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House historian unlocks doors to the past

Saturday, July 29, 2000

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Carol J. Peterson is digging deep for the ghosts of 4919 Butler St.

House historian Carol J. Peterson is digging up clues to tell the story of Jay Bernard's 100-plus-year-old house in Lawrenceville. One of the more interesting details she's discovered is an eyewitness account of a labor riot that occurred in front of the home in 1877. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette) 

Clue No. 1: Musty portraits of a man and woman left in the attic.

Clue No. 2: An 1890 map showing steel mill owner Charles Parkin living in this Lawrenceville house.

Clue No. 3: A July 23, 1877, letter about the bloody railroad strike in Pittsburgh. An eyewitness tells how the angry mob of laborers shoots and kills two young soldiers in front of Parkin's house on 4919 Butler.

Peterson is a house historian. The details she unearths -- some extraordinary, some prosaic -- become the record of the people who lived in a house, what they did and how the neighborhood changed over time. A house history is like a genealogy based on bricks and mortar, instead of family blood.

The self-taught Peterson doesn't have your everyday job. In fact, she doesn't know any other house historians. On a recent day, she is researching the history of this Lawrenceville house for Jay Bernard, a gift soap entrepreneur who recently bought it with his business partner, Bill Stanhope. They are putting the retail shop of Jay Design Homemade Soaps on the first floor.

Bernard wants to renovate the ornate but rundown house authentically and forgo modern touches, such as a dishwasher, and hide others, like the TV.

"I am somewhat of a purist," he said. "History has been important to me. Carol has already found out some really interesting stuff about the railroad riots, the big news of the day, akin to the Kent State riots."

Peterson can only imagine what Parkin, the original owner of Bernard's house, saw the day violent labor history marched by his front door. Workers at Pennsylvania Railroad, upset about wage cuts and the doubling of their workload, had struck, and National Guardsmen fired into the jeering crowd on Liberty Avenue in the Strip District. Angry workers retaliated by burning down railroad property and by chasing guardsmen up to Lawrenceville.

"It is interesting that this guy Parkin, a mill owner, could have well stood in front of his house in 1877 and watched rioting laborers chase troops up Butler Street," she says.

Bernard's Italianate house, with intricate hoods over the graceful six-pane windows, has an intriguing history. But then again, Peterson has never met an older house that didn't have an interesting past.

Even though she grew up in new construction in the burbs of an East Coast city, Peterson has always been fascinated with old houses. She remembers going with her mother into a dress shop when she was 5 and asking the proprietor if the old building was once a house.

It almost seems like a calling, the way she stumbled on the profession in 1988 because she was curious about the Polish Hill house she was renting. Poring over old deeds and county records, she found out the house was built in 1875 and dug up details about the lives of previous owners. Neighbors asked her if she could do a house history for them. She wondered if there was a market for this.

Turns out there is. In the past 11 years, Peterson has done histories for 860 houses, most of them built in the 1920s or earlier, but some as new as the 1930s, '40s and even '50s. Naturally, Peterson has researched her own house, which was built in 1889 on 43rd Street in Lawrenceville.

But the house history market in Pittsburgh is limited. Though Peterson was a full-time house historian for a year, she says the business works better as a sideline to her full-time job as an architectural historian for Michael Baker Jr. Inc., an engineering firm.

For around $240, she will spend hours doing highly detailed research on your house's past.

"I am not stalking people. I am stalking their relatives," she quips while flipping through the heavy deed books in the County Office Building.

While researching Bernard's house, Peterson spends more than an hour tracing back seven deeds, including some older ones with the property measurement calculated in perches, equal to 16 1/2 feet. The original deed on Dec. 2, 1871, shows P. Harvey Miller of Allegheny City conveying 4919 Butler St. to Eliza Parkin, wife of Charles.

Peterson's hunch is that Charles Parkin is the first owner and Miller was just the developer. But it is not until she spends more than an hour whipping through microfilm of city directories and census reports that she learns that her hunch is right. She also finds out that Parkin was from England and was a partner of Miller Barr & Parkin, which owned Crescent Steel Works.

"Generally, the first owner is the person who had the most interesting life and probably was the best off financially," she says.

Peterson takes detailed notes. Though she says that some people might fall asleep doing this kind of painstaking research, she's riveted.

"I love it. It's fascinating to learn about these people. I never know how it will go. It's like being a detective."

Unfortunately, she can't find a photo of Parkin. So she doesn't know whether the dusty, disintegrated portrait in Bernard's attic is of him.

"Who in the world are the people in the portrait?" she asks Bernard. "Why would these people just leave these pictures here?"

Her suspicion is the portraits are of subsequent owners who lived in the house in the '20s. She has a plan -- tracking down descendants of these people, have them look at portraits and see if they recognize the photos as their ancestors. But she has a concern. What if the descendants want the portrait back? She checks with Bernard, who says it's fine to show the photos to living relatives.

Maybe Peterson will track down these relatives and find out who the people are in the mysterious portraits. Or maybe they will remain the mystery of 4919 Butler St.

Other homeowners said Peterson has unlocked house mysteries for them. Evan and Janet Stoddard were surprised to learn that their house at 192 17th St. on the South Side was constructed in 1840. They knew it was old.

"But we had no idea it went back that far," Janet Stoddard said.

Peterson gave them a detailed report of former owners, including Henry and Mary Beerman, who bought the tiny two-bedroom house in 1866 and raised nine children.

More than a century later, the Stoddards bought the house, put in a big addition and raised six children there.

"It was astonishing that they had nine children there," Janet said. "I have always been interested in family history. It's nice to have a house history. It's nice to know where you come from."

The Stoddards were also delighted by the old maps of the neighborhood that Peterson included in the house history.

Nick Kyriazi, a board member of the East Allegheny Community Council, has had Peterson do histories for his three North Side houses, including two rentals.. He and neighbors have relied on house histories to put bronze plaques in front of their homes, announcing the year it was built and the first owner.

"Not only is it interesting, but if you know the past of your house, it links you to the past and it roots you to the neighborhood," he said. "Occasionally, we have a house that falls into the wrong hands, and it makes the whole block miserable. If you know the past, you are more likely to weather a storm rather than say you are out of here."

When people come to appreciate the history of house, he said, they are more likely to accept the restraints of historic designations.

Peterson wants to dig up the histories of many more old houses. In fact, she can't imagine not sleuthing around old houses and telling the stories of laborers, steel workers, mill owners and other unsung heroes of Pittsburgh's past.

"I hope when I am too old and too feeble to lift the deed books, I will still be doing this. I will eventually do a few thousand house histories. The sum total will be something that will tell people a lot about the history of Pittsburgh."

To contact Carol Peterson, call her at 412-687-0342.

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