Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Some Things Worth Preserving

My dad used to say he hated Victorian houses.  He disliked the overstuffed furniture, the heavy draperies and rugs, the endless clutter and bricabrac, the dust and darkness that he remembered as a child. Looking at old photos of the interiors of Victorian houses, I can understand his displeasure.  The furnishings are rather overwhelming. I shudder to think what it would have been like to clean these rooms without modern appliances like vacuum cleaners or floor buffers.

Nevertheless, Dad got worked up when, in 1960, US Steel decided to move their superintendent out of the old house next to the library, relocate his family in a fashionable suburb, and demolish the house.  Despite the local outcry, the company quickly reduced the fabulous stone Romanesque Revival residence to rubble without bothering to salvage anything.  Apparently, they didn't want anyone to be reminded of the history  associated with the inhabitants of the house. ( I should add that the daughter of the superintendent at that time, Jill Hagen, who was in my class at Munhall High School, was not happy at being forced to move to Mount Lebanon.)

The company allowed the other, less spectacular superintendents' houses to stand for several years more. I suppose they weren't fancy enough for the company to worry about its image. Shortly after the demolition of the main house, three of my friends--Barbara, Joyce, Mary Ann--and I decided to sneak into the vacant houses and take a look before they were wrecked.  We were scared to death of the police catching us and charging us with B&E, but that didn't happen.  Once inside, however, we were disappointed. We had seen the extraordinary stained glass and cabinetry in the big house, and these were remarkably plain by comparison.
The General Superintendent's House, Munhall c. 1901

Dad's outrage at the destruction of the house marked the beginning of my interest in historic preservation. And thus began my fascination with old houses that culminated in 1976 with the purchase of a ramshackle 1885 Queen Anne house in Minneapolis.  It suffered from years of deferred maintenance, and has required thirty years of hard work to get it back to some semblance of its original appearance.

However, remembering Dad's aversion to the dreary interiors of his youth, I chose not to adopt an 1880's interior decorating style. Instead, its furnishings are an odd assemblage of antiques, family heirlooms, castoffs from the previous owner, plus a sofa, chair, tables and dining set from Katilius Furniture. The back parlor is my ancestral "shrine," hung with old images of my relatives, their houses, and the old Homestead Works.
Looking into the back parlor from the front parlor of my house.
When I was recreating the streets and houses of 1891-92 Homestead in the book, I turned to contemporary descriptions, notably those from Hamlin Garland's famous 1894 visit: "The town was as as squalid and unlovely as could well be imagined, and the people were mainly of the discouraged and sullen type to be found everywhere where labor passes into the brutalizing stage of severity." Garland goes on to describe the muddy streets, broken sidewalks, wretched tenements, shabby houses, and filthy people of the town.

Sixty years later, as I remember it, the Homestead area was still smoky and dirty. If you went outside wearing a white shirt, in no time it would be flecked with soot and grit. Even at a distance of over two miles from the mill, at our house in Munhall my mother had to wash the kitchen curtains every couple weeks in warm weather.  Our next-door neighbors, the Sokolowskis, destroyed the furnishings of their house via nonstop cleaning.  Their curtains and upholstery were in tatters, but they were clean, dammit.

Laundry drying on lines in Whitacre, overlooking the Monongehela River, 1976

In Darkness Visible I have tried to recreate the noise and filth of 1892 Homestead, but I don't think it's possible to capture the extremity of the nastiness of the town.  The slums were sunken into open cesspools; smoke billowing from the mill stacks blocked out the sun and stars.  Even the mill superintendents lived and worked right across the tracks from the mill in Munhall. It must have been a nightmare of contagion and pollution.

Dad was one of the fortunate residents of Homestead-Munhall. The four houses he called home were all in Munhall, ever farther up the hill from the mill and ever newer: Hayes Street (where he was born), West 21st Street (1912), East James Street (1942), and Wayne Road (1959)--the last two being my first homes. He didn't care much for the dark, grimy dwellings of his youth, but when all is said and done, he was a preservationist. I think he would agree that although not all buildings are worth preserving, the legacy of our forebears is.
3612 Wayne Road, Munhall, 1976

To this end, I have retold the story of the 1892 Battle of Homestead --according to the PBS television series, one of the "Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America."  And that's no exaggeration.

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