Song of Shadyside

A walk on the shady side
Photo by David Aschkenas Song of Shadyside
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The word “trendy” has been surgically attached to the word “Shadyside” since days of yore — far more yore than you think. That most elegant and affluent neighborhood in Pittsburgh’s East End is home to what Andy Warhol dubbed the Beautiful People, and the upscale shops that cater to their needs.

In search of a certain high-​end luxury item? You can find just about anything on Walnut Street and Ellsworth Avenue, from designer dental floss to iPods custom-​sculpted for the bodily orifice of your choice.

The 21st-​century Beautiful People, of course — and their bank accounts — pale in comparison with the original BPs. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Shadyside provided many of the city’s wealthy industrialists with the nearest residential escape from Pittsburgh’s smoky center. Some of their most fabulous Fifth Avenue mansions are extant marvels to behold.

Living two blocks from Fifth in the last block of Bayard Street for a quarter of a century, I was aware of all that. But the full historical trendiness of Shadyside was only gradually revealed to me during my travels with Frisky. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? He was my faithful pit-​bull companion longer than Tonto served the Lone Ranger and was himself a Shadyside legendary figure. When my daughter Merica got him as a puppy, I begged her to choose another — perhaps more timeless and original — name, but she held firm. Father knew best: The willful, oversized animal was frisky for about three weeks, max — but slow, lumbering, and lethargic ever after.

Except in his patented getaway act. Frisky would position himself by the front door and lie there for hours — sometimes days — at a time, patiently awaiting the entrance or exit of somebody who’d leave the door open a crack for a moment too long. One such careless visitor was the late great dining critic Mike Kalina, who — upon letting Frisk escape for the umpteenth time — marveled, “He’s the fastest obese dog in America.”

There was nothing to do on dozens of such occasions but depend on the kindness of Shadyside strangers. They never let us down. Sooner or later, one of them would call and say, “We have Merica here.” (When she sent off the box tops to Purina for a free tag, my daughter had put the dog’s name and her own on the wrong blanks.)

Am I digressing? No, stressing: Shadyside is a state of mind, as well as a place. The precise location of its scant 0.92 square mile was not even clear to natives until the sainted Mayor Sophie Masloff put up street signs delineating its semi-​rectangular boundaries: Baum Boulevard and Fifth Avenue (north and south), Shady and Morewood avenues (east and west). It’s not to be confused — but always is — with the surrounding neighborhoods of Squirrel Hill, Oakland, Bloomfield, East Liberty and Point Breeze.

Shadyside’s etymology is easier than its geography: The woods and farmland there — full of lovely shaded lanes during its mid-​19th-​century development and since — were the obvious inspiration for the name of the area and for the Pennsylvania Railroad’s commuter station there (its train tracks now accommodating the East Busway).

We typically speak of the 19th century as the “beginning” of Shadyside’s residential popularity and as far back as its significance goes. Nobody speaks of any Shadyside role in the city’s manufacturing development. Everybody knows Pittsburgh’s legendary iron and steel industry got started on the rivers, right?


Which brings us back — not a moment too soon — to Frisky. On my nightly rounds with him, our first stop was always the southwest corner of Bayard & Amberson, at the black iron fence around Winchester-​Thurston. While Frisk took his time examining the scintillating canine calling cards on the ground, I took mine examining the city’s most obscure historical marker there — too small, shaded and set back from the street to be seen clearly from a car. You have to get right up underneath to read: “Shadyside Iron Furnace. Built on lowlands here in 1792. Birth of the iron industry in the Pittsburgh region. It made stove and grate castings. Closed about a year later due to lack of ore and wood.”

I had trouble imagining this exclusive private school in residential Shadyside as the site of the city’s first iron foundry — far from any coal or ore supplies or river transport. To understand it, you have to time-​travel out of the 19th and back into the 18th century — with the help of Sarah H. Killikelly’s “The History of Pittsburgh” (1906): Most of the tools, nails and other implements used by westward-​bound pioneers in post-​revolutionary days were handmade — or fashioned by footpower-​propelled machinery — in Pittsburgh. Many of the necessary raw materials (especially wood) were plentiful locally, but essential iron ore had to be transported from fairly meager deposits in the east. As demand grew larger, supplies grew smaller and more expensive.

