Cement City Historic District
The Cement City Historic District was isted on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
The Cement City Historic District in Donora, Pennsylvania includes one hundred Prairie style units (a total of eighty buildings) constructed almost entirely of poured-in-place concrete, dating to 1916-1917. This cohesive and compact group of two-story houses is located on a sloping 8.8 acre parcel one-half mile southwest of and overlooking the central business district of Donora. Donora, Washington County, is a steel town located on the northwest side of the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh. The grid-patterned district is bounded by Dakota Alley to the north, Beeler Alley to the west, the rear lot lines of the houses on the south side of Chestnut Street to the south, and the west side of Modisette Avenue to the east. The Cement City Historic District is surrounded by earlier frame houses to the east and later frame and block houses and empty lots to the west. The district contains eighty contributing buildings, one heavily altered non-contributing rental/maintenance building, and three non-contributing post 1945 dwellings.
Cement City is located on a terraced and graded hillside. It is planned around the twenty foot wide, curbed, paved streets of Walnut, Bertha, Ida, Modisette, and Chestnut. The ten foot wide alleys of Beeler, Shearer, Dakota, and Anderson occur between the primary streets and at the rear of lots. The houses of the Cement City Historic District sit close to the street. A typical lot measures ninety-five feet by twenty-seven feet. The only breaks in the consistent rhythm of the Cement City Historic District occur on the north end of Bertha Avenue and along Chestnut Street, where in both cases there are empty lots. Originally 152 units were planned for Cement City, however only one hundred were built because of high building costs. Since some of the units were not built, some lots were left vacant.
Each house has concrete steps and sidewalks extending to the street as well as a concrete sidewalk that wraps around the house. In the rear, concrete steps lead to the back door. Originally, sycamore trees lined the streets, one in front of each house. Some of these sycamores still remain, some were removed, and some were replaced with other tree species. Originally, each unit had a rear yard enclosed with American Steel and Wire Company produced "Ellwood" fence. This was a high grade fencing most typically used as horse fencing. Subsequently some of the rear yards have been fenced in with other materials. With the exception of Chestnut Street, Cement City was planned with rear alleys. There are four non-contributing buildings in this district. Of these, one is the original rental/maintenance building at 630 Walnut Street. This building was originally a one-story concrete building, similar in detail to the housing in the district. It was converted into a single dwelling with the addition of a mansard roof with vinyl-clad dormers and new windows. The other three non-contributing buildings are post 1945 houses; one 1950s brick ranch is located at 157 Modisette, a 1950s brick 1 1/2 story house at 631 Chestnut, and a brick 1950s two-story house at 717 Chestnut. The 1950s brick ranch at 157 Modisette is on the site of what originally were flower gardens. Where the ground slopes, steps in the rear of the house lead up or down the terraced hillside to the alley. The Cement City plan also has an uncovered concrete gutter drainage system in the rear yards of the houses that face downhill (east) on Bertha, Ida, and Modisette Avenues.
Although the American Steel and Wire Company, in order to avoid monotony, provided a range of houses for differing workers' needs and income levels, the houses in Cement City share some basic characteristics. The houses were built according to eight different house plans consisting of four, five, and six room units based on variations of the American Foursquare plan. Each poured concrete house had a raised basement, two full stories, and a hipped roof originally with diamond patterned asphalt shingles. A few roofs still retain these shingles. The single houses are two or three-bays wide and two-bays deep. The double houses are four or six-bays wide and two-bays deep. Each facade has a porch, some protruding from the general box-like shape of the unit, and some recessed into the mass of the house. Some houses originally had wood pergolas attached to the facade, however none of these survive. The houses are finished in stucco, some with a thin accent belt course around the house. The original colors for the stucco finish were chevy chase, buff, slate grey, and cream.
House types 202, 203, 206, and 213 originally had a first floor tripartite window with multi-paned upper sash windows and single paned lower sash windows. The center window of each set of the three is the largest, with a narrower window on each side. All the units originally had a door of design similar to the tripartite windows. All other windows were originally six-over-one or three-over-one double-hung sash windows. Many of the windows and doors of these houses have been replaced, with screen doors added to almost all the houses. Each facade has windows on the second floor that are directly above the first floor windows and door and some of the attics have a centered dormer on the facade.
