By Paul Johnson
The history and development of the area known today as the Central Northside of Pittsburgh can be traced back to its origin as a rich, low-lying, central hunting ground to early Native Americans. It lay just below a massive sandstone ridge formed south of the great glacier push. The earliest documentation of settlement is tied to the apportioning of the land north of the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers as well as to a man who is considered the first settler of the Northside, James Robinson.
In 1783, the Pennsylvania General Assembly set in motion the development of the wilderness north of Pittsburgh. This area was designated a Reserve Tract, surveyed at 3,025 acres in 1785, and “reserved” for the development of a new town. In 1787, the state legislature asked that a plan be drawn up, and they commissioned David Redick to prepare it. Subsequent to a physical survey in 1788, Redick delivered the Plan of the Reserve Tract Opposite Pittsburg.
Redick laid out the town based on early colonial models that followed English custom, with a town square, surrounded by common land, and outlying lots. Redick centered the town on the intersection of the Venango Trail and the Great Path, two Native American routes that were the first human imprint on the land. (The Venango Trail stretched from the confluence of the three rivers to Lake Erie.) The town square, town lots and surrounding commons contained 150 acres. The upper tract was divided into 276 outlots of 10 acres each. The remaining 115 acres were bits and pieces of odd shaped parcels scattered along the perimeter. The general concept was that settlers would own a town lot for a home and an outlot for agricultural purposes.
Prior to Redick’s plan, there had been a portion of land on the northern bank first cleared by James Boggs around 1760, though he retreated back to “Pittsburg” due to Native American unrest. In the early 1780s he tried again. He cleared nine acres but died while felling trees in his clearing. His widow Martha wrote to the Council of the Commonwealth to retain her land claim, and the Council voted in her favor. In the 1790s, Martha Boggs met James Robinson, an adventurer and entrepreneur with an interest in real estate development, and remarried. Robinson picked up where her late husband left off, buying more land to add to what he had acquired through marriage. Also, during this period, with the parcels defined in Redick’s plan allocated and/or auctioned, the town of Allegheny gradually began to take shape.
The town center and river front developed first, with some of the areas north of the commons cleared and converted to farm land. James Robinson bought two of the three outlots fronting the North Commons, along what was then called Shanopin Lane (now North Avenue).
The earliest development within the 14-outlot area of the upper part of the tract was Mechanic’s Retreat. Circa 1815, this land was subdivided and developed into a residential area for workers employed in early industry along the banks of the Ohio River a short distance west. Mechanic’s Retreat was a rural enclave of modest housing along Pasture Lane (now Brighton Road) surrounded by acres of undeveloped land. Aside from Mechanic’s Retreat, there was no development north of the commons during this time.
By the 1820s, Allegheny Town’s population reached 1000. It was incorporated as a borough in 1828. James Robinson had acquired the last outlot in the lower tract, making him the owner of all the land fronting the North Commons. The first expansion of Allegheny Town on the north side of the commons occurred in these outlots, on the west side of Federal Street. Existing streets south of the Commons– Beaver Street (now Arch), Middle Alley (now Reddour), and Webster Street (now Sherman) — were extended north to the other side of the commons (but not through the commons). Benton Alley (now Eloise) dates to this period. This extension of the town street-grid into Robinson’s outlots did not intersect the evolving Mechanic’s Retreat development, where Jackson Street had been extended between Federal and Pasture Lane (Brighton). Jackson Street and Carroll Street (now Armandale), connected by Coffee Street (now Garfield), defined Mechanics Retreat. Through 1835 there was no real development east of Federal or west of Brighton, and James Robinson’s outlots opposite the commons were still used for agriculture by tenant farmers.
In 1840, Allegheny Borough became Allegheny City. It was expanding on all sides, including eastward (Deutschtown) and westward (Allegheny West). By 1852 both sides of Federal had been subdivided into their current form. East of Federal, Boyle Street (named after the owner of the outlot) extended from North Avenue up to Fairmount Street (now Henderson), crossed by Locust (now Parkhurst) and Hemlock. West of Federal, Jackson Street and Beaver Street (Arch) were brought into intersection. Jefferson, Carroll and Ledlie (now Alpine) extended west from Federal the width of the outlots to Amelda Alley (now Saturn). This abutted the east end of Mechanics Retreat.
During the 1840s, James Robinson’s son, General William Robinson, finally developed the outlots at the west end of North Avenue opposite the commons. In keeping with the flair of the times, he called this development Buena Vista, naming the streets after places and people from the Mexican-American War (hence, the later name, Mexican War Streets). This development was not initially integrated with the street grid that had grown up around these last-to-be-subdivided outlots, with the exception of Benton Alley (Eloise). The original Buena Vista development was bounded by Taylor Street on the north and Palo Alto on the east. Palo Alto was the eastern boundary of the original outlots. The block between Palo Alto and Webster (Sherman) was left undeveloped.
