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Minding our manors: How the great estates of Pittsburgh got their names

Sunday, December 05, 1999

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

Not so very long ago, a house's name was almost as important as its location, architecture and furnishings in establishing identity for Pittsburgh's wealthy elite.

Highland Park's Baywood, now handsomely restored, is said to have been named for a bay-colored (reddish-brown) trotting stallion. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette) 

From Atherstone and As You Like It to Pulpit Rock and Penguin Court, house names were always poetic, sometimes whimsical, often willfully mysterious. The tradition carried over from the British Isles and continental Europe, but here in America, it allowed the owner to claim a social pedigree often more earned than inherited.

House names had a practical side, too; in the days before street addresses, names inscribed on pillars and gateposts helped visitors get where they were going.

A 1933 map of Sewickley and environs, reprinted by the Sewickley Valley Historical Society, depicts the house names within little green ribbons. Some, like Eldomar, Ardorra, Manada and Cardome, seem to have come right out of fairy tales.

The 1905 social directory for Pittsburgh and Allegheny lists the names of more than 80 houses, from Sewickley to Shadyside to Ligonier. Many described landscape features, like James McClelland's Sunnyledge, Henry Heinz's Greenlawn and Maitland Alexander's Poplar Hill. A few, like George Westinghouse's Solitude in the East End and Mrs. Sullivan Johnson's Heartsease on Western Avenue in Allegheny City, took their names from the relaxed, carefree way they made their owners feel when they walked through the doors.

Others, like Glen Craigie, the Frank Moore house at Forbes and Braddock avenues, and Kilowen, the John Grant Curry house in Coraopolis Heights, directly reflected ancestral heritage or a connection to the old country, almost always the British Isles.

Some houses were named for their owners, like William Penn Snyder's Wilpen Hall and Ella Emma Mitchell Catherwood's Ellemmica, both in Sewickley Heights. A few homeowners blended their surnames with a landscape feature, creating Swissvale (Jane Grey Swisshelm), Rodhurst (the William and Adelaide Rodgers home in Squirrel Hill) and Overlook (the James Watson Over home in Osborne).

Neville B. Craig, editor and publisher of the Pittsburgh Gazette in the early 1800s, named his Oakland farm Bellefield to honor his wife, Isabella Wilson; today we know Bellefield as both a subsection of Oakland and a street.

Friendship, the John Conrad Winebiddle homestead in the East End neighborhood that now bears its name, was so called for its founder's affection for the Penns. Albert Gallatin named his New Geneva, Fayette County, estate Friendship Hill for his early associations with a traveling companion (with whom he emigrated from Switzerland in 1780) and a business partner.

Pittsburghers also named their houses for horses, a honeymoon haven and an Indian chief.

Here are some of their stories.


Lenmarkee, the former Andrew Mellon home, is better know as Chatham College's administration building. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette) 

Inhabited by members of the same family for almost two centuries, Newington is the best-preserved compound of house, garden and landscape in Western Pennsylvania, with the house dating to 1816 and 1823. In 1785, as part of the Depreciation Lands survey, Daniel Leet, a civil engineer and member of George Washington's staff during the Revolutionary War, was hired to survey what is now Edgeworth, west of Sewickley. He named the 200- to 300-acre tracts Way's Desire, Newbury, Norwich, Newington, Lincoln, Locust Bottom, Sugar Bottom, Leetsburg, John's Fancy and Picardy.

"They all seemed to hark back to his origins in England, or described the land or had family associations," said Betty Shields, director of the Sewickley Valley Historical Society.

Thomas Shields bought the Newington tract in 1785; his son married Daniel Leet's daughter in 1803, and the property has been in the Leet-Shields family ever since.

Sugar Bottom and Locust Bottom were named for the sugar maples and locust trees that grew along the river; today, Sugar Bottom gives its name to a restored log house there.


Built in the Greek Revival style in 1835 by Judge William Wilkins, Homewood was Western Pennsylvania's Monticello, a refined, elegant residence with equally fine dependencies, or out-buildings. Wilkins named the house for the virgin forest that surrounded it on 650 acres.