The search for iron on the western slopes of the Alleghenies had been going on since 1780, culminating in the discovery of “blue lump” iron ore in Fayette County and the establishment of a furnace on the Youghiogheny River in 1790, which supplied Pittsburgh with crude bar iron for kettles, skillets, ovens and cannon balls used at Fort Pitt and in Gen. “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s expeditions against the Indians. Killikelly’s research confirmed that the earliest actual manufacture of such items in Allegheny County began in 1792 with the furnace built at what’s now Shadyside by George Anschutz, an Alsatian immigrant, who learned the iron biz from managing a foundry near Strasbourg before coming to the brand new U.S. in 1789.

The Shadyside furnace was a noble entrepreneurial effort but an economic failure, due to the ore shortage and great expense of transporting it down the Allegheny River to Pittsburgh and thence by wagon to Anschutz’s furnace. He abandoned it in 1794 (see box). No more attempts to build furnaces in the city took place for decades, but iron-​ore discoveries in the west and new forges in adjacent counties propelled Pittsburgh’s growth nevertheless. Nearly everything made in Fayette and Westmoreland, for example — from household utensils to large sugar kettles for Tom Jefferson’s new Louisiana territory — had to go through Pittsburgh, the logical first market for buyers and sellers alike.

When the Industrial Revolution and the Civil War brought the big iron and steel boom to Pittsburgh, no mills came to Shadyside — but the people who owned and managed them did. While the moguls built their castles on Fifth Avenue, as noted, the prosperous men employed to run their enterprises gravitated to that area, too, building smaller and less ostentatious but still grand abodes on the nearby side streets — St. James, Devonshire and Castleman among the most gracious.

Booth Tarkington’s “Magnificent Ambersons” had nothing on the denizens of Pittsburgh’s Amberson Avenue, arguably the most beautiful six-​block residential street in Shadyside. Now, as then, each manse is of a different architectural style and in pristine condition — collectively immortalized in “The Spencers of Amberson Avenue,” a turn-​of-​the-​century memoir by Ethel Spencer. It’s a fascinating account of the Shadyside life and times of Charles Hart Spencer and his seven children, born between 18841895, in a large Victorian on Amberson. Spencer was an (often disgruntled) employee of Henry Clay Frick and a quintessential example of the growing ranks of middle-​management officials in urban industrial centers of the time. Spencer’s income allowed him to support a family of nine, a cook, two nurses and assorted other servants in comfortable style. His story and his daughter’s book illuminate a class often overlooked in favor of the more dramatic robber barons, at the top, and the immigrant workers exploited by them, at the bottom.

Over subsequent decades, stately manors such as the Spencers’ coexisted in harmony with carefully restored smaller homes, as well as modest old-​fashioned (and modern new-​fashioned) apartments and condos. For the last century, Shadyside has been home to a mix of affluent “old money” families, up-​and-​coming young professionals, nonconformist artists, and students and faculty from nearby Carnegie Mellon University — offering what its boosters call “urban living with a Greenwich Village feel.”

Indeed, especially in the 1950s and ’60s, Shadyside’s famous Walnut Street business district was a uniquely Pittsburgh kind of bohemian haven. One of its finest assets in those days was the Shadyside Theater — “a little gem of a movie house,” says Pittsburgh’s elder statesman/​film critic Ed Blank — which opened in the 1940s, playing three double bills a week. It became the city’s premiere art house in 1958, running pictures nobody else would bring, such as the British “Carry On” comedies and Antonioni’s exotic “Blow-​Up.” (On our first date, I took my girlfriend to “David and Lisa” there in 1962. Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow.) But it was later reduced to screening softcore sex flicks such as “The Devil in Miss Jones,” before closing forever in 1975.

Nothing has much ruffled the feathers of Shadysiders over the years, but some chickens came home to roost during the catastrophic “deindustrialization” of the region in the early 1980s, when some 150,000 steel jobs were lost and manufacturing declined by 62 percent — to the great suffering of families whose breadwinners were thrown out of work. “The gap between rich and poor,” said activist-​documentary director Michael Moore, “is probably more pronounced in Pittsburgh than in any part of the country.”

