Historical status sought for Brashear's North Side home, factory

Bob Bauder
| Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012, 11:59 p.m.

Preservationists want the North Side home and factory of scientist and philanthropist John A. Brashear to become a national historic site.

The state Historical and Museum Commission in October will consider Brashear's former properties at 1954 Perrysville Ave. for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

If it passes state review, the nomination would go to the National Park Service for final vote, said Keith Heinrich, a historical preservation specialist with the museum commission.

Heinrich said the park service typically accepts state-sanctioned sites.

“We think it's significant,” he said. “This is where Brashear had his factory, where he actually did his work with optics.”

An uneducated steel mill mechanic, Brashear taught himself how to make lenses and precision optical equipment that astronomers use worldwide.

Janet Gunter, secretary of the Perry Hilltop Citizens Council, said residents for years have wanted Brashear's property placed on the National Register.

The city-owned brick factory near his Victorian-era house is rundown and abandoned.

Slam Properties LLC bought the house last year. Michael Goldstein, owner of the company and Goldstein Photography in Squirrel Hill, said renters occupy it.

“When I bought it, it was being used as a crack house and a shooting gallery,” said Goldstein, 53.

Gunter said the property is the most important piece of neighborhood history.

“The buildings are very, very important to the history of telescopes, the history of Pittsburgh and the history of science, and they've been sitting there neglected for all of these years,” she said. “I think that's tragic.”

Brashear was a contemporary and friend of Pittsburgh luminaries, including Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, Henry Clay Frick and Charles Schwab. He also befriended scientists of the era, including Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.

Pittsburghers dubbed him “Uncle John.”

Brashear, christened by former Gov. Milton Brumbaugh as Pennsylvania's “most eminent citizen,” died in 1920 at age 79. His ashes are interred with his wife's in Allegheny Observatory in Brighton Heights.

Brashear raised money to build the observatory and was its director. He served as an interim chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh and on a committee that formed Carnegie Technical Schools, now Carnegie Mellon University. The city named a high school for him.

Bard Fried, 54, of Queens, N.Y., president of the Antique Telescope Society, said Brashear epitomizes the American dream. He began making telescopic lenses by lamplight with rudimentary equipment in a coal shed behind his first house on Holt Street in South Side Slopes.

“He's an American icon,” said Fried. “He is really a symbol of what, during that period of time, I think was truly possible and truly great about this country. You have a boy, who had a very minimal education, really rising through his own initiative to the pinnacle of his profession.”

In addition to telescopes, Brashear developed revolutionary processes used in spectroscopes, permitting scientists to determine the chemical composition of stars, and photography that led to the discovery of 300 astrological bodies.

A mirror he built in 1886 was used in experiments for calculating the velocity of light that led to Einstein's theory of relativity.

Brashear never patented his discoveries. He published them for “the good of science,” Fried said, and he relied on benefactors to keep his Brashear Co. afloat. Pennsylvania Railroad baron William Thaw was his biggest benefactor.

Richard Sanderson, curator of physical science at Springfield Science Museum in Massachusetts, said collectors across the globe consider Brashear telescopes as valuable as Stradivarius violins.

“These telescopes, lenses and the sophisticated instruments that he made led to the Space Age,” he said.

In later years, Brashear and his wife, Phoebe, became involved in humanitarian causes. With $250,000 from Frick, Brashear arranged to educate Pittsburgh teachers and offer sabbaticals.

Friends formed the South Side-based Brashear Association to sponsor recreation and humanitarian programs for children and adults. Its Sarah Street offices include a small museum containing his telescopes and personal belongings.

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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