Like Thomas Jefferson, Wilkins was his own architect and contractor and held many official posts: U.S. Senator, minister to Russia and Secretary of War under President Tyler. His house, with its great Doric portico, was "the most fashionable and aristocratic country-seat in western Pennsylvania," writes Annie Clark Miller in her 1927 memoir, "Chronicles of Families, Houses and Estates of Pittsburgh and Its Environs."

"The buildings were grouped like a great Southern plantation, the forest forming a screen from the house. There were stables, coachhouses, servants' quarters, springhouses, wood and ice houses, bake ovens, all of similar architecture to the smallest detail."

At Homewood, Wilkins and his wife, Mathilda Dallas, daughter of Vice President George M. Dallas, entertained Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Thomas Hart Benton.

"It stood back from Penn Avenue beyond Point Breeze in the midst of a grove, and its noble facade could be seen at the end of a long driveway lined on either side by maples," recalled Emily Black Moorhead in her daughter Elizabeth's 1942 memoir, "Whirling Spindle."

Miller recalls that Homewood's "entrance drive was an approach through a magnificent avenue of maple trees, about the situation of Murtland Avenue."

"This dignified and elegant old house with its rich association should certainly have been preserved," Moorhead writes, "but it was ruthlessly torn down in 1924 and its avenues of maples is now a city street."

Today, only Homewood's name lives on, as both a neighborhood and a street.

Buena Vista

Pulpit Rock's name is inscribed on a pillar at the entrance to the house, along Little Sewickley Creek Road. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette) 

In 1785, William Robinson became the first white male child born in "Alleghenytown," in his parents' log cabin on the north shore of the Allegheny River. Fifty-five years later, he became the first mayor of Allegheny City.

Before the first bridge over the Allegheny River was built in 1819, Robinson's father, James, operated a ferry between Pittsburgh and Allegheny. By 1803, he was prosperous enough to build Allegheny's first brick house on the site of the log cabin, located at the foot of the old Franklin Road -- now Federal Street, near the Roberto Clemente (Sixth Street) Bridge.

William Robinson, who inherited his parents' estate, lived most of his life in that long, rambling house, sharing it with wife Mary Parker Robinson and their 10 children.

"There were porches on every side, a Colonial pillared entrance, and at one side a wing with long Southern galleries on both the first and second floors. The flower gardens extended to the water's edge and were noted far and wide as a brilliant and beautiful sight," writes Annie Clark Miller.

A Princeton graduate, Robinson was president of the Ohio and Pennsylvania Railroad and the Exchange Bank of Pittsburgh. As a young man, in 1806, he had been part of Aaron Burr's attempt to conquer Mexico, and must have retained an attachment to that distant land. When part of his property was subdivided in 1848, he named the streets, including Buena Vista, after battles in the recently fought Mexican War.

Buena Vista also was the name of the development and, according to Miller, the name of Robinson's estate -- probably chosen partly because it means beautiful view, which the family, gathered on their long "Southern" porches, must have enjoyed.

After the Civil War, the Robinson house was demolished and new buildings constructed along Federal Street. Earlier this year, archaeologists unearthed some of the family's possessions from their old back yard, now the site of PNC Park.


In the mid-1800s, when Elizabeth O'Hara Denny married attorney Robert F. McKnight, her parents bought them a house built about 1823 at 1212 Western Ave., Allegheny City, where the McKnights "entertained in a lavish manner," writes Annie Clark Miller. "The largest dinner parties of the social season were given here, for no other hostess had such numbers of china plates."

The McKnights' orchards and vegetable gardens occupied two full city blocks, surely producing enough to feed their 10 children.

"The fruits and berries were the finest specimens to be seen and were awarded prizes year after year at all the county fairs. The lawns were the scene of spirited contests at croquet, tennis and archery," Miller recalls.

"There was a tradition that the Indian chieftain, Kilbuck, was buried under a great stone slab near the lilac walk in the old garden," she reports, so the McKnights named their house for him.

By 1927, Kilbuck had been converted to apartmentsand the gardens covered by the Wolverine Toy Co. factory.


