Vandergrift Historic District

Vandergrift Boro, Westmoreland County, PA

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The Vandergrift Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. Portions of text, below, were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. Photos: Historic American Buildings Survey,, 1990, Jet Lowe, photographer.

The Vandergrift Historic District consists of Lincoln Avenue to the northwest, Sherman Avenue to the northeast, Franklin Avenue to the southeast, Fifteenth Street and Custer Avenues to the southwest, which surround ten long blocks arranged in a free-flowing pattern along curvilinear streets. Three of these blocks are triangular in form, and the other seven are roughly rectilinear. All blocks are bisected by alleys. The ten blocks are surrounded by a ring of peripheral lots that are not arranged in a block pattern.

The Vandergrift Historic District, covering almost 90 acres, is a complete, self-contained small town, as it developed between 1895 and 1925, in accordance with plans prepared by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted. It consists of a core of masonry commercial buildings, most of which are two to three stories, surrounded by a few churches and hundreds of two story frame houses, located along tree-lined curvilinear streets. The commercial buildings of the town consist of a lively variety of architectural types and styles. The most prominent style, however, is a brick variation on Romanesque Revival, often intermingled with elements of the Colonial and Classical Revivals. The commercial area, concentrated in the core of the district, is unusual in the number of row buildings with curved facades following the curvilinear lines of the main intersections. Surrounding the commercial area are about ten streets lined with evenly-spaced frame houses, most of which are stylistically plain, with a sprinkling of elements of the Queen Anne, Romanesque Revival, Colonial Revival, Classical Revival, American Foursquare, and other recognizable styles. Only a small proportion of the buildings are non-contributing (buildings whose overall character, materials, construction, and/or design date from after 1925, or are otherwise completely out of keeping with Vandergrift during its period of significance), although a large percentage of the buildings have individually-altered details. Very few of the original buildings have been altered beyond recognition or demolished. For purposes of this nomination, "contributing" is defined as those buildings which contain the detail, materials, form, spacing, or character of the Vandergrift landscape as it existed in 1925. In many cases, buildings are listed as contributing in spite of altered windows, roof and surface materials (siding), porch details, and/or elements, because the overall form is intact and the buildings do indeed contribute to the overall street character and landscape. Of the 656 buildings in the district, only 32 buildings are considered non-contributing. In addition to the 688 buildings in the district, there are two contributing sites, landscaped parks, one in the original Olmsted plan, and the other created when the railroad cut was filled in and the town was extended to the southwest.

The town is built in a hair-pin bend of the Kiskiminetas River, on an irregular piece of topography shaped roughly like the convex side of the bowl of a teaspoon. To the north and east of the town, level sections of land along the river are occupied by a large steel mill and a foundry, respectively. Along a level section to the southeast, separated from Vandergrift by a steep hill, is the tiny, contemporary, but architecturally and historically separate small town of East Vandergrift. Up the hill to the southwest, the town continues beyond the historic district, where three or four separate neighborhoods (including Vandergrift Heights) have been laid out along rectilinear street grids. Across the river is a village called North Vandergrift, east of which is the older mill town of Apollo and west of which is the town of Leechburg.

The original town, as planned by Olmsted, built by Apollo Iron and Steel and its workers, and included in this district, consists of about ten long blocks of residential and/or commercial lots, delineated by about twelve major streets. The ten blocks are surrounded by one additional row of building lots around the entire perimeter of the original plan. The streets are curvilinear, curving around the corners of the blocks. Seven of the blocks are long and generally rectilinear, with the long sides slightly curved and the ends almost semi-circular. The remaining three blocks are triangular. The lots are generally narrow and deep, reaching back to the narrow alleys that dissect each block. Washington and Lincoln Avenues run parallel along the northwestern edge of the district, with a park between them that stretches from the Casino (borough building) near the center of the northwestern edge to the train station at the northern corner of the plan. Some of the commercial are along Lincoln and Washington Avenues, especially behind the Casino, though most of the commercial structures are along Grant Avenue, which extends southeast from the Casino into the center of the plan.

Vandergrift's buildings display a wide variety of colors as well as styles. The earliest buildings in the commercial district were built in a variety of brick colors, including red, orange, yellow, ivory, and brown. One or two of the oldest buildings are in handmade red brick, the remainder being pressed brick which is usually glazed. Later buildings, circa 1920, are in darker, often brown brick, sometimes with a brushed surface. A few buildings have Carrara glass storefronts, a few have modern style marble facings, and several have been altered with scored plywood imitating barn siding. A number of c.1895-c.1925 storefronts are intact, with copper channelling and plate glass. One distinctive feature in Vandergrift is the storefront transom arch, with stained and/or leaded glass in a sweeping, art-nouveau influenced curve over the storefront. Backlit plastic signs and replacement windows are present but not pervasive. The upper stories of storefront buildings often have round-arched window openings, with layers of brick voussoirs in the Romanesque Revival style. Vandergrift's business district is unusual in that few back lots are visible from the borough streets, and even some of smallest alleys (e.g. McKinley Street leading from Grant Avenue to Washington Avenue) are lined with tiny secondary storefronts housing tailor shops, barbershops, and similar businesses. A couple of streets are lined with houses that have had storefronts added to the fronts, particularly Columbia Avenue.

The residences are nearly all frame. About ten or twenty percent of them have original lap siding and original wood windows. Most have porches, though about half of the porches have replacement columns, or other alterations. The houses vary from repeated, utilitarian styles, resembling company-built housing, particularly in the Hamilton Avenue area (east end of the district), to multi-family houses and some more sophisticated repeated houses along Sherman Avenue (northern edge of the district), to some almost high-style larger houses along Washington Avenue. The most typical house form has a plan that is essentially American Foursquare, with a facade that is vaguely Queen Anne/Colonial Revival. The facade usually has a gable over the living room portion of the plan, which usually steps forward. The rest of the roof is usually hipped.

