Region's mansions mark time of opulence
When Melanie Linn Gutowski was 6 years old, she took art classes in an old house that locals referred to as the King Estate.
The Italianate Victorian-era Highland Park mansion had deteriorated from its original splendor.
But it still retained enough suggestions of its former elegance and splendor to spark Gutowski's fascination with old houses, particularly the big, impressive mansions that once flourished in Pittsburgh neighborhoods.
“I think there are few Pittsburghers who aren't fans of things that are not there any more. We still give directions according to things that are not there,” says Gutowski, a free-lance writer who lives in Sharpsburg and is author of “Images of America: Pittsburgh's Mansions,” an image-driven book that showcases some of the lavishly extravagant estates that wealthy local families once called home.
Over the years, the Stanton Heights native earned a degree in art and architecture from the University of Pittsburgh and worked as a docent at Clayton. She amassed a collection of vintage postcards of ephemera and information from local mansions, “much to my husband's chagrin,” she says.
Little did she know she was laying the groundwork for her book.
Some of the 180 postcards and photos that illustrate the text come from Gutowski's collection. Others are from local libraries and archives.
The book's 180 black-and-white images and accompanying text catalog more than 160 houses built between 1830 and 1930, a period when — according to local legend —there were more millionaires living in Pittsburgh than in New York City.
Some of the families who lived in these houses had names that are still familiar — Heinz, Frick and Mellon. Others faded from local prominence as fortunes changed or individuals moved away.
Like the people who lived there, some of the houses featured in the book live on only in memory.
A Google Maps search of their addresses leads to images of a bland brick apartment house or a street of small, unremarkable contemporary dwellings that replaced these impressive and ornate landmarks.
Others remain because they have been repurposed :
• The 23-room Jacobean Revival house lives on as a Chatham University dormitory that retains the name of the Rea family that built it.
• Charles Marshall's 1911 mansion at the intersection of Fifth and Shady avenues is now Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.
• The recently restored 1905 McCook mansion at Fifth and Amberson avenues is now a luxury hotel.
Two others — Clayton in the East End and Hartwood Acres in Indiana Township — retain their original appearances and are open to the public.
Viewed as a whole, the book creates a visual record of an era of opulence and elegance made possible by the intersection of cheap labor and heating costs, as well as entrepreneurs with deep pockets and big visions.
“It's a book for anybody who is interested in a slice of history that has come and gone and cannot really happen again,” Gutowski says.
Alice T. Carter is a writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or firstname.lastname@example.org.