Originally, the different house types had various window patterns on their side elevations. The houses are relatively close to one another and consequently many of the side elevation windows have been filled-in for privacy. The rear elevations face onto alleys and consist of a back door and windows on the first floor with irregularly placed windows on the second floor. All the back doors were built with bracketed shed roofs clad in diamond patterned asphalt shingles. Almost all of these shed roofs survive with many having the diamond patterned shingles intact.
Characteristics taken from the Prairie style include: low-pitched hipped roofs with wide overhanging eaves, simple detailing and smooth planes. The roofs were originally clad with diamond patterned asphalt shingles with box gutters. The spruce frame hipped structures were built over flat concrete roofs and are the only major feature on the houses not made of concrete. All the houses have basements, which can be accessed only from the inside. Most houses have central or off-center integral chimneys. Only house type 213 has a standing exterior chimney.
The interiors are traditional in their appearance, despite the concrete structure underneath. Plaster covers the concrete walls and the ceilings. Stained and varnished yellow pine is used for all interior trim finishes including the hardwood floors that cover the concrete slabs. All the houses were constructed with electric lighting and outlets. Heat in the houses was originally gas-fired hot air. In the 1920s, the heating systems were changed by the American Steel and Wire Company to coal, because at the time it was less expensive. In the 1940s, the resident owners changed their houses back to a gas system for the same reason.
On the whole, the houses maintain much of their original appearance. There are four non-contributing buildings: three post 1945 non-contributing houses and the original rental/maintenance building. Together these four non-contributing buildings represent a small percentage of the houses in Cement City, and the district as a whole is not affected in any significant way by their presence. The Cement City Historic District still retains the feel of an early twentieth-century company town. A few of the houses have been altered with brick or aluminum cladding. Replacement windows, shutters, railings, and awnings are fairly common in this district. All were added after the original design, and they do have an impact on the overall image of the neighborhood, but all the original residences still stand and read as a cohesive statement.
Cement City is significant for industry, and community planning and development as an intact example of large scale early twentieth-century western Pennsylvania company housing. It is also significant for architecture as an example of innovative design using poured-in-place concrete to mass produce sturdy, fireproof houses influenced by the Prairie styles. The houses of Cement City were built to meet the needs of middle management workers of the American Steel and Wire Company in Donora, Pennsylvania. Cement City is a successful example of a project undertaken by a large company to provide workers with affordable, sanitary, fireproof housing. The name "Cement City" is actually a misnomer since it is neither cement or a city; the houses are actually built of concrete.
Concrete as a building material has been in existence for centuries, however it was the invention of Portland cement that made it a desirable building material with superior strength and durability. According to an Old House Journal article by James Massey and Shirley Maxwell about concrete houses, an early concrete house was built in Milton, Wisconsin in 1844 by Joseph Goodrich. The Goodrich House was built of local stone, gravel, and sand mixed with imported Portland cement. After initial skepticism the material drew local interest, and shortly after, several other houses were built of concrete in Milton. It was discovered that concrete had great compressive strength, but not much tensile strength, which lead to the insertion of iron or steel to the concrete to produce ferro-concrete or reinforced concrete. The first ferro-concrete house in the United States was built in 1879 by William Evans Ward in Port Chester, New York. Reinforced concrete techniques continued to improve during the period of 1900-1920. Numerous single houses, mansions, and industrial towns were built with this method across the country. Industrialists found concrete ideal to create fireproof, permanent, and inexpensive housing.
The most prominent person associated with the concrete house movement was the inventor, Thomas Edison. Edison was not the first person to advocate concrete as a superior building material for low-cost or worker housing, but he was influential in turning the housing industry toward the idea. Edison, like many other social thinkers and philanthropists of the early 1900s, was disturbed by the overcrowded living conditions of working-class families. Typical worker housing was small, had poor light and air, poor sanitation, and were fire hazards. Edison felt concrete houses built using his own highly refined and finely ground Portland cement could be built at low cost. In 1902 Edison opened his own concrete factory in New Village, New Jersey.