The institutional resources of the district include the Casino, the train station, the company office building, and the churches. The Casino (borough building) is the centerpiece of the town, a Classical Revival town hall that incorporates a library, theater, and borough offices into a yellow brick temple form with a large classical portico overlooking the central lawn of the town. The company office building, across the street from the Casino, is a simple utilitarian brick building with a simple cubic form, a flat roof, rectangular windows, and a very plain doorway. The train station, at the lower terminus of the lawn/park that extends forward from the Casino portico, has elements of Spanish Mission style, but is generally plain for a train station in such a prominent location. The churches vary from Richardsonian Romanesque-inspired Gothic (First Lutheran), to more eclectic Romanesque Revival structures, such as First Presbyterian and First Methodist, to several smaller, plainer and simpler Akron-plan-inspired structures. The churches are scattered around the outer edges of the plan, generally a block or so from Grant Avenue, and generally concentrated in the southwestern half of the district.

The community's open spaces are a combination of designed spaces included in Olmsted's plan and later innovations. The original central green space of the Olmsted plan extended from the front of the Casino (the Vandergrift Borough Building) down to the train station. It was flanked by Washington Avenue to one side and Lincoln Avenue to the other. Intended to be a linear park at the core of the business district, it lost some of its central importance when a large percentage of businesses chose to locate along Grant Avenue (extending perpendicularly to the southeast) instead. A large portion of the space between the two avenues and between the Casino and train station has been paved and is now a metered parking lot. Most of the lots to the west of Lincoln Avenue were retained by the company and remained undeveloped. Other open spaces in the town include a large parking lot along Columbia Avenue and a park at the southwestern edge of the original Olmsted plan. The Columbia Avenue lot has an accidental, undeveloped quality, as it has no buildings fronting the northwest side of it. A similar size parking lot is located on Columbia Avenue, where there are no buildings along a large section to the southeast of the street. The park at the southwestern edge of the town was originally a railroad cut flanked by Tenth and Fifteenth Streets. The cut was built to allow the railroad to bypass a large section of the hair-pin river bend in which the town is located. Essentially, the trains passed behind the town instead of in front of it. This cut, however, was abandoned, filled in about 1920, and is now a large, linear park, with a street running along each side of it. It defines a crisp line along the southwest edge of the original town, separating the Olmsted plan from the annexes to it, and separating the highly-organized historic district from more varied buildings to the west. The two contributing sites noted in other sections of this nomination are: the park extending down from the Casino to the train station, as described above (including the portion that is now parking), and the park that occupies the former railroad cut (the parking lot along Columbia is counted as a vacant parcel, as are the lots included in the district west of Lincoln Avenue).

Some streets, particularly Washington Avenue, are lined with mature trees, possibly from the original plantings at the time the town was laid out. Streets to the north and east, though, retain fewer of the original trees than the Washington Avenue area.

Vandergrift's buildings are, on the whole, in very good condition, although upkeep has often included alterations to details such as siding, windows, and porches. Most of the noncontributing buildings are woven into the fabric and streetscape of the town. The district's non-contributing resources include several new houses along Washington Avenue, several concrete block buildings, gas stations, fast food restaurants, and convenience stores along Sherman Avenue, and a few altered but old buildings interspersed throughout the town. The overall appearance of the town has not changed since the formative years, 1895-1925, except for the introduction of aluminum siding, replacement windows, metal porch columns, scored plywood, and similar remodelling techniques.

Vandergrift is significant under the following areas: community planning and development and social history. Community planning and development significance lies in the prolonged attempt of a western Pennsylvania steel official to redefine the concept and appearance, for social betterment, of an exemplary company town within the region. The experiment is significant for social history in the way the community relied on and reinforced class distinctions while adding an aesthetic component to the day to day life of middle and upper level steel workers. Vandergrift also meets National Register Criterion C for significance under Landscape Architecture as the work of the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted and under Architecture for its stylized worker housing built by the workers and for its rich collection of commercial structures. The period of significance for this historic district begins in 1895, when the community was designed as a model steel industry community by Frederick Law Olmsted's firm. Shortly thereafter, the land was subdivided, covenants were put into place, lots were sold, and middle level managers and skilled workers began building homes. From its inception, the social and architectural significance of the community was bound up in and reflected by the planning and landscape architecture of the community. The period of significance concludes in 1925, when the community was judged to be complete and the involvement of the Olmsted firm concluded.

Community Planning Significance

Vandergrift had its beginnings in the idea of creating a "model" steel town. The idea for a model town has been generally attributed to George G. McMurtry, although several other partners were involved in the undertaking. The idea developed gradually in the mid-l880s, as a result of events that unfolded in the older adjoining town of Apollo.

The company that established Vandergrift was Apollo Iron and Steel, an outgrowth of a stone iron furnace built across the river from present-day Vandergrift in 1825. Prior to the late 1880s, the Apollo Iron Works was a financially unstable operation whose ownership changed frequently. It was purchased in 1886 by a group of investors, which included Capt. Jacob J. Vandergrift and George McMurtry. McMurtry, who became manager of the newly-named Apollo Iron and Steel Company, was born in Belfast, Ireland in 1838. Little else is known about his life prior to 1886. McMurtry and his partners brought the plant to a level of financial success, just prior to 1893, when the company began to experience problems with the local union (which refused to abide by the wage scale established in an agreement signed by the national union). After a ten day strike, McMurtry fired the union workers, hired replacement workers, and put the plant back into operation. Having successfully broken the strike, McMurtry wanted to expand the plant, but ran into problems when speculators bought adjoining property. A large tract of land, comprising several farms across the river from Apollo, had been purchased by the company in 1892. Ground was broken for a new steel plant and a new town on this tract in June 1895.

The 1890s was the decisive decade in industrial expansion and town development in Western Pennsylvania. Industrial innovations and financial dynasties that took shape between 1873 and 1896 laid a foundation for massive expansion in the region which resulted in extensive development of new communities across the region between 1890 and 1900. These formative developments ranged from Andrew Carnegie's installation of the region's first Bessemer Steel Plant at Braddock (the Edgar Thomson Works) in 1873 and the introduction of the skip hoist, a mechanism for continuous feeding of blast furnaces, at the Duquesne Works in 1896, to the conversion of the glass industry from coal to natural gas and the simultaneous development of an American plate glass industry, centered in the region, in the 1880s. Carnegie's Edgar Thomson Works was strategically built to supply steel rail for the rapidly expanding Pennsylvania Railroad and was named for the president of the railroad.

