A Visit to Rachel Carson’s Other House

Pittsburghers celebrate Rachel Carson, famed scientist who changed lives and how we look at the environment, as one of our own. Honors don’t get much bigger than having a prime bridge downtown named after you: Carson, along with Clemente and Warhol, make up our iconic Three Sisters bridges. There’s also a 35.7 mile Rachel Carson nature trail, and the Pennsylvania even named a state office building after her to house environmental protection and conservation departments.

Carson was born on a small farm in nearby Springdale. She was raised in the area and graduated from Chatham University with a degree in biology (known as the Pennsylvania College for Women at the time). But Southwest Pennsylvania actually shares Rachel Carson with the suburbs of Washington D.C. It was at Carson’s home in Colesville, Maryland that she wrote “Silent Spring,” the 1962 book that documented the health dangers of using pesticides.

Rachel Carson's home, located in a quiet Maryland suburb outside of Washington, D.C.

Rachel Carson’s home, located in a quiet Maryland suburb outside of Washington, D.C.

In true Rachel Carson fashion, Dr. Diana Post and Cliff Hall were outside the Colesville home, making a pollinator garden during my visit in May. It’s to combat the decline of honeybees. More than 40 percent of bees in managed colonies died last year. Scientists aren’t sure why exactly, but insecticides are prime suspect.

“We’re trying to give them more habitat, more special native plants. These are all plants bees could use for their pollen collection,” said Dr. Post, a retired veterinarian.

Silent Spring advanced environmental justice at a time when the powers that be assumed they could master nature. Carson focused on DDT, a chemical used to kill insects like mosquitos. It was supposed to be a solution for insects ravaging farms. It was sprayed in the suburbs as a way to prevent Typhus, which was spread by lice.

Dr. Diana Post standing where Rachel Carson had her desk. Post holds a framed picture of Carson sitting in the space more than 50 years ago. The hope is to make the picture a reality and restore this portion of Carson's office to the way she had it.

Dr. Diana Post standing where Rachel Carson had her desk. Post holds a framed picture of Carson sitting in the space more than 50 years ago. The hope is to make the picture a reality and restore this portion of Carson’s office to the way she had it.

DDT boosters downplayed, or ignored, its unintended consequences before Rachel Carson published her research. She started collecting evidence that DDT was deadly to wildlife. One detail stood out above the rest in her investigation: Birds at a Massachusetts sanctuary were dropping dead after being sprayed with DDT. Carson envisioned a global dystopia, a spring silent of songbirds.

Dr. Post, a veterinarian by training, is no stranger to chemical’s ill effects on animals. She became concerned about the weed killer known as 2,4-D and its harmful effects on dogs. She linked up with the Rachel Carson Council, an organization for like-minded individuals founded in 1965. Post eventually became executive director, then president from 1992-2013.

In 1991 Carson’s Colesville, Maryland (11701 Berwick Rd.) home was christened a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Dr. Post and Hall, who have been married for 30 years, acquired it in the late 1990’s. They founded the Rachel Carson Landmark Alliance, an organization devoted to caring for the home. Their goal is to maintain the sense serenity and wonder Carson had when she lived there from 1957 until her death in 1964.

“Many people who find out about Rachel Carson become inspired to carry on her work. Young people, college kids, even older people,” said Dr. Post, explaining why it’s important to maintain Carson’s spirit more than 50 years later.

Carson herself wrote of the fondness she had of her home in a letter to a friend: “It contributes to serenity. I do love it and everything I can find time to do inside or out gives me real satisfaction.”

The only effect denoting the significance of this home a plaque placed above a side door.

The only effect denoting the significance of this home a plaque placed above a side door.

Where the house and property are rich in Carson’s spirit, this is not a typical landmark. There are no signs directing drivers to the place, there is no parking lot, and no gift shop with Rachel Carson memorabilia. Other than a plaque above a side door, it’s just another house in an ordinary cul-de-sac community. In fact, up until 2002, Post and Hall acted as landlords and rented the home to families.

Then, in 2002, the two got a zoning exception to put a functioning office in the house and moved the Rachel Carson Council there. But, they were extremely careful not to disturb the neighbors.

“It took a lot of work,” said post about getting the exemption. “We didn’t want to alienate our neighbors with the slightest grounds. They could have objected to anything, like having extra cars parked outside. We had to be very careful.”

Being a National Historic Landmark obliges the owners to host an open house once a year to the public, and that’s about it.

“If you own a property as a private individual, it’s like a precious burden,” said Dr. Post. “It’s your fun thing, and if you get a kick out of it, great, enjoy yourself. And Cliff and I do. We love immersing ourselves in stuff about Rachel Carson.”