Edison's most important contribution to the housing industry was the development of reusable interlocking cast-iron molds for casting concrete wall panels. The molds were costly, $25,000 per set, but a set could be used to build 144 houses a year. If they were used for large scale building, like factory towns, the molds were worth the expense. Edison's first molds were created in 1902 for a two-family French Renaissance Revival style dwelling. This proved to be impractical because of its elaborate design. The molds were replaced in 1908 by molds for a simpler, more modern design. An early Pennsylvania example of this construction is cited in 1907 by the Daily Republican newspaper of Monongahela, Pennsylvania, which stated that fifty two-story cottages were built in a Pittsburgh suburb using Edison's idea of a monocast system. The exact location of this development was not noted in the article, nor is it known if it is still in existence. Builders, on the other hand, were eager to experiment with this new cast-in-place house technology. The Lambie Concrete House Corporation was owned by a neighbor of Edison. Using Edison molds, Lambie erected a number of poured-concrete houses in Montclair, New Jersey. The Lambie Company also joined forces with watch manufacturer Charles Ingersoll to build eleven houses in Ingersoll Terrace in Union, New Jersey.
In the first years of the twentieth century, industrialists from Pittsburgh were looking to expand their companies into the Monongahela Valley because of its proximity to the river and railroad lines. Donora was one of several important steel towns built in the Monongahela Valley. It was established in 1901 to house the American Steel and Wire Company, a subsidiary of United States Steel, at one time the world's largest wire mill. U.S. Steel later located a zinc works here as well, the Donora Zinc Works.
In March 1916, The Donora American newspaper reported that six thousand two hundred men were employed in Donora's steel mills. With the anticipated expansion at the mills including a zinc smelter, zinc oxide plant, new rod mill, gas producers, and the construction of a series of coke ovens, the number was expected to climb to seven thousand by the end of the year, resulting in a total population of twenty to twenty-five thousand. With such rapid growth due to demand for steel for World War I, a major problem was adequate housing for such a rapidly growing work force. According to newspaper accounts, many of the men then working in Donora's plants were unable to find housing. A bed would be rented by three men sleeping in shifts. Often, apartment buildings were rented months before they were even finished. At the time Donora had six hotels, and many boarding and rooming houses, but there was a need for family housing. The Donora American reported that workers in many cases had to pay for board in Donora and pay for their families to stay outside of town.
To combat the housing shortage, American Steel and Wire Company announced plans to build 100 units on several tracts of land in South Donora. The company wanted to provide housing to stabilize its work force, particularly the management. The company had been working toward the purchase of a tract of land since 1912. American Steel and Wire submitted changes in lot sizes to the borough council in June of 1916. The company also applied for ordinances for sewers, grading, paving, and curbing of streets. The June 23, 1916 issue of the newspaper reported that the contract for the construction of one hundred new houses had been let to Lambie Concrete House Corporation. The Lambie Corporation was to utilize its newly patented poured-in-place concrete construction method, which was patented in the United States and twenty-two other countries. The Lambie Concrete House Corporation had expanded into the concrete house building business in 1915. The Cement City project was the largest contract of concrete houses Lambie had undertaken. Louis Brandt, who in 1916 was the general manager of the company, had previous experience in constructing buildings in the Pittsburgh area including Donora, Clairton, and Vandergrift. He was also in charge of the construction of the concrete grandstand at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. This experience resulted in Lambie hiring him to work for them. Lambie officials also claimed that the initial expense of building these concrete houses was worth it because workers could take pride in their own sanitary attractive dwellings. The contractor for the project, Aberthaw Construction of Boston, shipped construction equipment and a work force of forty to fifty workers to the site.
