Monday, December 31, 2012

Those Twelve Days of Christmas

It's the seventh day of Christmas. Do you know where your swans are swimming?

I look forward to reading the Christmas Price Index every year. That's the list detailing how much the traditional twelve days worth of holiday gifts would cost in today's economy. It was instituted in 1984 by Pittsburgh's own PNC Bank, is updated annually, and gets attention whenever the media needs some holiday filler. Perhaps this year worries about the manufactured drama related to the Fiscal Cliff have eclipsed communal concerns about the cost of a partridge in a pear tree, because I've not seen much made of the rising costs of festive fowl and revelry. The folks at PNC tell us that if you're looking to gift your true love carol-style, you'll pay $25431.18 this year for one of each item, and a grand total of $107300.24 for all 364 gifts. There was no report on the tax ramifications of those purchases for the 1% who can afford them.

Fiscal cliff doomsdaying aside, this holiday season I've seen a fair amount of abuse heaped upon the Twelve Days of Christmas song. It's apparently a leading contender for stupidest holiday carol ever (at our house the winners are anything by the Jingle Dogs, that Santa Baby song, and Frosty the Snowman. I particularly loathe Frosty, although my bias is always against any character who sounds like he needs to blow his nose. Pooh Bear, I'm looking at you).

Now I'll grant you that the Twelve Days begs to be parodied. Mock-worthy as it is, there exist countless versions with lyrics of various degrees of cleverness.  Despite that, I'm going on record to state that it's a childhood favorite of mine.

Back in the days before the Internet made searching lyrics not even a Thing, I was proud of my ability to memorize and recite the lyrics through sheer dogged repetition. I can't say that my family was enamored of my hard work, but I was pleased with myself. I still like to hear the carol sung because I appreciate the historical continuity it represents.

Twelve days have made up the Christmas season in Western and Eastern Christian church traditions, with the aptly-named Twelfth Night falling on Epiphany. (The Western church counts the days beginning on Christmas Day so that Epiphany falls on January 5th, while in the Eastern tradition the "first day of Christmas" is December 26th and Epiphany thus falls on January 6th). And Epiphany is celebrated as the time when the Wise Guys, I mean The Magi, arrived to present gifts to the young Jesus. The Bible stories never say how many wise visitors there were, and some Eastern traditions even say that there were twelve. I like the idea of an even dozen bearing twelve gifts, for a mystical total of 364 gifts, one for each day of the year except, uhm, Christmas.

Journey of the Magi, Benozzo Gozzoli, 1459-62

There are those who have attached religious significance to the carol and believe we can trace its origins to 16th century England. That was the time of the Protestant Reformation, that period of religious revolution that Henry VIII unintentionally provoked by declaring himself head of the Church in his country so he could grant himself the divorce that the Pope in Rome denied for, well, complicated political reasons. Those who hold to this theory believe that the Twelve Days of Christmas carol was mnemonically constructed to help educate the Roman Catholic faithful in the doctrines of their faith. Supposedly the carol allowed them to remain under the radar of would-be persecutors, since its repetitive nature assured that they'd not have to write down anything incriminating that could be used as evidence against them. Adherents to this theory believe that the carol's 'true love' is God and the 'partridge in a pear tree' is Christ on the cross, while the 'three French hens' represent the Trinity or maybe the three theological virtues of Faith Hope and Charity or perhaps even the three gifts of the Magi. And the list goes on: the two Biblical Testaments are represented, as are the four Gospels, five books of the Torah, seven Sacraments, eight Beatitudes, nine hierarchies of angels, ten Commandments, eleven faithful apostles, and (deep breath) the twelve articles of the Apostles' Creed. Or maybe that's the twelve tribes of Israel?

Unfortunately for those who like their holiday carols fraught with religious symbolism, there's not a shred of documentation to stand as contemporary evidence to back up this theory.

The idea seems to have had its virgin birth in the 1970s and gained widespread acceptance following a 1992 article in the Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.  I like well-done symbolism as much as anyone but this? Isn't all that. The catechetical associations that the carol purportedly spells out were NOT unique to the Roman Church, not when compared to the beliefs of the newly-formed English-centric church (at least not at the point in time in question). They thus didn't merit the creation of a cumulative carol of dubious musicianship to remember them by; everyone then knew this stuff.  It's an appealing folkloric explanation, to be sure, but there's no logical sense to the theory. Still, these lyrical religious attributions are repeated as if they were Gospel truths themselves.

The real history of the song is rich enough without added associations. Christmastide has historically been a time of twelves. The twelve days of the season were filled with feasts and frolics climaxing on the aforementioned Twelfth Night, which was for much of Christian history a more festive occasion than Christmas itself.  After all, birthday celebrations are more recent cultural customs, even Divine birthdays. Christmas wasn't made much of until Victorian times, whereas before then it was Epiphany that represented the revelation of Jesus, both traditionally as an infant to the Magi and liturgically through the symbolism of baptism in the River Jordan and that first miracle at Canaa.

Different customs have evolved over time and place for the Christmastide season, with some giving gifts only on Christmas Day, some solely on Twelfth Night, and some lucky souls receiving gifts on all of the twelve nights. I have my doubts as to whether the latter received partridges, turtle doves, or five golden rings (though I'd personally not complain about the latter, unless the lyric is referring to five ring-necked pheasants as some have theorized).

Here in the States we've largely lost the traditions of the Twelve Days of Christmas, although the passing of Epiphany is often considered to be the traditional holiday de-decorating date. Of course if you live in an area that celebrates Carnival like New Orleans, you're just getting started on Twelfth Night and it's thus not an ending but a beginning to revelry!

The origins of the Twelve Days of Christmas carol itself are truly lost to time and memory, but most likely it began as the musical accompaniment to a medieval “memories and forfeits game” in which a leader recited verses that followers had to repeat exactly or else forfeit a sweet or kiss or pay some other penalty. The carol was presented this way in its first known publication, a 1780 children's book called Mirth Without Mischief. Musicologists have suggested that the carol has French origins, given some of the items mentioned in the song. For example, the kinds of partridges which roost in trees were introduced from France to England in the late 1770s and the song definitely predates their introduction. There are even some theories that the "in a pear tree" lyric is a bastardization of "and a partridge, un perdis" (perdis being French for partridge). It's a medieval mondegreen!



