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Places: Local column maker carved a national niche

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The A.F. Schwerd Manufacturing Co. is one of those stalwart, uncelebrated Pittsburgh businesses you think will always be there, until you wake up one morning and it isn't.

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Sustained by two families over five generations, Schwerd was better known nationally than it was locally, with a reputation that grew with the historic preservation movement as one of a handful of American companies that still made columns the old-fashioned way.

Schwerd columns came in Greek, Roman and Tuscan, topped off with your choice of capitals from the plain Doric to the ornate Corinthian -- all historically accurate and correctly proportioned. The old man, who had studied the building arts at the Braunschweig industrial school in Germany, saw to that.

Albert Frederick Schwerd was 22 in 1864, the year he opened his carpentry shop and planing mill in two modest, plank-sided buildings on the bottom of the tree-lined valley of Woods Run.

Before long, he had more work than he alone could handle. And to make more work, Schwerd became a contractor and home builder. He bought land in the valley, expanded his shop. Within a couple of decades, the A.F. Schwerd planing mill was self-sustaining.

By 1900, with the popularity of the Colonial Revival style driving the demand for stately white pillars on porches and porticoes from Maine to California, A.F. Schwerd & Son was devoting itself exclusively to the manufacture of wooden columns.

In 1924, a "hale and hearty" Schwerd, who lived just up the hill from the shop in a large, mansard-roofed house on McClure Avenue, was still reporting to work every day at the age of 83, a company brochure boasted. He died two years later. By that time his son, Albert Henry Schwerd, presided over the sprawling red brick factory and adjacent lumber yards, warehouse and "cutting-up plant."

They made exterior columns from seasoned Northern White Pine logs shipped down the Allegheny River from Pennsylvania forests. Easy access to timber, after all, was the reason Schwerd located his company in Woods Run. After the wood was cut, specialty machines the Schwerds had developed would precisely shape, taper and tongue and groove the staves.

In 1919 -- 10 years after he applied for it -- the younger Schwerd received a patent for a column clamp that bound into a circle a dozen wood staves, held together with 5,000 pounds of pressure long enough for the glue to set.

Next came drying, turning, fluting, finishing and painting, and another Schwerd column was born. By 1936, they graced West Virginia's White Sulphur Springs Hotel, Harvard University's Langdell Hall and McKim, Mead & White buildings in Massachusetts and Vermont -- as well as dozens of hospitals, schools, churches, libraries and private homes.

The McKenrys were running the place by then, because on May 17, 1932, A.H. Schwerd lost control of his big Pierce-Arrow when a tire blew. The sedan crashed into a concrete bridge abutment. His wife died that evening, A.H. a few days later. The company was sold to present owner Elmer McKenry's grandfather, Charles E. McKenry, who had worked there as a wood turner for 42 years.

"It's heartbreaking to think that it's gone," said Barbara Neal, a Schwerd descendant who lives in Colorado and first visited the company as a child with her mother, perhaps in the late 1940s. She went back with her cousin for the third time last summer.

"The factory looked very much like it did when Great-grandfather Schwerd was there," Neal said, with its original machinery and equipment. She owns and cherishes three of her great-grandfather's architectural drawings, done between 1859 and 1861.

"He had that skill but also a sense of entrepreneurship" that brought him to America.

Monday's colossal, wood-fed fire destroyed more than the business's ancient equipment and buildings.

"I'm just devastated by this," said the Allegheny City Society's John Canning, the retired history teacher who has organized several walking tours of Brighton Heights. "They had boxes of archival material in that place," including early photographs, advertisements, company Christmas cards and property deeds dating to the 1860s.

"It's probably a miracle," Neal said, "that it survived as long as it did."

Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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