They get around 300 visitors a year. Some come for the annual open house, which typically happens in May (near Carson’s birthday) or occasionally school groups come for field trips. They have ambitions to make restorations to the interior of the house and restore it to what it look liked in Carson’s day.

View from Rachel Carson's living room window

View from Rachel Carson’s living room window

“She sat in front of this window, “ said Dr. Post describing the window, which faces an area of expansive growth. “That area was designated by Rachel Carson to stay wet under foot for the birds and the frogs. Every owner since then has kept it wild.”

While the nation’s nearby capital overflows with monuments large and small, Carson’s house is an overlooked gem. Pittsburghers who find themselves in the D.C.-area should put it on their list of places to see.

Dr. Post welcomes visitors, and would like to see more: “Anybody wants to come are encouraged to. All they have to do is call or email.”

The Oldest House in Pittsburgh is for Sale.

Last Saturday, Urban Hike explored the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Hazelwood.  I have shared a few of the photos from the hike on Instagram and there have been several comments asking about the John Woods house.


The John Woods House has a long history in Hazelwood and is currently waiting for someone to take a liking to it. The house is currently owned by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, URA, and is listed on the URA website without a price. I have reached out to a few people to see if I can get some more information about this property.

John woods house URA

Map of the John Woods House from the URA website.

Here is some more information about the history of the John Woods House and Hazelwood:

Architectural Significance of the John Woods House

The website Living Places has a detailed history of both John Woods and the house.  Here is some information about the historical significance of the house:

The Woods House is significant as a rare survivor of a late 18th century vernacular style house. Historians George Swetnam and Helene Smith note that this house along with the Ft. Pitt blockhouse and the Neil house are the only surviving 18th century buildings in Pittsburgh. The late 18th century Robert Neil House is a small, one-and-a-half story log building with stone chinking. Presently located within the Schenley Park Historic District, the house collapsed in 1968 and was dismantled. It was reconstructed by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

Timeline of John Woods House & Some Key Hazelwood Dates

Here are some of the dates I came across while researching the John Woods house. This is not meant to be a comprehensive history of the area.  I thought others might be interested in the dates and articles about Hazelwood.

1792 – John Woods House was built in what is now known as Hazelwood.

1794 – Pittsburgh is incorporated as a borough.

1816 – December 16, 1816 John Woods died in Brunswick Co., Virginia at age 55. [Living Places John Woods House Hazelwood]

1869 – Hazelwood is incorporated into the city of Pittsburgh. [Wikipedia]

1977 – Pittsburgh City Council adds the John Woods House to the list of historic designations. [Wikipedia]

1988 – Theresa Curran Gallagher spends the summer working at the LTV Coke Works. The Post-Gazette published her memories of working at the mill in a 2015 article that describes some of the chracter of the mill and Hazelwood in the 1980s. [Local Dispatch: Dirty Hazelwood mill produced splendid memories, Post-Gazette, March 20, 2015]

1993 – The John Woods House is added to the National Register of Historic Places. [John Woods House]

1998 – Hazelwood Coke Works closes.

1999 – The stacks from the LTV site are demolished. [Farewell to the city’s last Big Steel plant, Post-Gazette, July 12, 1999]

2001 – The URA buys the John Woods House from Andre Keith Houser for $25,000. [Allegheny County Real Estate website]

2002 – Almono partners purchases the formed LTV Steel site in Hazelwood.

Hazelwood Happenings: ALMONO, Greenway, Hazzelwood Summer Marketplace

Screenshot from the p4Pittsburgh website about Hazelwood Greenway

Screenshot from the p4Pittsburgh website about Hazelwood Greenway

Now could be a the perfect time for the John Woods house to take on a new role in the neighborhood.  Here are just some of the things happening in Hazelwood today that are important to what this neighborhood will look like in the future:

  • The former site of the LTV steel works is now refered to as the Almono site (Almono is short for Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio) will begin the first phase of development later this summer.
  • The John Woods House is located right next to the Hazelwood Greenway.  There isn’t much about the Hazelwood Greenway online but from what I understand it is a quasi-park like designation.  A greenway is a bunch of land, much of which is owned by the city, which has been set aside, but it isn’t considered a park.
  • Another exciting development for Hazelwood is the Summer Marketplace.  On Saturdays during the summer local food vendors are setting up shop on Second Avenue. Hazelwood has not had a grocery story since Dimperio’s Market closed in January 2009 (Thieves cause Hazelwood grocery to give up, Post-Gazette, December 23, 2008).

Google Street view photo of John Woods House from August 2014.