So let's face it, this song is really no more than what it appears to be: a fun secular carol about music, dancing, and getting stuff -- albeit weird stuff like calling birds. Wait, calling birds? No, not calling birds, no matter what you think you hear. Remember that it was a point of pride for me as a wee Sue to get the lyrics right, so I am proud to inform you that the lyric is not "calling birds" but "colly" birds. We can blame English composer Frederic Austin for publishing the arrangement in 1909 that we sing today, along with codifying the substitution of "calling birds" for the "colly birds."  Time was when "colly" was another word for black, and so the updated lyric would be translated as "four blackbirds." I know, that doesn't resonate as well. I console myself by thinking of my black Rough Collie dog as a colly collie, and carry on.



The Twelve Days of Christmas song has captured the popular imagination, for good or ill, in all its variations and parodies. Several countries including the United States have even issued postage stamps to represent the gifts sung about in the carol, which you can see on THIS SITE.

But it's really all much ado about birds, maids, lords, feasting and revelry, like any good party should be. Whatever holiday you celebrate and whatever meaning you attach to your symbols, I wish you great joy of it, and a happy new year, too!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Forgotten History: John Brashear

Though my soul may set in darkness; 
it will rise in perfect light; 
I have loved the stars too fondly
to be fearful of the night. 




Andy Warhol famously stated in 1968 that "In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes." The Internet age of instant celebrity makes Andy look downright prophetic. Many of our modern stars bask in fame built on shaky foundations shored up by talented publicists. But there are other individuals whose contributions have been, well, astronomical. These are folks worthy of far more than fifteen minutes of homage and recognition, and yet they've fallen prey to collective popular amnesia. What will it take to give lasting credit where credit is due?

I recently attended a Heinz History Center Ambassador Lecture Series presentation about Western Pennsylvanian John Brashear. If you are an astronomy buff, or know about the history of the City of Allegheny and Pittsburgh's North Side, his name will resonate. But most would likely respond with blank stares or blinks of vague familiarity if asked to identify him. John Alfred Brashear was a famous and influential Pittsburgher, a polymath of the late 1800s and early 1900s who hobnobbed with all the luminaries who populate this city's history books. He was renowned for his self-taught innovative lens and optics work; stellar reputation as a scientific educator and administrator; abiding love for his wife and work-partner Phoebe; and many humanitarian endeavors.  His life story is inspirational for lessons learned about resourcefulness, believing in oneself and making the most of opportunities, and giving back to society.

Source: Wikipedia Commons

John Brashear was born in Fayette County in 1840. He fell in love with the stars at age 9 when his maternal grandfather gave him the opportunity to view the rings of Saturn through a traveling telescope. From humble origins as a Brownsville tavern-owner's son through early days working in a grocery store and various machine shops, an enduring love of astronomy and applied science drove Brashear to work on fashioning a better telescope lens. For five years he held a full-time mill machinist job by day and tinkered by night in a coal shed behind his South Side Slopes home, until he finally perfected a new silvering technique on a five-inch telescope lens. He presented this lens to Samuel Pierpont Langley, Director of the Allegheny Observatory and Professor of Astro-Physics.

Samuel Pierpont Langley. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Langley (who was to become the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution) knew genius when he saw it, and became Brashear's mentor. He brought Brashear into the Observatory fold to create lenses and other precision scientific equipment. In turn, Brashear's work facilitated Langley's solar research, standardization of accurate timetables, and experimentation with flight theory vis-à-vis the aerodrome. Langley's successor, James Keeler, did pioneering spectrographic observations of Saturn's rings that would not have been possible without Brashear's precision instrumentation.

In 1881 Brashear came to the attention of railroad tycoon William Thaw, who became his primary financial benefactor. With his research, travels, and a new workshop subsidized by Thaw, Brashear went on to revolutionize the field of astronomy with his advances in instrumentation.

Having never forgotten his chance to peer through a telescope as a young boy, Brashear was committed to making scientific findings available to all comers. He never patented or restricted his work, and made sure that the newly-constructed Allegheny Observatory was publicly accessible. At his insistence, the building included a public hall that hosted a lecture series funded by indistrialist tycoon Henry Clay Frick. The public was also invited to use the telescopes -- a great boon in 1910 when Halley's Comet passed through! Such accessibility was a critical concern, for as Brashear stated in his autobiography:
In my early struggles to gain a knowledge of the stars, I made a resolution that if ever an opportunity offered or I could make such an opportunity, I should have a place where all the people who loved the stars could enjoy them;...and the dear old thirteen-inch telescope, by the use of which so many discoveries were made, is also given up to the use of the citizens of Pittsburgh, or, for that matter, citizens of the world.

A strong believer in the moral necessity of doing one's civic duty, Brashear served as Acting Director of the Allegheny Observatory that we know today (he was its primary fundraiser as well) and Acting Chancellor of the Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh). Modest and wishing to remain focused on the work he loved best, he refused permanent positions in both cases. He was also a member of the founding committee of Carnegie Technical Schools (now Carnegie Mellon University); organized and served as Chairman of the Henry Clay Frick Educational Commission at Mr. Frick's personal request; and served as president of multiple professional engineering and science societies. His formal education consisted of one semester at a business school, but his work garnered him countless awards and honorary degrees. Brashear and his wife were great benefactors to the larger community. In 1915, a settlement house and community center were established on the South Side in his honor, where the The Brashear Association remains active to this day.

Brashear's star shone far beyond the skies of Pittsburgh and many of his instruments actually remain in regular use. Even Einstein owed him a debt of gratitude, for the Theory of Relativity was developed using a mirror that Brashear designed in 1886. My favorite Brashear accolades are the craters on the far side of the Moon and on Mars that were named for him!


Brashear Crater on Mars. Source: Wikipedia Commons

John Alfred Brashear died on April 8, 1920 after suffering for six long months from the effects of food poisoning. His ashes were interred in the Allegheny Observatory crypt along with those of his beloved wife Phoebe, and an excerpt from the Sarah Williams poem I quoted at the start of this entry is their epitaph.