Between 1852 and 1872, the Mechanics Retreat area was substantially rearranged. Buena Vista and Monterey Streets, from Robinson’s Buena Vista development, were extended north from Taylor up to Carroll Street (Armandale), which was renamed Ackely Street. (Ackley owned the property north of that line.) In a 4 block area, the old lot lines were completely replaced. The larger north/south-oriented Mechanic’s Retreat lots fronting Jackson and Ackely (Carroll) were replaced by new 20-foot wide lots fronting Buena Vista & Monterey in the current east/west orientation. Residential development pushed west from Federal down Jackson Street to meet with the newly extended Monterey- the western edge of the built-out neighborhood.
At this time, lower Buena Vista was still dominated by stock yards, which discouraged residential development (the alley between Buena Vista and Brighton is still called Drovers Way). In addition to the extension of Buena Vista and Monterey, Jefferson was pushed west past Amelda Alley (Saturn) to Monterey, and Davis Alley (now Sampsonia) was created providing rear access for the lots along Jackson and Taylor.
The outlots on the west side of Irwin Avenue (renamed from Pasture Lane) were subdivided by this time, with Freemont Street (now Brighton Place) connecting Jackson Street to Washington Avenue (now California). Although the land on the west side of Freemont was owned by the Pittsburgh Fort Wayne & Chicago Railroad Company, it was partitioned into town lots – a real estate venture related to the railroad business. Although Freemont Street was only sparsely populated, it was the route chosen for a trolley line that descended from the east side of Union Cemetery, down to Jackson Street, east to Monterey, down Monterey to North Avenue, then east to Federal and downtown Allegheny.
At the periphery, O’Hern Street now connected Perrysville Avenue to Irwin Ave (Brighton Rd.). The roughly 20 acres between Ackely (Armandale) and O’Hern were partitioned in a north/south orientation, with the parcels fronting Irwin Avenue occupied by Taggart’s tannery. In addition to the land north of Ackley (Armandale), a large parcel on the east side of Coffee Street (Garfield) remained undeveloped.
By the 1880s, the population of Allegheny City was over 75,000. The major development in this decade was the installation of sewer and water service throughout the lower wards. Buena Vista was extended north to meet with Perrysville Avenue, crossing O’Hern in the process. This was a major challenge, owing to the steep grade, but with the observatory and the Western University of Pennsylvania on the bluffs overlooking the town, the motivation was fairly strong to improve accessibility.
With the extension of Buena Vista, many more of the lots on upper Buena Vista were built out, while most of the lots on lower Buena Vista were still available, although no longer stock yards. A significant amount of housing also appears on Freemont Street (Brighton Place), due to the trolley line. West Jefferson Street, like O’Hern, connected all the way to Irwin Avenue (Brighton Rd).
Although many homes had been built, there still remained a plentiful supply of partitioned town lots available to be purchased. Nearly everything had been partitioned except for a few large parcels like the two blocks on the east side of Coffee Street (Garfield).
In ten years the population of Allegheny City grew by 30%, to over 100,000. The lower, original wards benefited from the modern amenities of sewer and water as well as proximity to the center of Allegheny City, with its Market House and associated commercial district. Moreover, residing in the lower wards meant that one could walk to downtown and not have to climb the steep hills flanking Federal Street. Manchester, originally a separate borough, but by now a part of Allegheny City, shared these same advantages, although further from downtown.
The housing build-out in 1890 is a substantial increase in density reflecting the population growth. A lot of the earliest housing built in the Mexican War Streets between the 1820s and 1850s had been quite modest by Victorian standards. As the burgeoning middle class became more affluent, these undersized structures were remodeled, expanded or replaced. This is the first time the Northside experienced a period of gentrification.
With the exception of the grand homes on North Avenue, the Mexican War Streets was never like Millionaires Row on Ridge Avenue. Nevertheless, what these buildings lacked in scale they made up for in style and quality of craftsmanship. The new middle class of merchants and industrial professionals built spacious homes, many designed to include servants, with stone quarried from nearby places like Fineview, lumber floated down the Allegheny River from Allegheny Forest, and glass made in Pittsburgh. A wide range of Victorian architectural styles were built, including Italianate, Gothic Revival, Richardson Romanesque, Empire and Queen Anne.
Given the relatively rapid build-out and the gentrification that occurred, there is a consequent Victorian consistency across the whole district in terms of style and streetscape, as well as a consistency in terms of durability. If a structure has been maintained, it is still in service. The quality and durability of the housing in this district is a reminder of the emergence of Pittsburgh as a first-tier industrial center and the consequent expansion of the middle class.