The conversion of Pittsburgh's iron industry into a bessemer steel industry was the beginning of a reliance on coke from the Connellsville Region (rather than coal or wood). In the same period, pipelines for oil were first produced by the Pittsburgh area's steel industry, shifting the nation's first oil boom from a seed bed for entrepreneurship to monopolistic corporate control. In the 1870s and 80s, Andrew Carnegie bought out many competitors who had built small plants in the Monongahela Valley, and Henry Clay Frick purchased about two dozen coke works in the Connellsville region. By the 1890s, innovation and corporate organization had translated into frantic expansion.

These developments had an enormous impact on the character of industrial communities in Western Pennsylvania. The construction of many small plants to compete with Carnegie (who eventually bought most of them out) resulted in small, geographically confined mill towns throughout the region. The plants and adjoining towns were smaller than contemporary steel mill developments in other parts of the country. The less-permanent nature of the mining industry led to the development of hundreds of isolated, extremely paternalistic mining "camps" or "patches," as they were called throughout the region. The repetitious rows of identical double houses, characteristic of the mining town, were built in many steel towns as well, and the paternalistic exploitation represented in the mining town's "company store" was also present in the typical steel town, although with less monopolistic control. The fastest-built towns of the era (and also most attractive to free enterprise) were probably the glass towns, such as Charleroi, Jeannette, and Ford City, where hundreds of commercial buildings, huddled around the plant, went up in a just a few years, between 1889 and 1895, surrounded by rows of company housing not too different from that found in the mining towns. Although the almost instantaneous development of the glass towns pre-dated the largest expansions in the steel industry by a few years, the communities developed for the two industries were tightly intertwined, the cleaner glass towns often serving as commercial center for surrounding steel towns. By the early 1890s, the industrial expansion, which seemed to know no limits, was attracting frantic land speculation, such as in the Fayette County coal fields (about forty miles south of Vandergrift) where purchase of new tracts of land made several speculators into instant millionaires. Although the 1890s saw a dramatic series of economic boom and bust cycles, the growth generally continued until it reached its peak within a year or two of 1900.

At the same time, the shortcomings of the rapidly-built industrial communities were becoming apparent. Socially-minded writers such as Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and Jack London were producing scathing critiques, placing the blame for poverty in America on the shoulders of the industrialists, and some industrialists were responding with efforts to create better industrial communities. The financial panic of 1893 and ensuing depression seemed to confirm the need for better communities and more conscientious industrialists. The economic difficulties following so much growth brought the public to a new level of introspection and concern which culminated in the Pittsburgh region with the publication of the Pittsburgh Survey, a sociological study of troubled industrial communities, in 1907.

It was in this context that George McMurtry set out to build a town that would be a superior "model" among all the rest. McMurtry saw the flaws in the system. He knew that better towns would create a better hold on non-union workers. He knew how easily he could surpass the company-owned tenements and slums some of his nearby competitors were building. He visited several industrial communities in Europe, including Essen Germany, where the Krupps had established "model villages," as well as Creusot in France, experimental communities in England, industrial towns in Russia, and the cooperative villages of Belgium. His choices may also have been influenced by other communities in Western Pennsylvania: by 1895, Belgian glassworkers were well established in several Western Pennsylvania glass towns, such as Charleroi, where they chartered a cooperative association in 1897 and soon afterward opened a cooperative-owned store; and as early as 1889, industrialists from Essen, Germany were looking at potential sites for development of a steel mill in the section of the Monongahela Valley that eventually became the city of Monessen.

McMurtry felt that the principal flaw in the planned industrial communities he had seen was the amount of control the company was maintaining over the lives and environments of workers and their families. In many towns around the region and around the world, "the company" determined the exact form, style, and color of every building, and discouraged free enterprise in the business districts. According to local historian Mike Sajna, "Krupp's workers, for instance, had no control over the location of their living quarters or a voice in the decisions affecting their community. The one [supposed] big advantage the workers enjoyed over people who lived outside of the Krupp sphere was the right to purchase goods from a Krupp store at below market prices." This self-defeating manipulation by the company was at least as oppressive to the industrial workers in the industrial towns of Western Pennsylvania in the late nineteenth century (especially the mining towns, though the company store system was in place at Jones and Laughlin Steel Company's Pittsburgh Works, and company housing was built in Homestead, Turtle Creek, Charleroi, and other communities). McMurtry was one of the few who saw this as a problem.

McMurtry's exact role in shaping Vandergrift beyond the plan is a matter of some speculation. Local historians have noted that the other directors of the Apollo Iron and Steel Company (Capt. Vandergrift, Joshua Rhodes, J.1. Buchanan, J.D. Archbold, Norman Ream, and Col. Henry H. Rogers) were more interested in profit than the conditions of their workers. It is also arguable that McMurtry's most important contribution to the town was his decision to bring in the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted. Undoubtedly, a number of the underlying ideas embodied in Vandergrift were suggested by the firm. The key to the plan, though, was the workers' response. Although the Olmsted firm delineated the winding streets, lot sizes, and other common details, it was the individual property owner who made the plan work by bringing to the process his individual taste and ability to develop elements of the community cooperatively with his neighbors. A 1914 newspaper description of the town ["New Homes for Growing Borough," Pittsburgh Gazette Times, 18 January 1914] notes that "After [each] lot was paid for the workman or buyer became eligible to membership in a building and loan association. The men themselves also took it into their hands to form a planning organization, which laid down building lines for their houses--not less than 20 feet--and fostered civic adornment and utility in other directions."

McMurtry wrote to Olmsted on April 25, 1895, initiating the discussion about Olmsted's firm designing the plan. In his letter, McMurtry says: "We desire to have a town that in many features will be unique, and in all respects more attractive than the average manufacturing town of the present day. In fact we want something better than the best." McMurtry went on to ask Olmsted's ability to do the commission and his terms for the work. He also asked whether he could come out to visit the site soon.