So how is it that such a luminary, a man so popular in his day that he was known as "Uncle John" to the citizens of Pittsburgh, a man named “Pennsylvania’s Most Distinguished Citizen” by the governor in 1915, is unknown today to most people outside of his chosen field? The scientific advances and instruments he created are his legacy, but let's face it, telescope lenses aren't sexy popular topics.  People forget what they never knew, and so for the most part John Brashear has been left to idle his time on the heavenly bench where victims of collective popular amnesia sit.

There have been multiple on-going efforts to permanently and prominently inscribe Brashear's name in the history books, so that he's not left languishing in the footnotes. Dr. Don Handley created an hour-long documentary entitled Undaunted: The Forgotten Giants of the Allegheny Observatory which premiered at the Heinz History Center in April 2012. Its release coincided with commemorations of the 100 year anniversary of the dedication of the Allegheny Observatory on August 28 1912 and Undaunted highlighted the work of Brashear and his contemporaries. It is available for public sale, and American Public Television accepted Undaunted for distribution to PBS stations throughout the nation.

I am hopeful that such a larger scale refocusing of attention on his story can spur further action on preserving the architectural witnesses to this man's fascinating life story. Brashear's home and factory have long been neglected on Perrysville Avenue of Pittsburgh’s North Side. The home, built for the Brashears by Thaw and incorporating the gracious Arts and Crafts styles of the day, is currently in private ownership and used as a transitional living facility for rehab patients. 




The nearly-adjacent factory of the Brashear Company is now owned by the City of Pittsburgh, but sits derelict and abandoned, as can be seen in these photos I took recently. 


Then-City Councilman William Peduto helped produce Undaunted and contributed to publicizing an effort by neighborhood activist/historian and artist Lisa Miles to register the Perry Hilltop buildings with the National Register of Historic Places. Both buildings were successfully nominated by the State of Pennsylvania in October 2012, and the final decision is currently under consideration at this writing. 

I've written before on this blog about how critical it is to preserve architectural witnesses to history.  Sometimes empty buildings are all that is left to memorialize someone and recognize their accomplishments, and those buildings can make all the difference in keeping memory alive. Brashear's friend Henry Clay Frick benefited enormously from his daughter's decision to honor his legacy through the preservation of their family home, Clayton. But there's no one to single-mindedly honor John Brashear through preservation efforts. 

The opportunities are there, for there are other tangible reminders of Brashear's legacy that vie for our attention. Brashear wrote an autobigraphy that was published posthumously and it's full of charming, fascinating anecdotes and reflections about his life and times. The book is in the public domain and can be viewed HERE.  The Allegheny Observatory that was so central to Brashear's life remains in Pittsburgh's public Riverview Park and is owned and operated by the University of Pittsburgh. Its white domes rise like an astronomical Taj Mahal over the trees as one navigates serpentine Perrysville Avenue. Though a private research laboratory, free public stargazing tours are available at the Observatory by reservation from April through October, just as Brashear would have wanted. A 2009 profile about Brashear on WQED's now-defunct news magazine show OnQ can still be viewed HERE.  A wider distribution of Undaunted might raise Brashear's profile in Pittsburgh and beyond. And a national designation of significance for the Perry Hilltop buildings associated with him may lead to their renewed historical preservation, and perhaps even conversion as astronomy and biographical museums -- surely a win-win situation for Brashear's legacy and greater Western Pennsylvania.  

If these things don't up John A. Brashear's public profile, I don't know what else can.


________________________ 

An unwelcome update:  On Monday, 16 March 2015 a wall of the Perry Hilltop factory collapsed, and demolition on the rest of this historic building followed the next day due to safety reasons. This is an incredible loss for our region's history of industrial and scientific innovation.  Now all we've got are memories of better days:  
 
John A. Brashear Co. Ltd Building.
University of Pittsburgh, Archive Services Center, Allegheny Observatory Records.


ARTICLE about demolition.
 _______________________

Further Reading:
Advancing Astronomy and Community: John Brashear
Allegheny Observatory website 
Biographical Fact Sheet
Brashear House Historical Marker
Centennial: New Allegheny Observatory Dedication

Dr. J.A. Brashear Dead Following Long Sickness
Help Achieve Historic Status for John Brashear's Home and Factory
Historical Status Sought for Brashear's North Side Home, Factory
Historic status sought for Brashear' s home and factory in Perry Hilltop
National Park Service: Astronomy and Astrophysics: Allegheny Observatory
New film stars Allegheny Observatory
Pittsburgh's Allegheny Observatory: New History Film
The Story of John Alfred Brashear, The Man Who Loved the Stars
"Undaunted" shows pioneers who reached for the stars at Allegheny Observatory
Undaunted: The Forgotten Giants of the Allegheny Observatory film trailer

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Forgotten History: Allegheny Arsenal Explosion

Each year, this nation stops to mourn the lives lost during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For most of us, the events of that day forever altered the fabric of our lives, usually to the point of ripping holes into what we'd thought were comfortable, seamless garments. I was struck last week by a question asked by my daughter, who was a toddler the day the planes hit and doesn't remember her world changing. She wondered if we would always have commemorations on that dreadful day and what they would be like when she grew up. Would people still remember those who were killed, or would the remembrances become far less personal and more a day for obligatory flag flying?

This was one of those moments parents dread, because I couldn't definitively answer her question. Historical precedent dictates that even life-changing events will be remembered differently as time passes.

For example, one hundred fifty years ago 78 civilians, most of them women and girls engaged in munitions work, were killed in an explosion at the Allegheny Arsenal in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh Daily Post, 18 September 1862

It is understandable that this event was overshadowed by the Battle of Antietam fought near Sharpsburg, Maryland that same day, which resulted in more than 23,000 men killed, wounded, or missing. No article about Antietam fails to mention that 17 September 1862 was the bloodiest single day in American military history. The loss of 78 civilians some 180 miles north paled in comparison, and the Battle of Antietam even pushed the Arsenal story to page 3 in one local newspaper. Still, the Arsenal deaths were the worst loss of civilian life during the Civil War, and the memories of those victims deserve to be honored.