Cement City was built for the employees of the local Donora U.S. Steel plants. The company desired housing that could be constructed quickly and inexpensively, and as their interests were in both the steel reinforcement and concrete industries, this innovative method seemed to be a plausible alternative to traditional wood framing. The houses were constructed using reusable steel forms. According to The Iron Age, a contemporary trade publication, the steel forms consisted of nine-inch channels set up vertically and connected together with clips and wedges. At each corner of the house a four-inch by four-inch steel angle was set up. The forms lined up longitudinally by means of a steel channel used to form a belt course. This process fastened the forms of the lower floor and was bolted into the floor reinforcement remaining in place for a support for the second story forms. The channel was removed once all the concrete had been poured. The steel forms were also used to support the floor forms. This was done by having the steel channels bolted to the inner side of the steel wall frames with which the floor is laid. The concrete was hoisted by a small derrick bolted to the forms and connected to the engine that operated the mixer. This particular method was used to set forms for one-story walls and floors together and to allow continuous pouring. The project proceeded at a rate of twelve houses poured in the first eight weeks and twelve every three weeks after. To build Cement City, approximately 10,000 barrels of Universal Portland Cement (also made by a subsidiary of United States Steel) were used with 5,100 tons of sand. The concrete mix also included 6,650 tons of slag from furnaces as an aggregate for the mix. Materials for construction were shipped in railroad cars, and mixed at the corner of Second Street and Meldon Avenue, and hauled up the hill to the site.
By October 1917, fourteen houses were completed in Cement City. All the remaining houses were completed by the end of the year. After one hundred units were built, construction was halted though 152 units were planned. According to the reports of the day, the method turned out to be more expensive than anticipated, and there was a shortage of skilled labor to build the houses. The completed houses could either be rented or purchased. Rents ranged from $22.50 to $42.00 per month while purchase costs ranged from $2,000 to $3,300. American Steel and Wire supplied a custodian and crew of men for maintenance work on the houses. They worked from a one-story concrete building on Walnut Street where rent was also collected. Once inhabited, in the spirit of continuing to entice these valued workers to stay, company-maintained flower gardens and tennis courts were provided. The rooms of each house were papered every three years, interior trim was painted every four years, and the company provided grass seed and maintained fencing.
Several groups of engineers and students visited Cement City during and after construction, because the poured-in-place concrete technique had not yet appeared in textbooks. Students from a Carnegie Institute of Technology masonry class came to visit during construction as well as 200 members of the Engineers Society of Western Pennsylvania. Also reinforcing the importance of the project, an article on Cement City appeared in the January 1918 issue of Popular Mechanics as a model of innovative rapid concrete construction methods.
From the time of construction to 1934 the deeds to Cement City were held by another United States Steel Company subsidiary, Union Steel Company. In 1934 ownership was transferred to American Steel and Wire Company. In 1943, ownership of Cement City was transferred to the John W. Galbreath Company, the real estate development division of U.S. Steel Company based in Columbus, Ohio. The houses continued to be rented until a few years later when they were sold to individuals at a cost of $2,250 to $4,150. The tenants at the time had the first chance to buy the houses. It was during this period that a row of frame garages was built on the east corner of Walnut and Modisette Avenues at the east end of the district. In the 1950s the original flower garden at the corner of Modisette and Chestnut streets on the southern end of the district was replaced by a non-contributing ranch house. A tennis court was originally included in the plan and located at the top of the hill, northwest of Bertha Avenue. This too was replaced by several later houses. Only the former site of the flower garden on Modisette Avenue is included within the present historic district boundary; the garages and tennis court site are not in the district.
Similar concrete housing developments were built around the same time as Cement City. One example is Cambria City in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Eighty-nine houses were built for the workers of Cambria Iron and Steel Company in 1920. These houses have a similar Foursquare floor plan to Cement City, but are differentiated by roof forms, dormers, slightly protruding bays, textured finishes, and variety of colors. The interior finishes of stained and varnished pine trim were similar to Cement City. In contrast to Cement City's solid concrete walls, the houses of Cambria City's have hollow concrete walls made with a Van Guilder double wall system. This type of construction, according to The Iron Age, used a patented machine that built walls with a two-and-a-half inch air space. The walls were tied together by cross and longitudinal reinforcing making them stronger than most brick walls. Like Cement City, angle irons were used at the corners to support the upper levels of the house. Also similar to Cement City, the development included terraced yards, sidewalks, paved streets, and curbs, and was also planned with separate storm sewers and sanitary sewers. Plans and specifications were done by Brandt-Clepper Company of Pittsburgh. Louis Brandt, who worked on Cement City, served as housing engineer. Nicola Building Company of Pittsburgh was the contractor on the project.
