Share This Page

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

| Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012, 11:59 p.m.
In March, Pittsburgh’s North Side lost the John A. Brashear Factory (seen here in 2012), after a wall collapsed and the city razed the historic site. It dates to the 1880s and was built to make mirrors and lenses for telescopes. (Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review)
Property at 1954 Perrysville Avenue in the Perry Hilltop neighborhood Thursday September 20, 2012. The house, built and lived in by inventor John Brashear, is up for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. The manufactorer of precision optical instruments and telescope lenses was known by many Pittsburghers as'Uncle John.' (Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review)

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.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.