The Allegheny Arsenal was initially designed as a supply depot during the War of 1812 for the US military during its ill-conceived attempt to invade the region we now call Canada. The military presence at the Forks of Ohio (as Pittsburgh was initially known) had progressed since the colonial era from Fort Pitt to Fort Lafayette (mentioned on this blog before in the context of talking about the launch of the Lewis and Clark expedition). Fort Lafayette was deemed inadequate and closed in 1814. As noted when I wrote briefly about the Latrobe family, renowned architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe was commissioned to design the main building at the Arsenal. His proposed structure was greatly altered to this final form:


Allegheny Arsenal, circa 1870-1909, gelatin silver print. Source: Archives Service Center (ASC) at the University of Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Historic Photographs, 1884-present

The Arsenal typically employed between 100-200 people a day in various outbuildings, but production of what were termed 'military accoutrements' ramped up once the Civil War began. Nearly 1100 employees passed by these imposing Arsenal gates each day on their way to work.


Gateway to Arsenal circa June 1937.  Source: Archives Service Center (ASC) at the University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, 1901-2002.

As so often happens in wartime, many women had come to do what would in times of peace be considered men's work. Of course, in times of peace, there would not be quite the same insatiable demand for Minié balls and powder-filled cartridges. On 17 September 17 1862, 156 women and girls, plus some men and boys, were at work in the laboratory out-buildings of the Arsenal rolling .54 and .71 caliber cartridges and filling cannon shells.


Winslow Homer engraving of women and girls rolling cartridges at a federal arsenal in Massachusetts, published July 1861, Harper's Weekly,

An average day's work would yield 800 rolled cartridges per person for wages starting at 50¢ a day for the youngest and inexperienced. Contrast this with the 43¢ a day that a Union private got, with payment delayed for months at a time to their desperate families, and it's easy to understand why these jobs were attractive to the poor, mostly Irish immigrant girls and women of Pittsburgh. And so it was that many of Pittsburgh's poorest and most vulnerable families were left grieving the loss of their wives and daughters when the Arsenal went up in flames.

The cause of the Arsenal explosion has never been fully determined. A coroner's inquest began immediately that evening, and long deliberations eventually determined that a spark from the combustion of either an iron horseshoe or iron-rimmed wagon wheel was ignited when the metal contacted black powder dust swept onto the macadamized road in front of the Arsenal. Those roads contained a material called churt, which in certain combinations contains flint. The spark spread to the 100 pound barrels of black powder stacked all around the Arsenal premises and an inferno ensued.

Contemporary newspaper accounts spared no details about what horrors greeted Pittsburghers rushing to the scene. Skip the following description from the Daily Post if you are sensitive to graphic descriptions:

Of the main building nothing remained but a heap of smoking debris. The ground about was strewn with fragments of charred wood, torn clothing, balls, caps, grape shot, exploded shells, hoes, fragments of dinner baskets belonging to the inmates, steel springs from the girls’ hoop skirts, cartridge paper, sheet iron, and melted lead. Two hundred feet from the laboratory was picked up the body of one young girl, terrible mangled; another body was seen to fly in the air and separate into two parts; an arm was thrown over the wall; a foot was picked up near the gate; a piece of skull was found a hundred yards away, and pieces of intestines were scattered about the grounds. Some fled out of the ruins covered with flame, or blackened and lacerated with effects of the explosion, and either fell and expired or lingered in agony until removed. Several were conveyed to houses in the borough and to their homes in the city. Of these, four or five subsequently died.

Less than half of the bodies were identifiable. Some victims simply vanished without a trace in the blaze. The unidentifiable bodies were buried in a mass grave at Allegheny Cemetery, and 15 Catholic girls were laid to rest in the adjacent St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church Cemetery.

Because this year marks the 150th anniversary of this sad event, there has been a great deal of press coverage to commemorate the lives lost (see the end of this entry for a partial list of coverage). This short video produced by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette explains it all far better than I could (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette video LINK in case the embed isn't showing up below for you):






My daughter and I attended a lecture at the Heinz History Center last week presented by Jim Wudarczyk and Tom Powers of the Lawrenceville Historical Society. We returned to the History Center this past Saturday to attend a mock cold case inquiry presided over by former Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht to determine the explosion's probable cause. Many questions remained after the 1862 civil inquest, which cited negligence on the part of Arsenal administrators for not stringently enforcing safety regulations. A military board of inquiry held a month later exonerated those officials, instead blaming the wagon driver and another (deceased) employee for negligence.

At the modern mock inquiry, expert witnesses were called to reconstruct history. We learned a great deal about munitions, the roles and lives of Civil War era women, the history of the Arsenal, and various military issues. All the while, a young lady with nimble fingers dressed in period costume sat to the side and rolled cartridges, just as Arsenal girls and women would have done 150 years ago:


Kate Lukascewicz portrays an Arsenal employee

The jury in this mock trial found that the Army officials in charge were negligent in assuring the safety of the facility, much as the original coroner's inquest had done.

While the case testimonies were fascinating, what was most moving for us was a brief commemoration in honor of those who had died. Members of the audience had been given index cards with a victim's name stood. Each stood and read their name aloud. My daughter was given Susan McKenna's name. We knew nothing about Miss McKenna, although we have since learned that she was 18 at the time of death and her remains were identified by a set of teeth. She was buried at St. Mary's Cemetery. For a few moments my vibrant and beautiful 13 year old stood in silence to honor this 150 year old ghost whose life had been cruelly cut so short.

And in those moments, I think we found the answer to the questions she'd pondered about the nature of commemorations. So long as caring people honor the past and seek to learn from it, those who suffered and died will always be remembered. The nature of the commemorations may change, but respect can always be paid. This was brought home to us when Marie Gray, a descendant of Arsenal blast victim May Collins, noted how sad it was that these victims had not received acknowledgement as heroes and patriots, and attested to how meaningful she found the History Center's belated tribute to be.

