by incorporating everyday services into its village area, and tying itself to New York City via railway. Thornburg dispensed with the internal services, and concentrated on maintaining swift and relatively simple transportation into the city. Residents have access to the Boroughs of Crafton and Ingram, as well as the cities of Pittsburgh and Allegheny, aboard a train and later a streetcar line which stopped at the base of Hamilton Road.

Architecturally, the Craftsman style as the American outgrowth of the English Arts and Crafts Movements which found its expression in a variety of stylistic vocabularies, is reflected in the concept and design on the Thornburg development. Protesting against machine-age artificiality the movement sought functional plans, organic harmony, and complete integration with natural surroundings. The houses in the Thornburg Historic District embody those ideals, as well as the fine interior woodwork for which the movement is noted. Some of the designs were featured in architectural periodicals of the 1900-1919 era.

The development attracted upper middle class professionals who sought a pastoral setting accessible to the city. Inhabitants of the Thornburg Historic District have not been nationally famous, but through the energy and initiative of its citizens in managing local businesses and civic activities, Thornburg has had a substantial influence upon local history. The first woman to graduate from Carnegie Institute of Technology's School of Architecture was a Thornburg resident from childhood, as was the first American woman to attend Oxford University in England. In addition, many Thornburgers have been prominent in Pittsburgh business and industry as executives and small business owners. Indeed, the 1908 Blue Book listed a number of Thornburg addresses.

Reference

Harold Kirker, California Architectural Frontier: Style and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century, San Marino: The Huntington Library, 1960.

  1. Smith, Eliza and Donnelly, Lu, Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, Thornburg Historic District, 1980, nomination document, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Thornburg Historic District Map

Street Names
Cornell Road • Dartmouth Road • Hamilton Road • Harvard Road • Princeton Road • Smith Lane • Stanford Road • Thornburg Road • Yale Road

**Information is curated from a variety of sources and, while deemed reliable, is not guaranteed.
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