ShareThis Page

'Conceptual historian' leads engrossing presentation

| Thursday, May 10, 2018, 11:00 p.m.

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.”

John Oyler is a Tribune-Review contributing writer. He can be reached at 412-343-1652 or Read more from him at

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using 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.

click me