Neither the McMurtry letter to Olmsted nor the local history data on the community suggests how McMurtry came to know about Olmsted. McMurtry probably knew of Olmsted's work on the Chicago World's Fair (promotional pamphlets on the town, written a year or two later probably by McMurtry, make repeated references to Olmsted as the designer of the World's Fair complex). There is also an uncanny parallel to the story of Ellsworth, Pennsylvania, a mining town built about 70 miles southwest of Vandergrift about four years later by a Chicago coal baron who was a director of the Chicago World's Fair and thus would have known Olmsted. Like McMurtry, James W. Ellsworth visited industrial communities in Europe to study their design, though he did not employ Olmsted in the design of his model town. Ellsworth is a "model" of architectural fashion and good building stock for its time, but not of winding streets or of architecturally-distinguished or privately-owned houses. Certainly Olmsted's reputation was growing among industrialists in this region at this late point in his career, as was the kind of concern he espoused and inspired for responsible planning of new communities.

Olmsted is best known as the designer of Central Park, together with architect Calvert Vaux in 1856. The two men also designed the large Chicago suburb of Riverside, Illinois beginning the same year. In Riverside, Olmsted and Vaux introduced curvilinear streets lined with trees, a combination that was to become their trademark. Most of Olmsted's town planning commissions were for wealthy suburbs, such as Druid Hills on the outskirts of Atlanta (designed 1892-94). However the firm did design a few industrial communities around the country, including a railroad workers' community at Tacoma, Washington, for which Olmsted's 1873 plan was rejected by railroad officials because the blocks were shaped like "melons, pears, and sweet potatoes" [Garner, The Company Town]. By 1895, when McMurtry contacted Frederick Law Olmsted, Olmsted had begun to suffer severe lapses of memory from an early onset of senility. According to Laura Wood Roper's biography of Olmsted, the elder landscape architect knew he was experiencing memory lapses at the time he accepted the Vandergrift commission. Roper quotes a letter from Olmsted to his son Frederick, in reference to the firm's work on the Biltmore estate, where the father asks his son to make "any confusion in my mind as little conspicuous as you conveniently can." Roper goes on to say: "His fixed habit of industry had not begun to slacken, and he looked forward to the possibility of laying out a manufacturing village near Pittsburgh. It was 'the sort of work that I would like best, as being more comprehensive and more fully touching social problems on a large scale than others coming to us'" [the Olmsted quote is from the same letter to Frederick, dated 23 July 1895]. The Vandergrift project, however, was soon deferred, due to the father's declining health, to his sons John C. Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., as well as to partner Charles Elliott. This partnership carried out the design work in the tradition of the firm's founder, as they did in other community design commissions in this transitional period, such as Druid Hills, where the plan was reworked in 1905 by the younger partners.

McMurtry and the Olmsted firm together created a plan with several distinctive features beyond physical or architectural appearance: 1. None of the houses were to be company-built (Capt. Vandergrift himself broke this rule, building thirty houses on the lower side of Sumner and Farragut Avenues). 2. The streets were paved and "gladed" (with trees) and utilities including running water and sewage were installed, all before any of the houses were built, a show of faith in the initiative, loyalty, and resourcefulness of the company workforce. 3. Land speculators were strongly discouraged from buying in the town, as a means of keeping lot prices as low as possible and showing favor to the individual workman. 4. Merchants were encouraged to locate in the planned business district, and company officers were not allowed to establish businesses whose main customers would be their employees.

It was to be a dry town for 99 years, as per a covenant in the deed for each individual lot. This condition was ignored after Prohibition was repealed, even though an attempt was made to reinstate it in 1935. The attempt was initially well-covered in regional newspapers, but was apparently unsuccessful. Historians Edward Muller and John Baumann refer more broadly to "restrictive covenants to control subsequent development" in Vandergrift in the article "The Olmsteds in Pittsburgh" [Pittsburgh History, Fall 1993], but the promotional booklets on Vandergrift suggest that the prohibition against alcohol was the only deed restriction: Vandergrift Lots for Sale on the Ground, 1896, says "Vandergrift will never have any liquor-selling. That is the only restriction in titles". 6. Churches were offered land and $7,500 toward the construction of a building in the first year after the initiation of the land sale, provided they construct a building worth at least $15,000. 7. The company's intention was that every house have a bathroom with running water, electricity, natural gas, and other conveniences.

The entire scheme was promoted through a brochure entitled Vandergrift the New Town (published by the company, author and date unknown, but containing a June 1895 photograph), Vandergrift Lots for Sale on the Grounds (published by the company and dated 1896), and Vandergrift Its Homes and Industries (published by the company in 1900). The New Town brochure, which cited statistics about improved health in European towns where sewage had been installed, boasted "we are going to make a model Pennsylvania town; and you if you like, shall have a home in it." Sanitation is also a major concern in the Lots for Sale brochure, which mentions that "The Town-plan is by Mr. Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect of the general plan of the World's Fair at Chicago." The latter brochure also mentions a half dozen or so buildings nearing completion, plus two churches, a fifty-room hotel, and thirty houses. It mentions, as well, that architects Alden and Harlow "who built the beautiful Carnegie Museum and Library" (at Pittsburgh) are working in the town. The only building known for certain to be an Alden and Harlow design is the Lutheran Church, the first public building completed in the town; however, the Lots for Sale brochure implies that Alden and Harlow may have had their hand in some of the other buildings under construction at this time.

Social History Significance

The plan was enormously successful. By 1914, there were dozens of brick commercial buildings that were "well-stocked" and "enjoying reasonable prosperity," according to an article in the Pittsburgh Gazette Times. The same article notes that Vandergrift then had "138 automobiles owned by steel workers alone, which for a town of 12,000 inhabitants is not bad." Ida Tarbell, an advocate of better social policies among the burgeoning corporations of the era, likewise noted the number of automobiles in 1914 (she had the figure at 124), and also noted that the town "is peaceful as well as prosperous ... [with] two policemen on 12-hour shifts ... and they say that the one on duty can generally be found asleep on the steps of the Casino [town hall]."

