Walking tour set in Donora's historic Cement City
By Ron Paglia
Published: Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, 7:15 p.m.
Cement City, one of the most venerable facets of Donora's long and storied history, will be the focus of another special program this fall.
The Donora Historical Society will present its third annual Cement City Walking Tour on Oct. 6. The event, which is open to the public, will begin at 1 p.m. with a slide and artifact presentation at the Donora Smog Museum at Sixth Street and McKean Avenue.
“We have been very encouraged by the response to the first two walking tours in 2011 and 2012 and are looking forward to an even larger participation this year,” said Brian Charlton, curator of the historical society. “People from outside the Mon Valley are among the visitors and we are anticipating some out-of-state participants this year.
The historical society has offered numerous presentations on Cement City over the years and the walking tour is designed as a highlight to that effort. Cement City certainly is one of the most historic sites in our community as well as the Mon Valley and western Pennsylvania.”
Pictures to be shown at the museum were taken by Bruce Dreisbach, Donora's original photographer, during construction of Cement City. They offer a distinct look at the unique housing complex. Light refreshments will be served.
Following the museum program, Charlton said, participants will car-pool to Cement City for the walking tour of the district that was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.
“The tour will offer the opportunity to view the various architectural details of Cement City structures from the outside,” Charlton said. “We also will go into an actual home, portions of which have been restored. Today, for the most part, the houses in Cement City maintain much of their original appearance. The tour will be, in a sense, a true journey to the past.”
The walking tour is free but donations will be accepted.
Additional information and registration are available by visiting www.donorahistoricalsociety.org or calling 724-823-0364.
Charlton said the historical society's website narrative of Cement City recalls that the homes were built “out of necessity.”
In the early part of the 20th century, steel mills in Donora were being built at a rapid pace.
In 1915, with the anticipated expansion at the mills including a zinc works, new rod mill, and the construction of a series of coke ovens, it was anticipated that the number of employees would grow from 6,000 to 7,000, thus resulting in a population of between 20,000 and 25,000 in the community.
“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,” the historical society review says.
To combat the housing shortage, American Steel and Wire Co. announced plans to build 152 units or 120 houses (some duplexes) on several tracts of land in south Donora.
The company desired housing that could be constructed quickly and inexpensively, and as their interests were in both the steel reinforcement and concrete industries, the innovative method of building houses out of concrete seemed to be a plausible alternative to traditional wood framing.
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.
The most prominent person associated with the concrete house movement was the inventor Thomas Alva 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,” the Donora Historical Society recalled. “Edison, like many other social thinkers of the early 1900s, was disturbed by the overcrowded living conditions of working-class families. Typical worker housing was small, had poor light, air flow and sanitation, and were fire hazards. Edison felt concrete houses built using his own highly refined and finely ground Portland cement could be built at a low cost.”
In 1902, Edison opened his own concrete factory in New Jersey. Edison's most important contribution to this housing industry was the development of reusable interlocking cast-iron molds for casting concrete wall panels.
The Lambie Concrete House Corp. was owned by one of Edison's neighbors.
Lambie was chosen to do the Cement City project.
Work began on Donora's Cement City in 1916 on a terraced and graded hillside. The Prairie style house design, most associated with famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, includes features such as a low-pitched hipped roof with wide overhanging eaves, simple detailing and smooth planes.
Although the American Steel and Wire Co., 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. The houses were finished in stucco. The houses also contained waste and storm sewers. And the sidewalks and streets were paved and lined with sycamore trees.
The Historical Society account of the project notes that while construction equipment was making the transition from horse-drawn wagons to motorized vehicles Cement City used both.
“The houses were completed with a continuous pour of concrete for each floor,” it says. “The concrete was hoisted by a large centralized derrick attached with cables, pulleys and booms that could service multiple houses before it was moved. There was some sort of engine powered mixer that also pumped the concrete up the derrick to distribute it amongst the houses.”
The interiors are traditional in their appearance. Plaster covers the concrete walls and the ceilings. Stained and varnished yellow pine is used for all interior trim finishes including 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, but then changed in the 1920s to coal, because at the time it was less expensive.
Once inhabited, in the spirit of continuing to entice these valued workers to stay, company-maintained flower gardens, tennis courts and playgrounds 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.
Ultimately, due to unforeseen high building costs, Cement City would only contain 80 homes or 100 units after construction was halted in 1917.
According to the reports, the method proved to be more expensive than anticipated, and there was a shortage of skilled labor to build the houses.
Charlton said Cement City is “significant for industry, and community planning and development as an intact example of large scale early 20th 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,” he said. “Cement City is a successful example of a project undertaken by a large company to provide workers with affordable, sanitary, fireproof housing.”
He also said the name “Cement City” is actually a misnomer since it is neither cement nor a city; the houses are actually made of concrete.
“But by any name, it is a treasured part of our history,” he said.
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.
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