Another example in Pennsylvania is a concrete housing community called Concrete City, located in Hanover Township, Luzerne County. These houses were built in 1913-1914 by the Lackawanna and Western Railroad Company's Coal Division for the employees who worked in the Truesdale Colliery. To improve living conditions for miners, twenty double family concrete homes were built based on Thomas Edison's idea. The houses were planned around a courtyard that had concrete sidewalks and a swimming pool. Each of the houses measured twenty-five feet by fifty feet and had seven rooms and a basement. In contrast to Cement City, Concrete City did not have indoor plumbing or electricity. In 1924 the development was abandoned because it was too costly to install central heating and plumbing needed to upgrade the dwellings. Currently only the concrete shells remain. They are used by the local fire company for fire practice. Other concrete housing projects were built across the country including developments in the cities of Bridgeport, Connecticut; Newark, New Jersey; Akron, Ohio; Duluth, Minnesota, and Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Cement City is representative of a handful of concrete communities built by large companies across the United States with the idea of improving the living conditions of its workers. Companies saw the need to improve the type of building materials used for company towns to make them fireproof, permanent, and sanitary. It was also important for housing to be mass produced. It was a common late nineteenth and early twentieth century belief that overcrowded substandard housing was detrimental to any industry's work force. The way around this was to give workers a sense of pride which would result in increased morale and worker output. Neighborhoods like Cement City helped meet both the needs of the company and the workers who lived in them.
Allen, Leslie H. "Industrial Housing Problems." The Iron Age (27 December 1917).
"America Has Lagged in Industrial Housing: Big Field for Local Development by Dealers." Universal Portland Cement Company (December 1917).
Bavuso, Sandy. "The Cement City." Paper for English Class at California University, n.p. December 1994.
"Block of Concrete Houses Accepted." The Donora American, 5 October 1917.
Cement City Speech for the Donora Historical Society by Cement City Resident, Glenn Howis, Bertha Street, Donora, PA, circa 1990.
"Cement Houses in one Piece." Monongahela Republican 21 March 1907.
"Concrete Housing Development." The Iron Age (11 October 1917).
"Contract Let for 100 New Houses." The Donora American, 23 June 1916.
"Engineer's Society in Donora Tomorrow." The Donora American, 16 November 1917.
Gray, E.T. "Cambria Steel Company Completes 89 Hollow Wall Houses." Concrete (January 1922).
Historic Resource Survey Form for Concrete City, Hanover Township, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.
"House Famine is Keeping Down Population of 20,000 or Over." The Donora American, 10 March 1916.
Howis, Glenn. Cement City Resident, Interview by Clinton E. Piper and Steven D. Chaitow, 4 November 1994.
Janosov, Robert A. "Model Company Housing for Anthracite Workers in an Age of Industrial Efficiency: The Case of Concrete City." Canal History and Technology Proceedings (22 March 1986).
Massey, James C. and Shirley Maxwell. "The Case for Concrete Houses." Old House Journal (May/June 1994).
Original Glass Negatives and black-and-white prints documenting Construction of Cement City, Collection Donora Historical Society, circa 1916-1917.
Original Plan of Cement City, Collection of Donora Historical Society, circa 1916-1917.
Peters, Karen. "Donora: Cement City is One of a Kind." Monongahela Valley Review, December 1990.
"Hundred Residences Built at Record Pace." Popular Mechanics, January 1918.
"100 Concrete Houses: Interesting Housing Development in Johnstown, Pennsylvania of the Cambria Steel Company." Building Age and The Builders' Journal (March 1922).
"Steel Works Houses Very Attractive." The Donora American, 15 December 1916.
"Tech Students visit Donora." The Donora American, 17 November 1916.
"Will Improve Streets in South Donora." The Donora American, 16 June 1916.