Google Street view photo of John Woods House from August 2014.

More information about Hazelwood

How would you like to see the John Woods House repurosed? Know of other Hazelwood resources we should include in this list?  Leave a comment below.

Pretty, Vacant: Recapping the Vacant Home Tour

The Vacant Home Tour through Wilkinsburg took place on a hot Saturday, May 9th. 88 degrees was too hot to bike from Millvale comfortably, but I didn’t know that until I was standing (uncomfortably) at the registration desk. The walking tour was a little over two miles round trip and, while technically not in the City of Pittsburgh, included a hill or two. Each tour goer picked up a booklet that had descriptions of each home and a map then were sent up the hill to Singer place to the first home.

1329 Singer Place is a shy home, trying to hide behind a pine tree, content to be upstaged by its neighbor across the street: the Singer Mansion.

photo credit: https://vacanthometour.wordpress.com/

It’s a fitting first stop. The nearby Singer Mansion stands as a reminder of the importance of preservation. The estate of John F. Singer covered much of the immediate area before it was parceled out, including the land that 1329 Singer Place stands on now. An important example of Gothic Revival architecture, it once stood vacant before being used as a bachelor’s club, a 2-unit apartment and, unsurprisingly, the set for The Spiral Staircase, a 1946 horror film. 1329 Singer Place is more modest in history and detail, but there are photographs to entice the first wave of tour takers, showing the interior in surprisingly good condition. “How easy it might be to have a piece of history of your own,” the volunteer-constructed signage beckons.
VHTre_1329 Singer_crowd
VHTre_1329 Singer_sign
The second stop, 740 Hill ave, hints at the underlying goals of the tour organizers. The home appears to occupy the middle position in an “evolution of a vacant home.”
VHTre_740 Hill_neighbors
The students who designed this tour did so as a way of addressing blight. Blight, a term borrowed from botany, refers to the decay of neglected properties, the cause of which is sometimes unknown and the effects, often irreversible. It’s the plant form of cancer, something to be feared and removed. The label of “blight,” repeated again and again, has been used to so devalue individual properties, city blocks and entire neighborhoods as to render them expendable.
The stigma of blight, used to justify archetypal policy disasters like Pruitt-Igoe: this is the attitude toward blight that the tour hopes to change. Rather than tear down and start over, the tour seeks to bring in new residents to work with what’s there.
Despite the heat, tour goers and docents were in good spirits, even at the homes without shade. The docents I spoke with had moved to the community within the past decade, some more recently, their residences a block or two away from the houses they were minding. Among people taking the tour, I expected to find a lot of spectators, those with a passing interest in DIY culture, but mostly just looking for unique thing to do on a nice Saturday afternoon. I was surprised, then, to talk to a fair amount of people who seemed genuinely interested in pursuing a purchase of vacant property. Artists were common among people I talked to; the sculptor interested in acquiring a second property as a studio space, the potter who wanted a primary residence with room to expand into a detached studio. The workshop at the end of the tour was targeted towards these people, where experts were on hand to lead an in-depth discussion of how to acquire a vacant property. People were still trickling into the second session when I stopped in for a head count, but I got an estimate of about 60 total people who took part in both sessions.
VHTre_tourtakers
Reaction from residents that I spoke to ranged mostly from positive to indifferent, but there is some deep-seated skepticism and suspicion as well. During the radio interview in the lead-up to the tour it took just two phone calls before a woman brought up the ‘G’-word: “It sounds a lot like gentrification to me. I would think that a community land trust would be a better option for getting young families, people of color in these houses. It’s my understanding that a lot of the houses that are being renovated in Wilkinsburg right now are enticing to a lot of middle class, wealthy people, and I just don’t think that’s fair.” Walking between the second and third house, another longtime Wilkinsburg resident put it to me a little more bluntly: “50, 60 years ago everyone here looked like you before you all left. Now we see you on your bicycles, smiling, wanting to come back in and push all of us out.” I, a smiling cyclist, was trying to figure out if there was a way to explain to her that a line of white people parading through her neighborhood was not a coordinated effort, when her voice caught in her throat and she abruptly turned to leave. “I have to go, but I just hope you are listening.”
Marita Garrett, for one, is listening. As representative for the First Ward on the Borough Council, she knows that people are passionate about protecting their community and takes steps to engage them as much as possible. “We’re not going to just wake up one day and say hey, there’s a Wal-Mart here,” she says, addressing economic concerns about gentrification. “There’s a lot more transparency in the new leadership on council and the school board.” The community is responding to that transparency, attending events such as Community Conversations, a series of workshops aimed at strengthening the community from within. Marita told me about the most recent Conversation, the third in their series which “focused on economic development through entrepreneurship, and we’ve gotten a turnout of 70 or 80 people for that.”
VHTre_816 South Avenue
VHTre_831 Rebecca
The last three homes are clustered just a few blocks from each other. As I learn about their famous occupants (Vernon Royce Covell, who designed the three sisters bridges) and their famous neighbors (Frank Conrad, radio pioneer for KDKA), I remember the decade-old study of vacant homes that concluded that 70% of them could be saved. That means that statistically speaking, at least one of the homes on this tour is likely to be unsalvageable. When that happens, they’ll once again have to get creative about how to deal with it and others; it’s not going feasible to give each doomed property a “House of Gold” sendoff (a nearby art project by Dee Briggs, who advised the designers of the tour).
VHTre_718 Whitney

