Saturday, October 15, 2011

Mansions of Clairton and Jefferson


Family mansions: Anybody who grew up in Clairton in the “good old days” remembers two huge houses. One, built in the early 1900s, was actually in Jefferson Borough, just up the hill from Century Townhomes, nee Woodland Terrace at the confluence of Desederio Blvd. (nee Woodland Avenue), Ridge Road, and High Road. That mansion was built by Mr. Bickerton, a well to do prominent Clairton homebuilder. It was appointed beautifully with imported glass and hand carved wood and sat on several acres.

About the time that mansion was being built a young man named Albert George emigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon and settled in Clairton. He was a merchant and opened a store across from the mill gate. As his business prospered he returned to his homeland, married, and brought his young bride to Clairton where they planned a family. Eventually their ten children outgrew their humble living quarters and the merchant began to look for a larger home with acreage for farming.

At the time there were two large houses in Clairton; one had been built for the superintendent of the Coke Works and the other the one mentioned above owned by Mr. Bickerton. The father of ten walked the distance from the store to the house and asked Mr. Bickerton to sell the house. The owner refused to sell, so he walked back to his home.

The following week Albert again walked from the mill gate to the mansion and again was rebuffed. He continued this regimen each week until Mr. Bickerton finally relented and sold him the large house and accompanying five acres. Mr. George moved his wife and children into the pristine mansion and maintained its beauty. Several of his daughters would be married there and the wedding festivities often lasted days. Guests who traveled long distances were invited to stay at the mansion.

By 1951 the children were all grown and gone and the house became too much for the aging couple so it was sold to a local dentist, Dr. Joseph “Doc” Wrobleski. Most of the acreage around the house was retained and several homes were built for family members.

Dr. Wrobleski had planned to move into the house but after the purchase he discovered to move beyond the Clairton city limits would require him to give up his seat on the school board. He had served long on the Board and decided not to move in so the house was left it unoccupied for the next three decades while Dr. Wrobleski lived, ironically, on Bickerton Drive in Clairton.

Local youngsters began to refer to the large unoccupied mansion as the “haunted house.” Vandals broke into the house on several occasions and stole or damaged many of the fine hand crafted wood items and much of the original glass.

By the 1980s Dr. Wrobleski turned the mansion over to his son and wife, Robert and Pam who began to restore it to its original beauty. Robert passed away in 2003 but Pam continues with the restoration. The house is currently listed on the Allegheny County roster as a Historical House.

The mansion on Mitchell: Another mansion was built in Clairton at the highest elevation possible at the time, where Mitchell Avenue and Sixth Street meet and become Wylie Avenue. The location selected by U.S. Steel was ideal because from its vantage point, the spectacular view of the mill was available. George Thorp purchased four lots from the St. Clair improvement Company on July 12, 1902, and in 1905 he sold the land for $2,373 to the Clairton Land Company who had the house built. It was built during the first decade of the twentieth century and named for its first resident, Superintendent Henry J. Davis. George Belback purchased the house in 1958 for $29,000. Various executives lived in the mansion over the years, but we all know what happened to the steel industry during the 1970s and 80s. As the steel industry in the area faltered, so did what was arguably one of the most beautiful home in Clairton. The grounds were left unattended and nature took its toll on everything from the brick fence that surrounded the mansion to the steel insets within the brick fence. Nature even played one recent nasty trick when a windstorm took down the beautiful hundred-year old huge tree that had lent shade and glamor to the back yard. But a couple determined to preserve the grand mansion had purchased it and moved in.

Rebecca Starr and Don Fry were a couple of Pittsburgh kids who attended Peabody High School. Don and Becky bought the house in 1997 and began their mission to bring it back to its old glory. The house suffered from extreme neglect for four decades and the new residents were committed to change that. When they first looked at the place Rebecca immediately fell in love with the 17 stained glass windows. The discovery of four beautiful windows in the living room was a wonderful surprise to the new residents as they had been covered in plastic, window blinds and draperies. The mill mansion was designated a Historical Landmark in 2009 and is officially called "Superintendent Henry J. Davis House, U.S. Steel, Clairton Works."

One resident of the house during the Great Depression was Frank Marquard. Upon his retirement he moved to 420 Halcomb Avenue. Tragedy would strike the Marquard family when his son Victor died as a result of an auto accident. Victor was driving on Route 51 near Elizabeth when he was involved in a minor accident. He got out of the car to talk to the other driver when another car came along and hit him, amputating his leg. The driver of the car that caused the second accident said he would get help, but never returned. He was eventually caught and tried for manslaughter. Victor died in McKeesport Hospital and was laid out in the mansion. Victor’s mother was a Heinz. Many Heinz relatives and what seemed like every resident of Clairton signed the condolence book.

Rebecca and Don have had some superb experiences in their home. One day when they were in the sunroom they heard a noise and went to investigate. A love letter that has been hidden (stuck inside of the radiator cover) fell to the floor. It had been taped there, but the tape had dried out. It is unsigned but dated January 1935.

They heard about the piano that Mr. Marquard had during his tenure at the mansion so they tracked it down, purchased it, and brought it “back home.”

One day a couple of gentlemen came up the driveway and knocked on the door. They were grandsons of Henry Davis, the home’s first resident. There have been many such experiences for the couple since they’ve lived in Clairton’s most famous mansion. I hear a rumor that there might be a tour of some of the finer houses of Clairton during the Christmas holidays. If that tickles your fancy to the point that you might want to be part of it, email me and I’ll pass your information on to Don and Becky. Many of my blog readers have commented that Clairton history should be memorialized. Perhaps a Clairton Historical Society can be established…

Rebecca and Don are blessed with fantastic neighbors who not only help look after the house, but several who have restored their own beautiful homes. My own fantasy is that once Route 43 is completed to Pittsburgh, of perhaps even sooner, Clairton will be rediscovered with its low taxes and beautiful homes just aching for restoration. I see young urban professionals willing to make the drive into the ‘Burgh each day. Clairton is not far away from its rebirth as a bedroom community.

A little blogging music Maestro… how about “Brick House” by The Commodores.

Dr. Forgot