However, there was also another side to the Vandergrift social experiment. There was, for instance, at least one restriction on workers' rights in the Vandergrift plan: no unions. McMurtry prided himself on having created a union-free town, which he credited as a result of the progressive town plan. McMurtry was successful in establishing a town that remained union-free until 1919, the year of one of the most traumatic labor disputes in American steel industry history.

If McMurtry intended to build an idyllic, landscaped town for all workers at the plant, he was unsuccessful in one regard. Although the town proper was built primarily for skilled (thus almost exclusively American-born) workers, the plant employed thousands of unskilled, mostly foreign-born workers as well, who did not have the means to build one of the typical model-town homes, and as a result were forced to live just outside the original town plan.

The price of lots in the town was high enough that an adjoining community was laid out to provide cheaper parcels. That community, East Vandergrift (briefly called Morning Sun), was created by William S. Beamer, on a small riverfront farm, down a steep hill from the original Vandergrift in 1898. One lane led down the face of the hill (as it still does) connecting the two towns. The company's reaction to the development of East Vandergrift (not unlike McMurtry's reaction to land speculators in Apollo a few years earlier) was to construct a 14-foot high board fence with a gate at East Vandergrift Lane. The fence sent the same symbolic message as the fence Henry Clay Frick had built at the Homestead Works in 1892, spurring on the Homestead Lock-Out. By contrast, however, the residents of East Vandergrift merely cut holes in this fence at various convenient points, and essentially ignored it until it was removed.

In reaction to Beamer's East Vandergrift plan, McMurtry created a cheaper, less idealistic development on the steep hill that rises to the south of Vandergrift proper, which became known as Vandergrift Heights. Here, the rule was straight streets with no relationship to land contours, plain houses with various set backs and other irregularities, features that McMurtry had successfully and consciously avoided in the original Vandergrift.

The name of Vandergrift was apparently the subject of some thought on the part of the humble McMurtry. Local historians have speculated that he did not feel his name had a suitable sound for a town name. Several efforts were made to coin names from parts of the various directors names, strung together, before McMurtry decided to name the town for Capt. Vandergrift, one of the company's largest stockholders. In naming the town for Capt. Vandergrift, McMurtry wittingly or unwittingly caught the attention of an unlikely but powerful supporter and promoter, Ida Tarbell. Tarbell had been a severe critic of Capt. Vandergrift's endeavors elsewhere, and this fact attracted her curiosity to the town.

Capt. Vandergrift was a Pittsburgh native whose title "captain" comes from his days as a riverboat captain early in life. He was credited with introducing the innovation of towing barges forward of the steamboat, rather than behind it [First 75 Years, 1972]. This method eventually became the rule in region, especially for hauling large amounts of coal. He began shipping oil in the lower Ohio River region prior to the Civil War. During the war, his boat was lost near Cairo, Illinois, and suffering other war-related losses, he relocated to Oil City, Pennsylvania. In this period, thousands were employed in shipping oil by barrel from the wells to the railroads and/or river boats. The development of improved iron piping made it possible to replace the labor-intensive shipping procedures with pipe lines to the shipping depots. Capt. Vandergrift was the first capitalist in the region to make a pipe line for oil profitable (although not the first to build a pipe line) [First 75 Years, 1972]. He founded Imperial Oil and Refinery Company, and then sold it, buying stock in Standard Oil Company with the proceeds. Capt. Vandergrift's finances made it possible for McMurtry to be as generous as he was in the development of Vandergrift as an ideal town. Some of the other investors pulled out when they saw how expensive the undertaking was, but the retired river captain stuck with the project that bore his name.

As a stock holder in Standard Oil Company, Capt. Vandergrift was one of the first industrialists brought into the spotlight by Ida Tarbell, a Titusville, Pa. writer who earned a reputation as a "muckraker" in the era of "trust-busting." Tarbell produced numerous popular books which pointed the finger at large corporations that exploited workers and ruled paternalistically over poverty-stricken communities. She attacked Capt. Vandergrift, as well as John D. Rockefeller, in her History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), but later, in 1914, came to the town of Vandergrift, and was so impressed that she declared "Vandergrift seems to me the most important industrial town in America because of the sound principles on which it was originally planned and because of the labor struggles it has weathered." The quote is from Tarbell's New Ideals in Business, (1914). In this book, a large section of the chapter "Good Homes Make Good Workers" is dedicated to Vandergrift. She quotes extensively from the brochure McMurtry published laying down the principles of the town.

Tarbell traces the source of the Vandergrift idea back to Pullman, Illinois, an older industrial model town experiment, which was less successful because the company maintained control of everything from local government to housing (styles, ownership, and assignment of location), and commerce. The failure of the Pullman experiment had become evident in the infamous Pullman Strike of 1894. But Tarbell also places Vandergrift in the context of many other communities in this chapter, from Kansas City to Grand Rapids to Indian Hill, Massachusetts to Gary, Indiana. Specific attention is paid to conditions in the mining towns of the Connellsville Coking District, especially those controlled by the Henry Clay Frick Coke Company (although Frick's coal and coke towns, generally, were little more than patches of cheap, temporary housing, and were thus easy targets for Tarbell).

Vandergrift quickly drew the attention of the steel industry. As early as 1901, The Iron Age, an industry journal oriented toward management, ran a 6-page article on the town, complete with panoramic views of the mill, the commercial areas, and residential streets. An article of such length on the social aspects of industrial communities was rare in The Iron Age (and similar journals) in 1901, but within a decade, social responsibility became a major theme in industry journals. The "model town" movement (if not Vandergrift specifically) had a lasting effect on the region.

By 1900, the repetitious frame houses of the typical industrial town were being eclipsed by a more carefully thought out kind of architecture. In the mining fields, the model towns of Ellsworth and Marianna were built in 1899-1901 and 1906-1908, respectively. Ellsworth had all brick buildings, including a theater, schools, a library, and pair of high-style Georgian buildings containing a high school and office. Between these key buildings, however, Ellsworth placed company built and owned miners' cottages in long, straight, architecturally uniform rows. Marianna, on the other hand, had the curvilinear streets, houses with indoor plumbing and some architectural variation, and a community center and churches, like Vandergrift, but all the houses were built by the company, and the main source of goods was through a massive company store. The number of company-built towns in the region gradually declined after 1900, yet in general, the later the town was built, the more varied its architecture and the more carefully designed its street plan.