Nobody is in denial of this being an uphill battle and even the most enthusiastic potential vacant home-buyers have their optimism tempered. Crime is in the back of your mind when you consider moving to Wilkinsburg; one of the docents tells me that their car damaged in a shooting recently, and another tour taker is overheard saying that their neighbor’s car was stolen. But perhaps more disturbing for potential home buyers are the taxes. One of the docents introduced me to the phrase ‘tax trap’ to describe Wilkinsburg’s situation: Wilkinsburg’s population has declined to about half of what it was in 1950, and the borough, having to maintain an area of the same size, had no choice but to levy higher and higher taxes on the residents that remain. Now, the only way to lower the tax burden is to attract new residents, who are scared off by the high tax burden. Community groups are trying to reduce barriers to home ownership in their own ways. For instance, the borough is being more aggressive about seizing tax-delinquent properties so that interested buyers don’t have to track down the owners on their own. Meanwhile, the WCDC is talking to banks ahead of time about the viability of restoring properties so that lenders don’t simply dismiss a loan application for a distressed property. But remove or navigate every other obstacle, and the taxes still remain the last, highest barrier. Tax deferral programs are difficult to take advantage of, and taxes that seem manageable when a vacant home is purchased can quickly become unmanageable after renovations are complete and the property is reassessed.

The tour is not a solution to these problems; it doesn’t try to be. What it is is a small step on the road to revitalization. It’s likely that of the 500-odd tour takers, only a small fraction possess the means and desire to pursue a vacant property, and a large fraction of them will be scared off by crime, or taxes, or the amount of elbow grease it will take to restore them. But in the future, the hope is that even the faint of heart will read “blight” and think of what could be done with the what’s there, not what could be done once it’s gone.
photos by Ray Bowman unless noted otherwise

Saturday, May 9: Wilkinsburg Vacant Home Tour

This Saturday, May 9th, is the Vacant Home Tour of Wilkinsburg. Tour takers will spend 45 minutes walking through Wilkinsburg, be shown five vacant historic homes by knowledgeable tour guides, then be able to sit in on a workshop to learn what goes into buying one. If you’re thinking “that sounds unique”, you’re right: it may be the first tour of its kind. And if you’re thinking “I should go”, then you’re not alone: nearly 500 people have RSVP’d on their Facebook page. Best of all, the tour is free for you to take because of a Small & Simple Grant from Neighborhood Allies, additional funding from the Fels Challenge and Carnegie Mellon University, and residents generous enough to volunteer as guides.

Vacant Home Tour Preview from Wilkinsburg CDC on Vimeo.

Five Carnegie Mellon University students were exploring ways of highlighting and alleviating urban blight when they came up with the idea for a vacant home tour. Kenneth Chu, a student in Public Policy and Management at the Heinz College, spoke on WESA this week about working with students in other programs including design and human-computer interaction during the semester long class. Knowing that they wanted to deal with urban blight, their research and personal connections led them to Wilkinsburg, where they worked with the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation (WCDC) and local residents to develop the program. The resulting proposal for a Vacant Home Tour won a cash award from the Fels Challenge, a national public policy competition.

Wilkinsburg Vacant Home Tour

Planning for the Wilkinsburg Vacant Home Tour

Ultimately, the designers of the tour want the people who take it not to see the vacant homes as blight, but as a possible home or an investment opportunity. To help change perceptions, docents at each of the five homes will be on hand to talk about the history of these properties. The houses were chosen without knowledge of their histories and residences have pieced together their histories through online records, physical archives and good old-fashioned oral history. Marlee Gallagher, Communications & Outreach Coordinator at the WCDC, says, “I do think that having the historical background increases the value by adding emotion and humanity to an otherwise vacant, blighted, inanimate object.” She’s seeking to capitalize on a growing trend of wanting to know the history of your home, something that cannot be maintained if you demolish and start over.