It is never too late to remember.

My daughter and I drove to Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville to visit the gravesite of the explosion victims. We found Susan McKenna's name engraved on the memorial along with other names we'd come to recognize.


This is actually the second memorial on the burial site, the original obelisk with its listing of 40 or so names having deteriorated. An engraving on the side reads:
Time and its destructive elements obliterated the inscription and names on the original monument erected on this plot in 1863, which was in memory of the victims who lie buried here. The present monument was erected to keep ever sacred the memory of all seventy eight who lost their lives in this explosion.

The current memorial was dedicated in 1928, having been raised by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and that organization's Lady's Auxiliary. All 78 victims are listed on the memorial, although only 39 coffins are buried beneath and some fifteen people buried on the other side of the fence in St. Mary's Cemetery. According to a 1928 Pittsburgh Press article the list of victims was compiled through research and outreach to surviving relatives, and is as complete as such research could make it.

The best way, I think, to honor those who were lost that day is to pause for a moment as we did this past weekend to read their names. The inscription on the current memorial is copied from the original:
Tread softly this is consecrated dust, forty-five pure patriotic victims lie here. A sacrifice to freedom and civil liberty, a horrid moment of a most wicked rebellion. Patriots!  These are patriots graves, friends of humble, honest toil, these were your peers. Fervent affection kindled these hearts, honest industry employed these hands, widows and orphans tears have watered this ground. Female beauty and manhood's vigor commingle here. Identified by man known by Him who is the resurrection and the life, to be made known and loved again, when the morning cometh.

Elizabeth Ager

Mary Algeo

Mary Amarine

Hannah Baxter

Barbara Bishop

Joseph E. Bollman

Mary A. Bollman

Rose Brady

Ellen Brown

Alice Burke 

Sarah Burke

Catherine Burkhart

Bridget Clare

Emma Clowes  

Mary Collins

Melinda Colston

Mary Cranan

Agnes M. Davison

Mary A. Davison

Mary A. Donnelly

Ann Dillon

Kate Dillon

Kate Donahue

Sarah Donnell

Mary Donnelly

Magdalene Douglas

Mary A. Dripps

Catherine Dugan

Nancy Fleming

Catherine Foley

Susan Fritchley

Sarah George

David Gilliland

Virginia Hammill

Sidney Hanlon

Hester Heslip

Mary J. Jeffrey

Mrs. Mary J. Johnson

Annie Jones

Catherine Kaler 

Margaret Kelly

Uriah Laughlin

Eliza Lindsay 

Hannah Lindsay

Adaline Mahrer

Ellen Manchester

Elizabeth Markle

Elizabeth J. Maxwell

Sarah A. Maxwell

Ella McAfee

Kate McBride

Maria McCarthy

Susan McCreight

Ellen McKenna

Susan McKenna

Grace McMillan

Andrew McWhirter

Mary Ann McWhirter

Catherine Miller  

Philip Miller

Mary Murphy

Melinda Neckerman

Alice Nugent

Margaret O'Rourke

Mary Riordon

Martha Robinson

Mary Robinson

Mary S. Robinson 

Nancy Ross

Ella Rushton

Eleanor Shepard

Sarah Shepard

Elizabeth Shook

Ellen Slattery

Mary Slattery

Robert Smith

Lucinda Truxall

Margaret A. Turney

_______________________________________________

It's easy to remember them this year on the 150th anniversary of this event. But I hope that when the 151st anniversary comes 'round, or the 167th, that folks will remember and honor these victims again.

I also hope that one of the oldest sections of the Arsenal, the powder magazine that dates to circa 1817, will be preserved and maintained as an architectural witness to this tragedy. The magazine now houses restrooms and a maintenance room for the Arsenal Park ballfield and playground that is now on the explosion site.

Allegheny Arsenal Powder Magazine. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

It is in bad condition and very much in need of repairs. There are three other surviving buildings from the Arsenal complex but this powder magazine is the oldest and the one physically closest to the explosion.

Sometimes all we have left to honor and preserve from the past are a few names, consecrated dust, and an old empty building. But it is never too late to remember.



______________________________________________
For further information about the Allegheny Arsenal:
1862 newspaper account painted vivid picture of tragedy 
184 38th Street
After 150 years, cause of Allegheny Arsenal explosion may never be known
Allegheny Arsenal 150 Years Later (NPR interview)
Allegheny Arsenal Exploded 93 Years Ago
Allegheny Arsenal Explosion and the Creation of Public Memory
Allegheny Arsenal Explosion: Pittsburgh's Worst Day During the Civil War
Arsenal Explosion Recalled by Completion of New Monument
Events to recall Arsenal Explosion
Event to mark 150th Anniversary of Allegheny Arsenal Tragedy (KDKA-TV clip) 
Historic Pittsburgh Arsenal Needs Care, Official Says  
'Jury' Finds Negligence in Deadly 1862 Blast 
Mock Jury Cites Military in Deadly 1862 Allegheny Arsenal explosion 
Neglected Lawrenceville park finally has a few friends: Group works toward making 'underused' Arsenal site more inviting
Pittsburgh's Bloodiest Day
Real Heroes Remembered: Allegheny Arsenal tragedy claimed 78 workers in 1862
The Next Page: The Allegheny Arsenal Explosion Pittsburgh's Civil War Carnage
With Allegheny Arsenal Explosion as Background, Consecrated Dust Blends History and Fiction 
Women in Civil War Arsenals Project (Facebook page)
Fox, Arthur B. Pittsburgh During the American Civil War 1860-1865. Firefly Publications. 2009.
Frailey Calland, Mary.  Consecrated Dust: A Novel of the Civil War North. Dog Ear Publishing. October 2011.
Giesberg, Judith Anne. Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front. The University of North Carolina Press. September,2009.
Wudarczyk, James. Pittsburgh's Forgotten Allegheny Arsenal.  Closson Press, April 1999.  Reprint October 2009.

