March 11, 2009
To Whom It Concerns:
Two historic buildings sit unoccupied and long-neglected on Perrysville Avenue, in PittsburghÆs North Side. These are the 1880s home and factory of John Alfred Brashear, world-renowned telescope and optics maker. I am writing on behalf of the Perry Hilltop Citizens Council and many others committed to the cause of stimulating a community via its history, and to many more, all those interested in history, science, and preservation.
THE HISTORY: The two structures are emblematic of a forgotten chapter in PittsburghÆs history, and the history of astronomy and aviation. For the hilltop land where Brashear resided and worked was adjacent the campus of the Western University of PA, and Samuel Pierpont Langley was BrashearÆs mentor and colleague, as well as director of the original Allegheny Observatory. Later to be titled æFather of AviationÆ when he went to the Smithsonian Institute, Langley tested flight with his early æwhirlybirdÆ experiments off the hilltop. When he discovered the genius lens-making of humble working millwright Brashear, a collaboration was set in motion that changed telescope-making forever, and soon had observatories across the Atlantic calling on BrashearÆs precision work.
ôAllegheny Time,ö set for the nationÆs first railroads, was established at the Observatory, which grew out of humble beginnings due to laymen forming the Allegheny Telescope Society (this after intense interest in the mid-century discovery of
DonatiÆs Comet). The men, who lived on or had association with this central peak of Allegheny City (the North SideÆs origination) were quite a conglomerate-- common working men, others like Washington McClintock whose country home was situate on the most prominent bluff of the hill, and the ultra-wealthy William Thaw. The latter would end up becoming BrashearÆs benefactor, having the beautiful Second Empire home (and rear brick factory) built to accommodate his every need.
House and Factory are lone remnants of the neighborhood now known as Perry HilltopÆs wondrous contribution to scientific and educational history. The Western University of PA relocated to Oakland, becoming the University of Pittsburgh. But for a time before the City of Pittsburgh would controversially annex Allegheny City, students would ride trolley up and around the central ridge cut by Perrysville Avenue in the 1880s and 90s, and traverse a campus (where Triangle Tech now sits), studying the stars at an Observatory visible just across river from downtown Pittsburgh. Langley and Brashear, oft working together, had a reputation for their down-to-earth teaching manners and humanitarian ways. Whenever mishaps occasionally occurred in the lens-making process, students were called to be let out of LangleyÆs class to witness the teachable loss. As well, scientists from around the globe gathered and mingled for dinner with students around the long table in the later-added Arts & Crafts Board Room of BrashearÆs home.
THE NEED: I am writing as the author of the best-selling Resurrecting Allegheny City: The Land, Structures & People of PittsburghÆs North Side, and as an educator, creative artist and community activist. I conducted educational programming surrounding this neighborhoodÆs history last Fall, funded by the Buhl Foundation and with culminating Community Showcase event held at the Brashear properties. It was a great success, one that opened the eyes of many to the hidden history of this economically deprived neighborhood. Over the course of the Fall, junior high-aged children from the nearby Northview Heights housing project studied and then created artworks showing Brashear and Langley and great neighborhood maps, incorporating new and old. Field trips for children and adults also took place on cold Saturdays, awakening a new sense of discovery about all of the greater North Side. Mentors, high school-aged, pondered and wrote essays about civic responsibility, how to incorporate history with current events, and how to preserve BrashearÆs legacy-- house, factory, and humanitarianism. Information, articles and photos of this work can be found on my website: www.lisamilesviolin.com
The Community Showcase took place in a house with no heat and electricity, recently foreclosed upon. With creativity, and the kindness of a realtor (as agent for the bank-owner), the children and community ushered people in to see where so much history stemmed from. Hot cocoa and a ceramic fireplace out back were so positioned as to invite tour of the exterior of the Factory (tax-delinquent, with inside disrepair but possessing an original worktable and pulley-drop opening, but with owner unable to be yet tracked down by the City.)
Despite the usual impediments-- costs of restoration / renovation-- Perry Hilltop Citizens Council and I, as well as the Allegheny City Society, are determined to build upon the recent attention to try to get appropriate owner for House and Factory, and even historic marker for hilltop-campus. Recent funding help has graciously come from two City of Pittsburgh Councilwomen-- Tonya Payne and Darlene Harris. We have been contacted by national historical and scientific societies with main interest, as ours, in possibly making a museum of the two properties (of BrashearÆs work, astronomy, LangleyÆs early work, and possibly early University). Indeed Bart Fried, Founder of the Antique Telescope Society, has pro-offered stocking the museum, with the antique instruments themselves.
The House could be likely purchased for under the asking price; the Factory for back taxes of $5,000. Historic Designation is under way. $1500 is needed for the House and perhaps double that for the Factory. Perry Hilltop Citizens Council can develop the properties (with City organizations and contractors) if we have an interested buyer. Can you help in any way? Funding is needed, certainly. As well, connections made to any who could offer other assistance in pulling together the necessary web of historians and scientists who might take an interest in shepherding this project through to a viable reality, so as to serve current-day purpose while honoring the old.
On behalf of all involved, Thank You--
Lisa A. Miles