Although the plan and the town were characterized as a successful experiment in egalitarian planning, they developed the diversity and divisions along ethnic lines that typified industrial communities in the northeast. In some cases, these divisions left lasting impressions in the built environment.

Though Vandergrift was almost exclusively white, it has always had an African American community centered on 18th Street, within the original Olmsted plan. It is likely that the houses in this neighborhood, which are repeated company-style houses (probably built by the company or a single investor, against stated policy), smaller and simpler than other Vandergrift houses, were intended for a less wealthy sector of the community. Contrary to the original Vandergrift plan, they appear to have been built as rental properties. It is not known at what date the African American families first settled here, but some came from Virginia and Alabama, presumably during the migration of rural African Americans into industrial northern communities in the years between World War I and the onset of the Great Depression. Throughout the Pittsburgh region, African American industrial workers migrated to industrial neighborhoods in substantial numbers in this period.

The Vandergrift area is home to a sizable and regionally-important Italian-American community. The community was originally attracted to Vandergrift by landscaping jobs and road work created in the unusually well-landscaped town. East Vandergrift was the first focal point for Italian settlement in the area, even before lots went on sale in Vandergrift in 1896. Eventually, Vandergrift Heights was the core of the Italian community. Mostly itinerant laborers, they probably did not regard themselves at first as permanent residents.

Italian-Americans became assimilated property owners within the Olmsted plan portion of Vandergrift only at a much later date and in relatively small numbers. Yet Vandergrift has one of the largest Italian-American populations in the Pittsburgh area. Today, a few Italian-American businesses can still be seen in Vandergrift Heights, as well as in other portions of the town (including a prominent restaurant and a pasta factory on Grant Avenue), and there is still an active Sons of Italy Club located between Vandergrift and Vandergrift Heights (outside the district).

The history of Greek immigrants to Vandergrift appears in some ways to be the inverse of that of the Italians. They came a little later and readily found homes in Vandergrift proper. The first Greeks arrived in Vandergrift about 1900, but only in very small numbers. By 1909, they numbered about 15, and all were young bachelors. Around 1912-13, about 200 men came to Vandergrift from Asia Minor, with a trickling of other immigrants from the Greek islands and the Greek mainland. By this time, apparently, the class segregation that had developed in early Vandergrift, with immigrants mainly living in East Vandergrift and Vandergrift Heights, had begun to break down, and half or more of the Greek immigrants found housing along Sherman and Columbia Avenue. The Greeks started businesses (primarily food-oriented businesses) early on, as they did in other mill towns in the Pittsburgh region. Confectioneries, coffee shops, bakeries, restaurants, grocery stores, and barber shops were established by Greek immigrants along Columbia Avenue. In many cases, the shops were started in houses situated on the bluff overlooking Columbia Avenue, and later little store rooms were added to the fronts of these houses. A large portion of Columbia Avenue is now lined with small brick store rooms above which frame houses rise in the background. The main institution today of Vandergrift's Greek community is St. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church. The land on Lincoln Avenue was deeded for this church from the Vandergrift Land Improvement Company in 1914 and the church was begun in 1914. Founders of the church claim this was the first building built for a Greek Orthodox Church in Pennsylvania (many Greek Orthodox congregations purchased existing buildings from other denominations).

Other ethnic groups in Vandergrift included Lithuanians, Slavs, Syrians, and Jews. A number of smaller ethnic enclaves existed in the Vandergrift area, although in most cases, the ethnic groups are no longer clearly separated into distinctive neighborhoods. Assimilation and intermarriage have weakened many of the once-strong institutions and ethnic identities of these groups. After 1925, there were very few new immigrants to Vandergrift from foreign countries, and the gradual homogenization of the existing groups led to less and less isolation of new families. Although Vandergrift continues to be an important setting for ethnic heritage and tradition carried into latter generations, the lines of ethnic segregation have considerably softened. Like many industrial towns in the Pittsburgh region, Vandergrift has become an almost frozen tapestry of ethnic identities showing only the most subtle signs of gradual change in its social make up, while neighborhood delineations have blurred.

Landscape Architecture Significance

The landscape architecture significance of Vandergrift arises from the use of a landscape architecture firm to design such a town, the use of infrastructure (trees, pavement, water, sewers) to inspire better architecture and a better workforce, and the transformation of the elements of a traditional steel mill town into a rich fabric of winding streets, public spaces, landscaping, and harmonious architecture. It also lies in the presumed impact the town had on subsequent development of industrial towns in the region. However, the plan itself evolved as the community was built, blending the best of an Olmsted design with the typical features of mill towns in the region.

What sets Vandergrift apart is not the level of architectural sophistication employed in differentiating the individual residence or commercial structure, but the overall consistency offered by the curved streets, even set-backs, landscaping, and the uniformity that arises from the fact that nearly all of the buildings in the original town plan were built prior to 1910, the main exception to this being infill commercial buildings that reflect continued commercial development into the 1950s.

Actually, Vandergrift was laid out in several phases by the Olmsted firm, and the latter portions of the Olmsted plans, beyond the railroad cut (now filled-in and serving as a park), were abandoned by Apollo Iron and Steel in favor of simpler rectilinear grids. Today, a neighborhood called the Porter Plan (apparently named for a c.1920 developer) forms the bridge between the Olmsted plan and Vandergrift Heights, the three sections of the town being relatively continuous, but gradually shifting from the curvilinear pattern of the original plan to the tightly organized but more rectilinear pattern of the Porter plan, to the less tightly woven, steep, rectilinear streets of Vandergrift Heights. The houses in the Porter plan are mostly from the 1920s, slightly younger than both the original part of town and Vandergrift Heights. The steep hill to the east continues to isolate East Vandergrift as a fourth neighborhood, making it virtually a separate community. Later additions and suburbs have developed primarily to the south of Vandergrift, on more level land overlooking the town. None of these extensions of the original Olmsted plan are included in this nomination; the Porter Plan, Vandergrift Heights, East Vandergrift, and several adjoining neighborhoods lie outside the nominated historic district.