As unemployment soared throughout the Mon Valley, radical out-​of-​work steelworkers joined with sympathetic clergymen to form a group called The Network to Save the Mon/​Ohio Valley (later, the Denominational Ministry Strategy — DMS). The DMS viewed the layoffs and mill closures not as the result of uncontrollable market forces but of conscious decisions by executives in corporations such as U.S. Steel and Mellon Bank. Many of the execs lived in Shadyside and attended prestigious Shadyside Presbyterian Church, home of the nationally beloved radio ministry of the Rev. Robert Holland (and, later, the brilliant sermons of the Rev. Morgan Roberts). The church, which had always been identified with Pittsburgh’s WASP establishment, now became a focus of protest, targeted by a pro-​labor group in the Mon Valley as the quintessential wealthy congregation ignoring their plight.

Reporters rarely happen to be in the right place at the right time to catch a spontaneous news story. But there I was at the 1984 Christmas pageant dinner at Shadyside Presby, where my wife was the alto soloist. We were in the cafeteria with our two little kids when suddenly, as the food was being served, a half dozen or so DMS “terrorists” in gas masks burst through the doors, tossing balloons full of foul-​smelling skunk water around the room. The assistant pastor’s wife fled sobbing. Neither she nor her mink coat ever recovered from the trauma. Everyone was terrified and outraged. Said Ron Weisen, boldest and angriest of the DMS chieftains: “What about our women and children in Aliquippa? They don’t get any banquets at Christmas.”

Church elders deliberated intensely over the next few months with assorted community groups before finally, in their wisdom, resolving what they identified as the problem: not the steel workers’ desperate economic straits, but the church’s lax security. New locks and alarms were installed and guard procedures upgraded.

Problem” solved.

Lest we appear to consign Shadyside Presbyterian to the negative light of 1984, let us pay tribute to one of its most positive, enduring contributions to the city exactly a century before: It was the membership of Shadyside Presby that decided to found a college preparatory academy for their sons — Shady Side Academy — in 1883. In addition to academic excellence, Shady Side boys were credited with inventing the ice cream sundae at the turn of the 20th century. A junior school was added in 1909. In 1922, ground was broken for a new “country school” at 423 Fox Chapel Road, where the senior school moved while the younger boys stayed in Shadyside. In a 1940 merger with the Arnold School for Boys, Arnold’s campus on Braddock Avenue became SSA’s new junior school, while the Academy’s original Shadyside property — Frisky’s favorite spot at Bayard and Amberson — was sold, first to the University of Pittsburgh and later to the all-​girls Winchester-​Thurston School.

Both Shady Side Academy and Winchester would become co-​ed in the 1990s. The equally exclusive Ellis School on Fifth Avenue, meanwhile, is Pittsburgh’s only remaining all-​girl K-​through-​12 private school, from its founding in 1916 to the present.

In higher education, and on higher ground, sits beautiful Chatham University, across Fifth Avenue from Ellis on Shadyside’s northern edge. Founded as the Pennsylvania Female College in 1869, it was renamed Pennsylvania College for Women in 1890, then Chatham College in 1955 (for William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham), and obtained university status in 2007. The 35-​acre campus, situated on Woodland Road, consists of private mansions and spacious grounds once belonging to the likes of Andrew Mellon and George M. Laughlin Jr. It’s also a designated national arboretum, whose 115 varieties of trees (from the Japanese Flowering Crabapple to the Kentucky Coffee Tree) provide perfect outdoor classrooms for students in Chatham’s Landscape Architecture program — not to mention fine places to stroll, meditate and fall in love.

The diverse Beautiful People comprising Shadyside’s 13,754 residents today include Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who are probably among the lucky few unburdened by the main residential challenge of living there: Due to the neighborhood’s compact territory and pre-​automobile layout, most of its homes lack garages, resulting in a daily Pittsburgh-​style game of musical chairs — the one where people put out garbage cans, folding chairs, and similar-​sized deterrents on the street in what they regard (ferociously) as “their” parking spaces. Commuters who are unwilling or unable to play that game can turn to public transport and the PAT busway stop, located on Negley Avenue between Ellsworth and Centre. That’s the price you pay for being a Shadyside resident.

The price you pay for being a consumer in Shadyside depends entirely on your tastes and pocketbook. Shadyside’s bustling core offers a vast array of boutiques, shops and restaurants along its two chic commercial corridors.