~~ I am available to present an hour-long lecture about the Allegheny Arsenal explosion. 
Please email me at historicaldilettante@gmail.com for more information. ~~

Friday, August 31, 2012

Eat your heart out, Ponce de León

Source: Wikipedia Commons

We all know that the Spanish explorer Ponce de León discovered Florida whilst looking for the Fountain of Youth, which Captain Jack Sparrow later came across in the fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean film series. 

Except not really. 

We mere mortals have long been fascinated by tales of miraculous waters that promote longevity. Alexander the Great was said to have been searching (when he wasn't conquering the known world) for a river whose curative waters reversed the damage of aging. In some Islamic traditions the revered character al-Khidr, a contemporary of Moses, is said to have drunk from the waters of life and become immortal. The medieval tales of Prester John, a Christian king of legendary lands either in Asia or Africa (depending on the legend) included a Fountain of Youth. 

Stories about restorative waters peaked in sixteenth century Europe when they became associated with the wonders of the New World. Juan Ponce de León led the first European expedition to Florida in 1513 but his meticulous exploration notes say nothing of a fountain quest. The connection between this Spanish explorer and the Fountain of Youth was established in a 1535 chronicle called Historia General Y Natural de las Indias by Gonzalo Fernandez Oviedo. The chronicle claims that de León was searching for the waters of Bimini to cure his impotence when he accidentally discovered Florida. Yes, impotence. Now we know what Ponce de León was really looking for. There are several Florida tourist attractions purporting to be de León's fountain, but no word as to whether any of them cure impotence. 

Truth is, if de León really was searching for the Fountain of Youth, he needed a better map. Because it's here in Western Pennsylvania.


 And how do I know this is the Fountain of Youth? Because it says so, silly:



I came across our Fountain of Youth a few months ago when I was driving around North Park looking for the old buffalo paddock site. As I drove down Kummer Road I caught a glimpse through the trees of this springhouse built into the hillside, and with screeching brakes stopped to check it out. I've revisited the grotto many times since.  



It's not surprising that the springhouse blends in so seamlessly with its surroundings. The first County Parks Director, Paul B. Riis, was an advocate of naturalistic construction for municipal recreation facilities that would, as described by the Pittsburgh Press,  "...represent natural bodies of water with overhanging cliffs, whatnots and doodads that put in the 'artistic touch.' "  According to the timeline of the Latodami Nature Center in North Park, Pittsburgh's Fountain of Youth was built in 1938 as "....a springhouse designed as a grotto typical in every detail of a Roman cavern."  It was likely built by Works Progress Administration (WPA) laborers, who constructed so many other park buildings, paths, shelters, and landscaping.

Unfortunately the spring waters of our Fountain of Youth didn't flow free and clear for long. In January 1953, the Pittsburgh Press reported that the pump "...recently developed the squeaks and the dry wheeze, and then broke down completely" and gleefully opined that "....old age had set in."  The handle was replaced due to popular demand and the waters were tested: "Chemists said it was cold, pure and clear but couldn't find anything in it to clear up wrinkles or falling hair." 

Alas, a few years later the pump handle was removed entirely. On May 11 1955 the State Health Department declared the spring waters unfit for human consumption due to "coliform organisms."  A Pittsburgh Press article lamented the news for fans of the spring:  "As a matter of fact, over the weekend we have folks coming all the way from Butler to collect supplies and take them home."  Hopefully those Butler folks boiled their water before using it!  

A subsequent article in the Pittsburgh Press from October 1956 confirmed that the Fountain of Youth would remain closed due to impurities in the water supply.   R. Jay Gangwere's 1986 history of North Park in Carnegie Magazine explained that "When the golf course nearby fixed the leaks in its irrigation system, the Fountain of Youth dried up, but the grotto remains."   It would be ironic indeed if repairs to a broken irrigation system were to blame for killing the Fountain of Youth. The water supply in North Park had been problematic from the beginning, delaying construction of the golf course and swimming pool until an artesian well was dug in 1930.  A 1932 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted more water woes:
The quality of water used there [in the golf course area] has been a matter of great concern for some time. Its high basic carbonate and sodium chloride content is of a toxic quality, producing alkalinity on the greens....This problem, the director said, he hoped to solve either by application of harmless chemicals or by connections to another well two miles down the valley from the golf course.
County Park Commissioner Riis even blamed the death of several North Park buffalo on water that they drank from a near-by creek.

While we must assume that the water is still unfit for human consumption fifty years later (because, really, do you want to be the test case?) there remains a running spring on the Fountain of Youth premises to be explored, if you're hardy enough to climb down through the brush and poison ivy.  A worker in the North Park office told me that the concrete around the grotto had been repaired in 2004-05, and a Girl Scout had remounted the medallion in 2009. The Fountain of Youth reportedly also hosts a nearby geocache. 

I'd tell you exactly where to find the North Park Fountain of Youth, but that would defeat the purpose of a quest, wouldn't it? If you do visit, don't forget that the waters aren't purified. Oh, and remember Ponce de León, who allegedly searched for magical waters to reverse his impotence? I don't know if he ever found his Fountain of Youth, but I do know that he had 21 children. 

Be careful what you wish for and don't drink the water.
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Further Reading
Florida's Fabled Fountain of Youth Springs Eternal
Geocaching: North Park Fountain of Youth

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Things that aren't there any more: Lower Hill District and Civic Arena

Any good Pittsburgher knows how to give directions using long-gone buildings and businesses as current landmarks: "You go down to that intersection where Kaufmann's used to be, across from where Border's was, and yinz turn right up past where the old school uniform store was."  If you're from around here you know exactly what's being described and you'll get to where you're going, no problem. This remembrance of things past dominates our everyday lives so much that local filmmaker Rick Sebak produced “Things That Aren’t There Anymore,” a popular cinematic homage to former Pittsburgh attractions that exist only in collective memories.

Pity the poor non-Pittsburgher who has no historical context to follow such directions and who becomes even more lost after receiving our 'help!' Of course, it is inevitable as time passes that the 'where it used to be' manner of giving directions will change as infrastructure and landscape changes, rendering old descriptors meaningless even for long-time residents. After all, that's how we define progress: out with the old, in with the new.