Atherstone's entrance posts survive along Shadyside's Fifth Avenue, a reminder of John Bindley's Gothic crenellated castle demolished in 1938. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette) 

John Bindley made his first fortune at his Grant Street hardware store, then another as co-founder of the Pittsburgh Steel Co. In 1890, he built Atherstone at 5300 Fifth Ave. (near Aiken Avenue) in Shadyside, a four-story Gothic castle with crenellated turrets and 80 windows with leaded panes. Inside, Atherstone was outfitted with paintings, furniture, hand-carved paneling and mantels that Bindley, a widower, and his niece Elmina brought back from their annual travels in Europe.

During World War I, when demand for steel was high and the money flowed in, Bindley added a new wing and had carved stone pillars erected at the entrance to the driveway. After his death in 1921, Bindley's son and daughter inherited Atherstone, and cousin Elmina and her four servants lived on in the spacious carriage house.

Bindley named Atherstone for his "ancestral home place in England," reported the Pittsburgh Bulletin Index in 1938, when the great house, "scene of many and lavish entertainments," was torn down. Whether Bindley's family came from Atherstone in Somerset or Warwickshire isn't known, only that the name lives on here in a small way, inscribed in the pillars that now flank the entrance to an apartment building.

The Bluff

In 1911, Pittsburgh author Mary Roberts Rinehart and her physician husband took on the challenge of Cassella, "a vast ruin" in Osborne, near Sewickley. The sprawling, two-story Italianate villa had been built by railroad magnate George Washington Cass in the mid-1860s.

It was Rinehart who dubbed her new home a ruin, but she also knew it was "grand, sturdy, on a high bluff overlooking the Ohio River," writes Jan Cohn, her biographer. "[E]xtensive repairs and remodeling had to be undertaken. The initial cost of the house was about doubled by those repairs. The bemused doctor, estimating the financial burden his wife had assumed, suggested they name the house The Bluff for, as he put it, 'That's what we're putting up."'

The Rineharts raised their three sons at The Bluff, which had extensive grounds and a garden, and a nearby wooded ravine where rabbits and pheasants roamed. "To this day I look back on the years [in the Sewickley area] as the happiest I have ever known," Rinehart wrote in her autobiography. Only the carriage house still stands, surrounded by houses built on The Bluff's land. In 1983, the carriage house's owners kept alive the memory of the Rinehart house by posting "The Bluff" in script on a signpost in front of the carriage house. Now, with even that sign gone, The Bluff has faded into Pittsburgh literary history.

Like Cassella, other houses have seen a name change with new ownership. Ralph Holden Binns called his Sewickley Heights home Skipton in 1905, but Harry Darlington Jr. called it Highlawn when he and his wife purchased it in 1919. Designed by Rutan and Russell, Highlawn was later demolished. Cardome, built by Henry Oliver in Edgeworth in 1910, is now called La Casona.

Walker family homes

Some new owners treasure the old name as a link to the house's history.

In 1904, William and Jane Walker built Muottas, designed by Alden and Harlow, who used stone quarried on the Sewickley Heights site to create a grand Colonial Revival with a long, columned porch.

When Cindy Giles and her husband, Harlan, bought the house about 10 years ago, a descendant of the Walkers, Cindy reports, "gave me a small piece of paper and said, 'This is what my great-great-grandfather wrote about the [name of the] house in his handwriting.' "

On the paper, William Walker indicated the word "Muottas" had a double meaning to him and his wife. On their honeymoon, the Walkers had visited a place called Muottas in Switzerland (perhaps Muottas Muragl, where there's a train station, hotel and funicular near St. Moritz in the Alps).

"Muotta means a little wooded hill," Giles said. In old High German, the word means hilly, U-shaped land. "That's exactly the landscape" around their house, Giles said. "It's a U-shaped hillside."

Muottas is one of four houses associated with the family of Scottish-born Hay Walker, who settled in what is now Brighton Heights.

In the 1850s, Walker and his wife, Janet Charters Walker, built a brick Italianate villa near what is now the corner of California and Termon avenues. They named it Bonnie Blink -- "pretty view" in Scottish -- and in it raised three daughters and five sons. One of them, William, later moved there with his wife, the former Jane Wilson -- the couple who eventually built Muottas. The house later was moved to nearby Morrell Street, where it still stands.