Walnut Street features the national chain outlets — Gap, Apple, J. Crew, American Apparel, Victoria’s Secret, Banana Republic, United Colors of Benetton and Williams-​Sonoma among them. But it’s also home to such beloved old-​timers as Schillers Pharmacy at the corner of Walnut and Aiken, drug store (and parfumerie) par excellence since 1903; Henne Jewelers, a local fixture for generations; the ever-​popular Shadyside Market & Deli; and that childhood paradise (specializing in last-​minute Halloween supplies) known as the Shadyside Variety Store.

Nifty clothing stores, such as Moda and the White House/​Black Market can be found there, too, along with a nice assortment of uniquely Pittsburgh restaurants, including Cappy’s, Doc’s and Pamela’s — President Obama’s favorite place for pancakes! While on Walnut, don’t skip the handy side-​street attractions on Bellefonte, such as Bonnie’s Dress Circle and the fabled William Penn Tavern watering hole.

Ellsworth Avenue, Shadyside’s second and less dense commercial corridor, features smaller, locally owned businesses, of which my favorite is Richard Parsakian’s glorious Eons — a vintage clothing store, but so much more! Ellsworth also contains the finest high-​end art galleries in Shadyside, including Gallerie Chiz, Galerie Werner, and the Steve Mendelson Art Gallery, as well as Kozloff & Meaders fine antiques. Among many noteworthy bar-​restaurants are the Elbow Room and Harris Grill (low-​middle end) and the extremely hip Soba (higher and more gourmet end), plus two of the city’s most happenin’ gay bars, Spin and 5801 (formerly New York, New York).

Final consumer note: Don’t think Walnut and Ellsworth offer the only commercial treasures in Shadyside. An up-​and-​coming third venue has taken root not far away on South Highland Avenue, where shoppers will find the excellent Penhollows home furnishings store, Weisshouse (for the best rugs in town), and the superb Casbah restaurant (for the best lamb since Mary had a little one). Bottom line: If you can’t get what you want on Walnut, Ellsworth or Highland — you’ll have to head for Manhattan to get what you need.

Frisk and I, on the other hand, would be heading home back down Ellsworth toward Bayard Street in the home stretch of our nightly crawl when — invariably, just before South Aiken — he would yank me hard to the right, onto Roslyn Place. Just as invariably, I’d sigh and give in to his inordinate love of that short cul-​de-​sac. It’s a mere 250 feet long and contains just 18 homes, beautifully shaded by huge old sycamores. But it is Pittsburgh’s single most distinctive contribution to urban road-​making.

Little Roslyn Place — now a historic landmark — is the sole surviving, still-​usable street in America built with wooden blocks as paving material. Wood was once common in road construction, but by 1913, when engineer/​architect Thomas Rodd built Roslyn Place, lumber was expensive. Why choose wood? One theory is that horse-​drawn carriages were still the main mode of transit and that wood muted their loud clip-​clopping sound, whereas stone and brick tended to amplify it. When Downtown bureaucrats periodically tried to repave it with bricks or stone, the residents always successfully resisted. Wood blocks tend to get slippery in winter and uneven over the years, but Roslyn Place last went seven decades before needing to be resurfaced.

Frisky and I traipsed there quietly in our wee-​hours treks, when nobody was awake to yell at us for leaving you-​know-​what (in those pre-​pooper-​scooper days) on their lawns. Had they been awake, Frisk wouldn’t have cared. Among his other claims to fame, he was the only dog in America to receive letters (regularly) from the editor of The New Yorker, Bob Gottlieb — who adored him from his first state visit to Shadyside.

Talk about trendy: Theoretically, Gottlieb came to discuss my articles-​in-​progress for the magazine. Actually, he came in search of 1940s plastic pocketbooks for a book he was writing on that rarefied subject. Upon finding half a dozen pristine specimens at Parsakian’s Eons on Ellsworth, he pronounced Shadyside “the plastic purse capital of America.”

On the short ride home — clutching his bonanza of treasures, as Frisky slobbered over his head from the back seat— Gottlieb appreciatively noticed the sign at the entrance to our last block of Bayard Street. In any other town, it would’ve said: “Dead End.” Here in Shadyside, it was the far more polite: “No Outlet.”

Just think, Barry!” said Gottlieb. “That was your problem before you met me.”

Barry Paris

Barry is an award-​winning biographer, film historian, Russian translator and contributor to The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. Among his books are Audrey Hepburn and Song of Haiti, the story of Dr. Larry and Gwen Mellon and their Albert Schweitzer Hospital.

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