The evolution of the Olmsted plan beyond the old railroad cut represents the kind of "commonsensical" compromise found throughout Vandergrift. The ambitious and idealistic ideas of McMurtry and the Olmsteds are consistently balanced in Vandergrift by simple architecture and relatively modest houses, as well as by curvilinear streets that gradually link up with fragments of grids ill-fitted to steep terrain. Although woven together as one continuous fabric in Vandergrift, both the ill-fitted grids on rugged terrains and the winding streets following ridges are common elements in the landscape of the Pittsburgh region. Usually, in the Pittsburgh area, the grid street patterns are located adjoining industrial plants, often extending over broken terrain where residences are perched on left-over land, while the winding streets are found in slightly younger and wealthier residential neighborhoods laid out for the management class on hill top parcels away from industry and pollution. Vandergrift is an unusual instance where the two patterns flow together and where the winding streets are the ones closest to the plant.

Another compromise in the plan was development of businesses along Grant Avenue. In the original plan, Grant Avenue was to be residential, and businesses were to be limited to Washington Avenue. However, because Washington Avenue lots were more expensive, the majority of the merchants chose to buy on Grant instead. As a result, the town developed one more unique feature: a "tilted," T -shaped business district, which is a substantial deviation from the typical commercial spine with industrial strip to one side and perpendicular connector streets into the residential areas on the other side. Had Washington Avenue been developed as intended, it would have been a broad boulevard with shops on both sides (screening the industrial property from view) and a lawn at the center connecting the Casino (town hall) halfway up the hill to the train station at the base of the hill. Instead, the mill side of Washington Avenue is undeveloped, leaving a large vacant area overlooking the mill, almost out of view at the bottom of the hill. The Casino and the train station are more fringe sites than central markers, and the center lawn is now a metered parking area.

Vandergrift's landscape significance increased as time progressed. In 1904, the Vandergrift plan received an award at the St. Louis World's Fair (the exact details of this award are not known). Ida Tarbell's writings continued to glorify Vandergrift into the 1930s. And as the town matured, the massive industrial expansion that had characterized the region between 1890 and 1915, faded into memory. Instead of endless opportunities to improve upon the town-making traditions of the region, the towns built before World War I were left to "weather the storms" that lasted from the beginning of the first World War until the end of the second. In this era, Vandergrift fared better than most, an unusually egalitarian community in a heavily industrialized region.

Architectural Significance

Vandergrift's architecture is also significant. The town is in many ways a frozen example of the architectural trends of the 1890s, and of the fabric that can be woven from ordinary buildings when assembled with carefully detailed landscape architecture. Although McMurtry introduced the new field of landscape architecture into the plan by hiring the Olmsted firm (according to local history sources, because he believed proper landscaping would improve drainage and thus health), the architecture of the town's early buildings also offers insight into the tastes and interests of a self-improving industrial middle class. The 1901 article in The Iron Age states that:

"Instead of erecting plain or homely structures, [the workmen] were inspired by their surroundings to study architectural graces ... To-day it is one of the prettiest towns to be found anywhere. Every street is a revelation to the stranger who is familiar with other workingmen's towns. The houses are individualized, not built after a monotonous pattern. And they are gracefully and even artistically and luxuriously furnished. Nearly every house has its piano and its library, indicating the refining and elevating influences of the general life of the community."

However, these were the homes of the middle and upper level employees, not the unskilled and foreign workers, nor those of the domestics and other working class people employed in the town. In the same era, architects and skilled builders were employed in many other mill towns and glass towns, producing very similar houses for the middle and upper level workers, not to mention the management. Houses of similar style can be found in Donora, Charleroi, and other contemporary industrial towns around the region.

Perhaps the most unique architectural feature of the community was the construction of so many corner buildings with curved facades. The street curves are so gradual, in the commercial as well as residential areas, that the corner lots are frequently shallow lenticular wedges. In the residential sections, these were set aside as areas for tree plantings in the original plan, but in the business sections, they became the sites of many long, shallow, three-sided buildings, the long side of which is usually a facade following a sweeping curve. These facades are almost longer than the other two sides of the building combined. This arrangement allowed for a very unusual architectural effect, where Romanesque and/or Colonial Revival features were repeated across multi-bay facades, with numerous pilasters and windows. The street intersections, as a result, are surrounded by surrealistically curved walls with an overwhelming presence of 1890s vernacular architectural details. The prominence of these curved walls sets the tone of the community, and gives the business district an overall feeling of turn-of-the-century styles, even though a large percentage of the buildings were built at a later date many of the infill buildings were built as late as 1920, and a even a couple of the corner buildings were built after World War II in streamlined styles, that are nonetheless "swallowed-up" in the dominance of the Colonial Revival and the Romanesque. Thus the continuity lent by the curvilinear facades gives the business district an overall architectural character and style that is not diluted by later buildings in different styles: in fact the design of the later buildings, in this context, effects a kind of blending of early and mid-twentieth century styles that is unusual and commendable.

The single most important building in the community is the Casino Theater/borough building, important not only for its architectural style, but also for the unique combination of functions within its walls, and especially for its siting. It is a clear reflection of the unusual thinking McMurtry embraced, and of the way that thinking was transformed into imposing and symbolic architectural forms that are surprisingly harmonious with the overall egalitarian character of the town.

The Casino was built in an era when it was common for "the company" to build a few imposing "company buildings" at the center of the company town. Most often, at least in the mining towns, the company presence was symbolically marked by a large company store, so large and architecturally formal (by contrast to the surrounding homes) that it seems to symbolize the company hovering paternalistically over the mass of individually-unimportant workers. In some towns, company headquarters have the same effect. In many later towns, company-built theaters were strategically placed in a prominent, central location to encourage workers to assemble only for company-sponsored activities, and to dissipate off-hours rowdyism by providing a center for cheap entertainment. Often, in the mining towns, the theater is the largest and most centrally-located building, competing only with the company store or possibly an office structure.

