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Wall collapse forces Pittsburgh to raze historic Brashear lens factory

Bob Bauder
| Tuesday, March 17, 2015, 4:38 p.m.
Jadell Minniefield, owner and operator of Jadell Minniefield Construction Services Inc., packs up a truck with debris from the John A. Brashear Factory in the North Side on Tuesday, March 17, 2015. Part of the historic brick building collapsed Monday evening.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Jadell Minniefield, owner and operator of Jadell Minniefield Construction Services Inc., packs up a truck with debris from the John A. Brashear Factory in the North Side on Tuesday, March 17, 2015. Part of the historic brick building collapsed Monday evening.
David Sims (left) and Stefan Henry, both workers at Jadell Minniefield Construction Services Inc. pack up a truck with debris from the John A. Brashear Factory in the North Side, Tuesday, March 17, 2015. The historic brick building collapsed Monday evening. Pittsburgh officials said they had to demolish it for safety reasons.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
David Sims (left) and Stefan Henry, both workers at Jadell Minniefield Construction Services Inc. pack up a truck with debris from the John A. Brashear Factory in the North Side, Tuesday, March 17, 2015. The historic brick building collapsed Monday evening. Pittsburgh officials said they had to demolish it for safety reasons.

Pittsburgh is demolishing the historic John A. Brashear factory in the North Side because a wall collapsed onto an occupied apartment building next door, a city official said Tuesday.

Brashear, a world-renowned scientist and philanthropist, worked in the factory to make mirrors and lenses for telescopes until his death in 1920.

The National Registry of Historic Places lists Brashear's house and factory on Perrsyville Avenue. The factory, which the city owns, has been vacant for almost 20 years and was in poor condition, neighbors said.

“It's tragic,” said Janet Gunter, 60, a longtime Perry Hilltop resident. “No one stepped up to preserve the building. Everybody knew it was in bad shape. Now, it's gone, and you can't replace history.”

Maura Kennedy, who heads the city's Department of Permits Licenses and Inspections, said she issued an emergency demolition order because a wall collapsed about 10:30 p.m. Monday.

Jadell Minniefield Construction Services Inc. of Hazelwood began razing it. The city is paying the company $235,000, Kennedy said.

“It's unfortunate, but the structure has gotten to a point where it is imminently dangerous, so we needed to take it down immediately,” Kennedy said.

The American Red Cross is providing shelter to residents of the apartment building, which was evacuated. Residents won't be permitted to return until city inspectors certify the building is safe, Kennedy said.

Brashear was a founder and director of the Allegheny Observatory in Riverview Park and made lenses for telescopes worldwide. He was known in Pittsburgh as “Uncle John” for the philanthropic work he did, and once was named as Pennsylvania's “most eminent citizen.”

Mayor Bill Peduto, a student of Pittsburgh history, said he had hoped to raise money to help save the factory but time ran out and the city couldn't afford the cost.

“To be able to create the most precise equipment that became the basis of 20th-century science and physics, and for all of that to happen in that one structure, and to lose it in 24 hours is heartbreaking,” Peduto said. “With so many historic structures, there's just never going to be enough resources to do everything.”

Brashear's home stands. He died in 1920 at 79. His ashes are interred with his wife's in Allegheny Observatory.

Peduto said federal leaders declared a national day of mourning when Brashear died.

A self-taught scientist who refined his lens-making in a rudimentary shop in South Side Slopes, Brashear developed revolutionary processes used in spectroscopes, which permitted scientists to determine the chemical composition of stars.

A mirror he built in 1886 was used in experiments for calculating the velocity of light that helped lead to Einstein's theory of relativity.

“He had scientists from all over the world there in his house and factory to look at his lenses,” North Side historian Lisa Miles said. “It's a sad fact that something like this can happen in Pittsburgh neighborhoods that don't get development money. Historic structures fall apart and have to be town down.”

Brashear was a contemporary and friend of Pittsburgh luminaries, including Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, Henry Clay Frick and Charles Schwab. He befriended scientists of the era, including Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.

Brashear High School is named for him, as is the Brashear Association, which sponsors recreation and humanitarian programs.

Bob Bauder is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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