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Places: People past and present make landscape come alive

Wednesday, December 25, 2002

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

My mother always said I was the best Christmas present she ever received, at 20 minutes after 1 a.m. on Dec. 25 -- 6 pounds, 3 ounces of first-born baby.

I like to think she gave me some of her best qualities, like patience and fortitude. But the very best present -- the one that keeps on giving six and a half years after her death -- was and is her family.

While I had the luxury of being born in a hospital, my mother was born in 1927 in a back bedroom of a three-story frame house in Brighton Heights. My aunt lives there by herself today, but in the hardscrabble 1930s the house, then owned by my great-aunt, was bursting at the seams. Aunts, uncles, husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, cousins all piled in, from attic to stone-walled basement.

In time my mother, her two older sisters and her struggling parents moved out, from rowhouse to rented rowhouse: Lincoln Avenue, Mellon Street, Washington Boulevard. Eventually there were six children in all, five girls and a boy. They were so very poor, I used to think, until a few years ago, when I received a letter from one of my mother's cousins, who grew up an only child.

"Our visits to the Mellon Street house were always ones of happiness for me," Jean wrote. "I remember as a child how wonderful that house with the front porch and so many rooms (it had a real dining room) seemed to me and how special Christmas was there. The family always made us feel so very welcomed."

My grandfather died suddenly, just 58 in 1958, and my then-bachelor uncle moved his mother and sister back to Brighton Heights, buying a house across the street from my aunt. This was the alternate universe of my childhood; during the summers my mother would let me escape my little brothers and glom onto her sister's family of five daughters. We played whiffle ball on the street, swam in grandma's backyard pool and, with my dad's 8mm camera, made a horror movie in the attic, with little girls popping out of a steamer trunk, making scary faces.

Today those five girls and their mother, along with many of the rest of my 18 first cousins and their parents, are among my most cherished friends, and the streets they grew up on are part of the landscape of memory that is Pittsburgh for me.

When you live as an adult in the city in which you grew up, you see things in layers. You see the landscape -- the manscape, Simon Schama would call it -- as any newcomer would see it, although, regrettably, with not quite as fresh an eye. But you also see houses, schools, churches, trees, little lakes, even people that aren't there anymore.

In Squirrel Hill, the corner of Wilkins Avenue and Beechwood Boulevard isn't just one of God's most expensive green acres, but the place where my dad's great-grandmother's second husband, John Bruce, operated a turn-of-the-20th-century ice pond. When I look at Beechwood Garden Center, soon to be replaced by a dozen condominiums, I see not only a convivial use of one of the neighborhood's last vestiges of privately owned open space, but also my great-grandfather, Jack McNeely, loading blocks of ice into Bruce's horse-drawn delivery wagon, and my 6-year-old grandmother walking to her first day at nearby Linden School -- where, 60 years later, I did my student teaching.

What my father's family lacks in breadth (he's one of only two children), it makes up for in depth. This was the year that researching his family's history, always an intermittent passion, became an obsession.

This was the year, then, that I added more layers to the landscape. One of them surrounds my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Capt. John McCollough, born in 1770 and orphaned in 1774. His mother was either murdered by the hired hand or in an Indian raid while his father, a doctor, was making rounds. Or so the stories go; the truth is proving more elusive.

On a genealogy Web site, I met a McCollough cousin who lives in Maine and, through him, his father, Curtis McCollough, who still lives in Western Pennsylvania and owns part of the McCollough family farm in Butler County. In the fall, my daughter and I met Curt and his wife, Roseann, for a day of touring McCollough sites, which found us in thick woods, uncovering the foundation stones of John's log house by a still-active spring.

After his mother's death, John was adopted by a German family in Westmoreland County and, in 1794, became a Whiskey Rebel when he participated with John Spangler, his future father-in-law, in a raid on the house of tax collector Benjamin Wells.

Three years later, on July 4, 1797, he married Elizabeth Spangler and wrote in his journal: "Jouly the forth in West More Land County in the year one thousend seven hundred and Ninty seven John M Colaugh And a Lisabeth Spenger Was Given to gether at the house of the Wido gribs hopeing to Live to gether."

He also recorded the births of his 10 children, but most of the journal is page after page of glaze formulas and Pennsylvania German motifs that Capt. John, who earned his title in the War of 1812, used to decorate his pots. His pottery stood on Washington Street in Butler, where the Sprint office is today.

Although Curt has been researching John for 10 years, he still doesn't know who his parents were.

I've been luckier with my German ancestors, thanks to genealogies researched by distant cousins, in which I found my earliest grandmother to whom I could attach a name and birth year: Leni Nussbaum, born in Switzerland in 1563. How different our lives have been. How much of her still lives in me?

Of course, you can learn a lot just from city directories. My grandfather once told me that his grandfather had operated a saddlery on Fourth Avenue, Downtown. City directories showed that while Peter Lowry, as a young man, had been a saddler in Allegheny City, he later became a real estate agent on Fourth Avenue. This summer I also learned that his wife, Susan, hadn't died at age 30 in childbirth, as I'd long assumed, but of smallpox. She lies in an unmarked grave at Union Dale Cemetery, and I can't drive by it without thinking about her.

This was the year I filled big black binders with family trees and histories and photographs of long-dead relatives and the houses they lived in. My brothers are getting abridged versions this Christmas, to hand down in their own families.

It is memory that imbues landscape with meaning, and it is time to pass the memory along.

Patricia Lowry is the Post-Gazette architecture critic. She can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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