The Walkers' daughter, Elizabeth, and her husband James Pontefract, lived in a Longfellow and Harlow house that miraculously survives on Lincoln Avenue in Allegheny, just behind the McDonald's on Brighton Road. In 1894, they commissioned Longfellow, Alden and Harlow to build their summer home along Little Sewickley Creek Road in Edgeworth. Bagatelle, meaning "a trifle or something of little importance," was and still is something a bit more, with 2-foot-thick walls of imported Scottish stone.

Bagatelle also is the name of the magnificent former country house of the governor of Barbados. The Barbados Bagatelle, built of coral stone in 1645, is said to have gotten its name in 1878, when a former owner lost it in a card game and shrugged off his defeat, saying, "It is just a bagatelle."

In 1902, Elizabeth Pontefract's brother, Samuel Walker, commissioned Rutan and Russell to build another house on adjacent family land overlooking Little Sewickley Creek. Clad in random stone and melding Colonial Revival and Arts and Crafts influences, the house was named for a rock on the land that looks like a pulpit, from which Indian chiefs are said to have addressed their tribes. Both the house and the legend still stand.

As You Like It

Elizabeth Dohrman Thaw, whose winter home still stands at 930 N. Lincoln Ave., Allegheny West, built her 44-room Tudor Revival summer home in 1902 in Sewickley Heights. Situated on 45 acres with gardens designed by the Olmsted Brothers, As You Like It was one of the grand estates, kept very much as Thaw liked it.

"It was said of her that she had a gardener who wasn't off that place in 40 years," said Betty Shields.

As You Like It lasted only 37 years; Thaw, widow of William K. Thaw Jr. (stepbrother of the infamous Harry, slayer of Stanford White), had it demolished in 1939 and carved into a housing plan she called Thawmont.

Mellon family houses

Baywood, the former Alexander King house on Negley Avenue near Highland Park, is said to have taken the first part of its name from a trotting stallion. Richard Beatty Mellon, who married King's daughter Jennie, later named his favorite horse Baywood -- a horse named for a house that was named for a horse.

R.B. and Jenny built the grandest of all the Fifth Avenue mansions, but the 65-room house, razed in the early 1940s, doesn't seem to have had a name. His country place east of Ligonier was another matter.

"Of course R.B. wanted a name for this retreat, so that when he spoke of it and invited friends out to shoot he could refer to it by some designation other than 'my place,' " wrote J. Blan van Urk in 1950 in "The Story of Rolling Rock."

"It is more difficult to select a suitable name for a farm, a horse or a pet than many people realize. Mr. and Mrs. Mellon discussed the problem at great length without coming to an satisfactory conclusion. Then one day, while talking to his agent, who wanted R.B. to look at some land, the inspiration came. When R.B. inquired about the location of the property, the man, pointing, replied: 'It's up there where the water comes rolling down over the rocks.' Before the day was over R.B. had given his dream spot the name Rolling Rock Farms."

R.B.'s daughter Sarah and her husband, Alan Scaife, named their house at Rolling Rock Penguin Court because of Sarah's fascination with penguins. "She imported some of these interesting natatorial birds with the idea of breeding and raising them; but unfortunately, being inhabitants of the arctic regions, they did not take to the Pennsylvania climate. Too far removed from their native habitat they died, apparently from thyroid trouble," van Urk writes.

Back in Pittsburgh, R.B.'s brother Andrew called his Tudor house on Woodland Road Lenmarkee, but the name's origin is unknown. Today, Chatham College students know it as the Mellon Center administration building. Andrew and R.B.'s nephew, William Larimer Mellon, named his house near Schenley Park Ben Elm, reflecting the Mellons' Scots-Irish: Ben is Gaelic for "mountain peak." Designed by Alden and Harlow, the house, with 45 rooms, 13 baths and an Olmsted Brothers landscape, was demolished in 1951.

Today, people often give names to their second homes in the country, but few would consider naming their city houses.

"Is it because people think that it's pompous or pretentious? Originally I think it was whimsy, and it had nothing to do with that," said Cindy Giles. "So many of these houses were taken down after World War II. I think somehow after the war, people's perspectives changed."

Changed, too, over the past century has been Pittsburgh's economic, social and physical landscape, ever remade with layer upon layer of history. Today, as PNC Park rises above the shards of the Robinson estate, we understand that while much has been gained, much too has been lost.

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