Sat May 9th is the @VacantHomeTour. A free event to check out some impressive houses in Wilkinsburg…

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Poster for the 2015 Vacant Home Tour

Poster for the 2015 Vacant Home Tour

The task of restoring these homes will be difficult; in their current condition, they can only be viewed from the outside due to safety concerns. But it is not impossible. The neighborhood of Wilkinsburg has been looking for ways to deal with blight since the collapse of the steel industry. One such effort began in 2005 when Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation (PHLF) conducted a survey of vacant properties in Wilkinsburg, concluding a year later that about 70% of the housing stock could be restored rather than torn down. But PHLF does not have the resources to restore all of the properties on it’s own. Karamagi Rujumba, Director of Public Communications and Advocacy at PHLF, told me that “we cannot do all the work; we can only be leaders”. By way of leading by example, PHLF acquired a former auto repair shop at the nexus of Hamnett place. They restored that property and opened the Landmarks Preservation Resource Center in 2010, a program that serves to educate community members on how to restore, maintain and preserve their homes. They attract people from Wilkinsburg, the greater Pittsburgh area, and even as far as Ohio and West Virginia to take their workshops. They offer lectures and film screenings as well as popular hands-on carpentry and masonry workshops where people can see firsthand how to do the hard work of restoring a home. The final stop on the tour will be the LRPC where they will be offering a workshop for people who might be interested in acquiring a vacant home.

Wilkinsburg Vacant Home Tour

Wilkinsburg Vacant Home Tour Map

The project is poised for success. It has received international attention (Brussels has asked what’s up) and people are responding to the subversion of the typical home and garden tour, and uniquely honest approach of highlighting blight rather than hiding it. The [Your Neighborhood Here] Vacant Home Tour is about to become a thing, and you can still be a part of the very first one on Saturday May 9.

The tour is free to attend.  RSVP on Facebook here.

Frank Lenz: Local Adventurer, Avid Photographer, Big-Wheeled Bike Enthusiast

Last Friday evening, I went searching for Frank Lenz, one of Pittsburgh’s most notable cyclists. To be fair, Lenz went missing almost 120 years ago, in Erzurum, Turkey, so I really didn’t have much hope of finding anything, but I figured I’d give it a shot.

I headed over to the Brew House Art Gallery on the South Side, where David Herlihy, the author of The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance, was slated to give a talk about Lenz’s journey by bicycle around the world, his disappearance, and the adventures of William Sachtleben, another cyclist who had ridden around the world, and who was sent to find Lenz. Prior to Herlihy’s talk, I had not heard of Lenz or Sachtleben, but a worldwide cycling tour intrigued me, and plus, who doesn’t liked those old-timey, big-wheeled bikes?

Lenz and his companions, rocking the big-wheelers

Lenz and his companions, rocking the big-wheelers

Lenz was apparently a big fan. Born in Philadelphia, he moved to Pittsburgh and became an accountant by day, and a weekend warrior who captained the Allegheny Cycle Club. He organized and competed in his fair share of big-wheeled bike races, and pioneered the burgeoning field of cycle photography—an impressive feat, considering that cameras were just as cumbersome as bicycles at the time. Lenz developed a way to transport camera equipment on his back while riding, as well as a method of taking pictures of himself on his bicycle, by placing a trigger on the road, which would activate a camera on a leading car when his front tire (the big one) rolled over it.

Lenz used his growing portfolio to convince a magazine called Outing to fund his trip around the world. Outing agreed, on the condition that he give up the big-wheeler for the newer version, called a “safety bicycle,” which is similar to our modern one. Lenz reluctantly agreed, and, in May of 1892, he set off. Beginning at the Smithfield Street Bridge, Lenz rode for Washington, D.C. to pick up a passport, and then to New York City. He then crossed the U.S. in about five months, then sailed to Japan, and braved tough conditions in China and India before heading to Turkey. In May of 1894, almost two years after his departure, Lenz disappeared. Hoping to find him, Outing sent William Sachtleben, who had completed a similar journey, to Turkey. Sachtleben discovered that Lenz had apparently insulted a chief in nearby Kurdistan, who had ordered him murdered and his body buried by a riverbed. After some wrangling, the Turkish government paid Lenz’s mother $7,500 as a reparation for her lost son

Today, Lenz is commemorated with a sign on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, the final leg of the Great Allegheny Passage, which connects Pittsburgh with Cumberland, Maryland, and which mirrors the path that Lenz took on the first leg of his now legendary trip around the world.

This sign can be found on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail

This sign can be found on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail