'Conceptual historian' leads engrossing presentation
The April program for the Bridgeville Area Historical Society was an interesting presentation on a progressive planned development in Donora early in the 20th century.
The speaker was Brian Charlton, a self-described “conceptual historian.”
Charlton's credentials include teaching history in the Belle Vernon Area School District, serving as curator of the Donora Smog Museum, and being a co-author of the Arcadia publication, “Donora.” His specific subject was “Cement City” — a Donora neighborhood that includes about 80 residences constructed from concrete.
The speaker began by discussing Thomas A. Edison, whom he characterized as being altruistic, a pioneer in social engineering, and very concerned in his legacy. Late in the 19th century, he founded the Edison Portland Cement Co. To generate uses for his cement he experimented with making concrete furniture, refrigerators, and even phonographs.
In Edison's mind the ideal concrete product was affordable housing. His experiments in this area led to numerous improvements in technology, including re-useable forms, continuous pouring from a derrick high above the forms, and the process of pumping concrete. He became convinced this technology would revolutionize the housing industry and provide quality housing for low-income families.
Philanthropist Henry Phipps partnered with investor Charles Ingersoll and builder Frank Lambie and began to construct communities of concrete houses. The basic design was “American Four Square” — a post-Victorian style that was sometimes called “Prairie Box.” The houses were square, with four boxy rooms on each floor, a hipped roof, a center dormer, and a large front porch. They began to build houses throughout the northeast and Midwest and eventually perfected the construction process.
In 1916 the American Steel and Wire Co. greatly expanded its production facilities in Donora, creating a shortage of affordable housing in that community. To counter this, they hired the Lambie Concrete House Construction Co. to build 60 single and 20 duplex residences, which they would then rent to foremen and middle management personnel. Fourteen months later the neighborhood, dubbed “Cement City” by its residents, was complete and fully occupied.
American Steel and Wire sold the properties to John Galbraith in 1942; eventually they were purchased by private individuals. They have been lovingly maintained; in 1996 they were listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. The Donora Historical Society conducts popular walking tours of “Cement City” on spring and fall weekends.
Edison's innovative technology resulted in the construction of several hundred houses; its failure to match the cost effectiveness of conventional “stick frame” houses built with dimensioned lumber, (about 60 percent more expensive) was too great to overcome.
Mr. Charlton's presentation was well-received by the audience, as much in response to his skill as a communicator as to the content of his talk. He did a fine job reporting on a relevant historic event, one with significance to social, economic, industrial and demographic concepts.
The next historical society program meeting is at 7:30 p.m. May 29 at the Chartiers Room of the Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department on Commercial Street. Marjorie (Dolanch) Stein will speak on “Early Upper St. Clair, Pa.”