In the Casino, McMurtry clearly improved upon the idea of a paternalistic theater or store at the center of the community. He carried in the idea of an auditorium, for assemblies and entertainment, as the centerpiece of the town. But he significantly expanded on the idea, making it also the town hall and library. By so doing, he produced a blend of the paternalistic theater, the philanthropic idealism of a library, and the ancient idea that government should occupy the most central and prominent "palace" in a community. He gave the town its city hall, and like Andrew Carnegie, its library (but unlike Carnegie, McMurtry's library was an integral part of the original scheme, and not an afterthought). And he symbolically clothed it in Classical Revival details. Rather than emphasizing hierarchy, as such formal buildings sometimes do, the siting and content of the Casino help to reinforce the allusion to ancient democratic ideals and community interaction: the central portico serves as the town's "front porch" overlooking a park-like lawn. The idea of the building seems to have been completely unique and original. Such a blend of uses is not found in any other industrial community in the region. And perhaps the uniqueness of it was less calculated than it would appear: the building contains a barbershop, and the theater was privately operated until about a decade ago, making this a truly unusual arrangement for a "municipal palace."

Other individually significant buildings in the district include the churches, particularly the Lutheran, United Presbyterian, United Methodist, and Greek Orthodox. The Presbyterian Church is a particularly pristine example of the brick Romanesque Revival architecture that typifies commercial and public buildings in the town. The Methodist Church is similar, but has suffered several insensitive remodellings and additions. The Lutheran Church is more a typical example of rock-faced stone Romanesque Revival churches from the turn of the century. The Greek Orthodox is a smaller, more vernacular brick building. The company office building, across from the Casino, and the train station at the bottom of the mall that extends down the hill from the Casino, are also significant, the former as a symbol of the company (though it is architecturally rather plain and has replacement windows and other alterations), and the latter as a symbolic gateway into the community, as well as being a pristine piece of early twentieth century railroad architecture. The commercial buildings along Columbia Avenue between Grant and Washington are among the best preserved examples of the Colonial Revival architectural style found in commercial and institutional buildings throughout the town.

Vandergrift's History Since the Period of Significance

After 1925, however, many of the sociological features that made the community unique began to change, while the ethnic complexity and built fabric remained relatively unchanged. The middle and upper class segregation of the community gradually broke down.

The unionization of the town in 1919 transformed it subtly into a typical mill town of the Pittsburgh region, following the industrial growth and labor patterns of the region as a whole. Although immigration generally ceased (first immigration of European whites about 1920, and then African American migration shortly afterwards), ethnic identity became more important in some ways. Ethnic lodges (outside the Olmsted plan) and ethnic churches served as focal points of somewhat segregated activities, while real estate segregation gradually broke down. After 1925, the town was sociologically not too different from other industrial communities in the region, where a mixture of ethnic groups froze in complex relationships after immigration slowed down, holding onto distinct identities while segregation was actually dissolving in basic family institutions, from real estate to schooling, to religion, and marriage. The softening of the lines of segregation, however, also evidence one aspect of success in the Olmsted plan: though the plan initially favored native-born whites, the success of Vandergrift empowered workers of all backgrounds and led to blending of cultures inside and outside the boundaries of the original experiment. The 1925 closing date is based upon the fact that few buildings were built after that date, and the fact that the influence of McMurtry and the Olmsteds declined due to their age and due to the maturity and independence of the town itself. Unionization in 1919, immigration quotas in the 1920s, and the onset of the Great Depression all reinforced the sociological shifts that occurred in Vandergrift in the mid-1920s. However, there was no sudden change. Little changed in the human or built make-up of the town until after the end of World War II. Buildings built as late as the 1950s exhibit an ability to build compatible buildings within the fabric and context of the town, during a time when new buildings were disregarding existing fabric in many communities. The community continues to live and prosper. The steel plant, now Allegheny Ludlum Steel, survived the massive deindustrialization of the region in the 1980s, with a few brief interruptions, and is still operating today (1995).

Addendum, The State Historic Preservation Board, in review of this nomination at their March 14, 1995 meeting, noted that the attempt to unionize steel workers in 1919 eventually failed.


  1. Apollo Iron and Steel Company. Vandergrift Lots for Sale on the Ground. New York: Bartlett and Company, The Orr Press, 1896.
  2. Apollo Iron and Steel Company. Vandergrift, The New Town. New York: Bartlett and Company, 1895?
  3. Boucher, John N. History of Westmoreland County. New York: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1906.
  4. First Lutheran Church 50th Anniversary. Vandergrift, PA, 1947.
  5. First Methodist Episcopal Church. Vandergrift, PA, 1946.
  6. "G.W. Mercer Jr. Succumbs; Helps Found Vandergrift." The Pittsburgh Press, 21 July 1951.
  7. Garner, John S. The Company Town, Architecture and Society in the Early Industrial Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  8. Letter from Apollo Iron and Steel Company to Frederick L. Olmsted, 25 April 1895, copy in possession of Victorian Vandergrift Museum and Historical Society, Vandergrift, Pennsylvania.
  9. Muller, Edward K., and John Bauman. "The Olmsteds in Pittsburgh: (Part 1) Landscaping the Private City." Pittsburgh History, Fall 1993.
  10. "New Homes Planned for Growing Borough." Pittsburgh Gazette Times, 18 January 1914.
  11. Owens, John C. First 75 Years: A History of Vandergrift. Vandergrift, PA: The News Citizen, 1972.
  12. Roper, Laura Wood. A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.
  13. Ryall, Kay. "Definite Plan Followed in Building Noted Industrial Center." The Pittsburgh Press, 29 April 1934.
  14. Sajna, Mike. "America's First Planned Community Once Most Successful Workingman's Town." Focus Magazine; Tribune-Review, 21 January 1990.
  15. Tarbell, Ida M. The Nationalizing of Business. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1936.
  16. "Vandergrift's Law is Tested." The Pittsburgh Press, 18 July 1935.
  17. "Vandergrift: A Workingman's Paradise." The Iron Age. 21 November 1901.
  18. Vandergrift Land and Improvement Company. Vandergrift, Its Homes and Industries. Vandergrift, PA: 1900.
  19. Zimmerman, Karl. "The Town that Pullman Built." The New York Times, 5 August 1990.

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