Except those are pretty much fightin' words for historical preservationists, who work to assure that historic properties are kept intact and/or that modifications reflect a respect for the past. They must weigh the value of preservation against the limitations it places on urban growth, and sort through the layers of history to decide what to preserve and what to let pass into the realm of memory. What do we save? What gets consigned to dust boundless and bare? How will these decisions affect us? What is best for the community? The enormity of the task of preservation has been on my mind a great deal over the last few years.

Here in Western Pennsylvania we have always quite literally built upon our past. There are layers of history forever inaccessible to us, sacrificed to the necessities of surviving in what was once the edge of the colonial western frontier and later the hell-with-the-lid-off that was industrial Pittsburgh at its worst. There wasn't time to think; we simply moved forward, tore down, built anew. Our losses differ from the deliberate and mindless destruction that occurred as a result of ideological zealotry that we find parallels of throughout time, from the French Revolution and the Protestant Reformation to the modern-day destruction of statues of Buddha in Afghanistan or the current pillaging of Sufi tombs and mosques in Timbuktu by Muslim extremists intent on destroying what they find offensive in that ancient center of Islamic learning and faith. No, the loss of pieces of Pittsburgh's history wasn't usually due to willful destruction for destruction's sake (although there are some arguable cases), but we must nonetheless live with the results of decisions whose consequences were not well-contemplated at the time. 


These things haunt me and I feel a need to exorcise them by writing about them. This, then, is the first in a series of occasional blog entries in which I intend to explore some examples of lost architectural and social witnesses to Pittsburgh's history, and the ramifications of living with things that aren't there anymore.

And because I'm sort of lazy, I'll start with the most well-known examples: the Lower Hill District and the Civic Arena.

We often don't think about preserving history until progress reduces what we know to rubble. Such was the case with Pittsburgh's Lower Hill District, an area that would be completely unidentifiable to its former residents many times over due to multiple evolutions. Originally known as Farm Number Three and owned by a grandson of William Penn, then sold to a Revolutionary War veteran, farmland on the slopes nearest the city was purchased in the late 1840s by Thomas Mellon. He subdivided it into individual plots and flipped them for a profit, thus beginning the Lower Hill's development as a settled community. Population expansion after the Civil War brought freed slaves from Virginia then Jews, Italians, Syrians, Greeks, and Poles to the Lower Hill. Eventually a renowned Little Harlem developed and became a vibrant center of African American cultural life. 

Lower Hill District, with Downtown Pittsburgh in distance, circa 1906-10. Photo by William H. Matthews. Gelatin silver print. Source: Archives Service Center (ASC) at the University of Pittsburgh, Kingsley Association Records, 1894-1980, 705.23A05.KA,

By 1960 the City of Pittsburgh had razed 95 acres of the Lower Hill, forcibly relocating over 400 businesses and 8000 mostly black residents. 

Why such a drastic move? Because back in 1946 department store magnate Edgar Kaufmann and Councilman Abe Wolk had declared that the region needed a new amphitheater and cultural center, had garnered private pledges of nearly $100000 for its construction, and had been looking for a building site ever since. Pittsburgh Mayor David L. Lawrence briefly pitched a plan to build this complex at the city’s Point, which had some merit in terms of renewing what had become an area of industrial blight but was not practical in terms of handling the anticipated traffic. On paper, this proposed amphitheater was described a "Center for the Arts" and was meant to include a combination of opera house and symphony hall, multiple arenas, theaters, an art museum, luxury apartments, hotels and offices.

The Hill was desirable land due to its location and seemed ideal for this new undertaking. To many, the area was characterized by "riff-raff" and architectural blight and as noted by a Pittsburgh Councilman at the time, the buildings in the Lower Hill were sub-standard and "....have long outlived their usefulness....so there would be no social loss if they were all destroyed."  And so destroyed they were.  By September 1955 the federal government had approved an ambitious redevelopment plan in the Lower Hill and made more than $17 million in loans and grants available. Demolition began in May 1956 and construction of what became the Civic Arena began on April 25, 1958 once the mass demolition of 80 blocks under the principle of eminent domain had been completed.

May 31, 1956. "A ceremony to mark the beginning of demolition for the redevelopment of Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill District neighborhood includes Mayor David L. Lawrence symbolically commencing the project."  Note bemused on-lookers, presumably Lower Hill Residents, in the background. Source: Archives Service Center, Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, 1892-1981, MSP 285, Library and Archives Division, Senator John Heinz History Center.

Preservation of the Lower Hill neighborhood was clearly not a viable issue in the face of the need for a municipal auditorium to benefit the entire tri-state area. A Pittsburgh Press article from the time notes that "The Hill...was completely worn out, like an old pair of shoes that has gone the last mile."   Problem is, residents of The Lower Hill didn't believe their community was on its last mile. It wasn't posh, to be sure, and new building and renovation were undeniably necessary. But instead, the entire neighborhood was eradicated, displacing thousands who had no voice in the matter. A contemporary headline from the Pittsburgh Courier, a newspaper for Pittsburgh's black community, read "Urban Renewal Means Negro Removal" but few paid heed.
  
Colwell Street looking west toward the intersection with Stevenson Street, October 1956. Photo by John R. Shrader. Source:  Archives Service Center, Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, 1892-1981, MSP 285, Library and Archives Division, Senator John Heinz History Center


Much has been written about the ramifications of urban renewal attempts in general, and specifically about the impact of the demolition of the Lower Hill neighborhood. Today it's well nigh impossible to defend such heavy-handed actions for the greater good, not when the mass relocation of so many families (in this case mostly black and mostly without a voice in the pre-Civil Rights Era) affected this entire region.  After all, the impact of leveling the Lower Hill wasn't limited to only the residents of that neighborhood. The mass exodus of so many people increased urban crowding in other areas and accelerated the 'white flight' of city residents to the suburbs. The prices folks got for their homes were not enough to buy somewhere else, leading to opportunistic slum landlord domination of housing in impoverished, over-crowded neighborhoods and an increased burden on the developing public housing system, all of which contributed to the incubation of failed hopes and dreams and gave birth to high-crime communities. New housing in the Hill was promised when the Lower Hill was torn down, but it wasn't until 1993-2000 that Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) acquired the abandoned and derelict land above the Arena and built the Crawford Square development there -- long after the displaced residents of the Hill who might have benefited from such development had died or moved on.

And what replaced the Lower Hill neighborhood? Originally budgeted at $19 million, the Civic Arena took forty months and cost $21.7 million to construct.

Cleared Lower Hill with footprint of Civic Arena under construction, c February 1958. The architectural firm of Mitchell & Ritchey and the engineering firm of Ammann & Whitney and Robert Zern designed the structure. Source: Archives Service Center, Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, 1892-1981, MSP 285, Library and Archives Division, Senator John Heinz History Center.

A massive cantilever arm allowed the six movable parts of the roof to retract without any interior supports, considered to be an architectural marvel. Anyone who ever witnessed the dome opening during a concert or event remembers the awe-inspiring sight of 'raising the roof.'

Circa 1961, from the Collections of the Pennsylvania Department, The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

 
Considered the world’s first and at one time largest indoor sports arena, the building was most fondly known as "The Igloo," though called the Mellon Arena from 2008-2010 due to ubiquitous corporate sponsorship naming rights.  Circuses, rock stars, the Harlem Globetrotters, monster truck shows, and political campaigns regularly flocked to the Arena, although The Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team was its anchor tenant.

Pittsburgh Business Times file photo

The Civic Arena was decommissioned almost fifty years later when its successor the $321,000,000 CONSOL Energy Center facility opened near-by in October 2010. There was much impassioned and polarizing debate about the merits of preserving the doomed dome and designating it as a historic landmark. Efforts were spear-headed by concerned individuals and groups like Preservation Pittsburgh and Reuse the Igloo. Preservation supporters cited the need to preserve the building due to its innovative retracting roof, its symbolism of mid-20th century urban renewal, and its status as a cultural center for the community. The latter argument was countered as an ironic parody of the feelings of those who remembered the wholesale displacement of the Lower Hill community so that the Arena could be built fifty years earlier.

The merits of saving the Civic Arena were publicly contested for months amidst accusations that the official discussion process was corrupted (or more benignly, affected) by competing special interests. The elephant in the room of those discussions was the history of demolition of the Lower Hill to make way for the Arena. The Civic Arena had its fanbase but even fifty years after its demise, Lower Hill residents and advocates remembered that neighborhood with aching fondness, anger and regret. One organization dedicated to preserving modern architecture stated: "Civic Arena was surely worthy of being included on any one of these (preservation) listings but 20th century architecture has one big disadvantage: people remember it being built, they remember what was torn down to build it, and that sentiment or stigma is often harbored regardless of the objectivity of building advocates."  Such sentiments were eloquently summarized by Councilman Sala Udin at one of the City Council hearings about Arena preservation: "The demolition of my home along with 8,000 others in the 1950s and 1960s began a multi-generational wound. The redevelopment can begin a healing process to preserve the people, and I hope that once this arena is demolished we can depend on this entire preservation community to support the development of the people with the same vigor that you now support of the preservation of a building."

Practical concerns were also voiced. While the National Trust for Historic Preservation concluded that a comparison of buildings of equivalent size and function shows that building reuse nearly always offers environmental savings over demolition and new construction, we all know that building rehabilitation and renovation is expensive. There had to be a compelling purpose for refitting a building the size of the Civic Arena, plus deep pockets to make it happen.

Ultimately, historical sentiment and cultural interests lost to financial and business agendas that sealed the Arena's fate. Preservation attempts failed and demolition began in the fall of 2011. This stunning time lapse video by YouTube user "DayGraphics2012" shows how it was deconstructed over a nine month period:




At this writing, essentially five weeks after its demolition, the Arena is an empty lot awaiting future development. It remains alive in community memory and even has a new Facebook page devoted to chronicling personal reminiscences of events attended there. 

Nothing can bring back the Arena; it was doomed by its own historical baggage and there was no room on the development agendas for such a colossus.

Likewise, nothing will return the pre-Civic Arena Lower Hill to its former vibrancy.

But out of this dust and rubble, Pittsburgh's power-brokers have a unique opportunity to build something fabulous and to right past wrongs.

A 2007 option agreement gave the Pittsburgh Penguins exclusive rights to develop a 28 acre site over a ten year period. If the Penguins fail to develop 2.8 acres in any given year the team must forfeit the rights to a parcel of equal size, and the Sports Exhibition Authority or the Urban Redevelopment Authority have the right to offer the land to another developer. While an official site plan has yet to be released, it has been stated that there are commercial, residential, and retail components being considered -- what has been referred to as a "mixed-use live-work-play community." In June 2012, although quick to reassure that the area is not envisioned solely as an entertainment complex, Penguins officials acknowledged that they have looked to Philadelphia's development of a sports-themed entertainment complex for inspiration (never mind the age-old antipathy between these two great Pennsylvania cities!)

Careful new investments and sensitive development can mean economic revitalization for the area and attract new residents, businesses and even tourists. I hope that pressure to hold onto this valuable real estate will not prevent a thoughtful and responsible process of discernment and reflection from occurring regarding its development. Foresight needs to be directed to deciding what will be best for the good of the community at large, and the process needs to pay heed to the voice of the public. At the very least, I hope that there will also be dedicated physical homage marking what once was on the site -- both the Lower Hill community that was sacrificed and the beloved Igloo it made room for.

Ironically, today there is a concerted effort to draw more people to living space in the Downtown area. Had the Lower Hill been developed as promised, it would have provided Downtown with housing stock that could have redeveloped or gentrified. Historic buildings in older neighborhoods attract people to urban living and are an integral part of defining a city's personality. But done is done. We owe it ourselves to channel the energy spent regretting what was done to assure that we don't foster even more regrets over future development plans.

We have layers upon layers of history in Pittsburgh. We can't bring back what is gone, but we can and should honor our own legacies when we rebuild, so a phoenix may rise out of the Lower Hill/Arena ashes.

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Selected Bibliography and Further Reading

Arena History
Council votes down Civic Arena preservation
Many ask council to preserve Civic Arena