|Neighborhood||Central Business District|
|Origin of name||Fort Pitt Block House|
|Fate||Vacated in 1901|
|Point Street (ca. 1855 – 1868)|
|Origin of name||The Point|
|First Street (1868–1875)|
|Origin of name||Sequential numbering up the Allegheny River|
In the mid-nineteenth century, Point Street ran from Penn Avenue to Duquesne Way (today's Fort Duquesne Boulevard) on the south bank of the Allegheny River, very near the Point, after which it was named. It was not part of George Woods' original plan of Pittsburgh of 1784, in which Marbury Street (today's Commonwealth Place) was the street nearest the Point. It first appears in an 1855 map, alongside Point Alley to the west, even closer to the Point. It also appears in McGowin's 1856 map.
In 1868, Point Street became the start of Pittsburgh's modern sequence of numbered streets when it was renamed First Street by a city ordinance. It was given this designation because it was the nearest significant street to the Point, where the numbering began. (Point Alley apparently did not count.) The same ordinance also changed the name of the original First Street to First Avenue.
In 1875, a plan for the improvement of streets in the Point District called for the closing of a narrow alley called Stanwix Street, between Second and Third Streets, and its replacement by a new street. In order to maintain continuity in street numbering, this new street was to be called Second Street, with the existing Second Street renamed First Street, and the existing First Street renamed Fort Street. (So, within the span of a decade, the names "First Street" and "Second Street" each referred to three different streets.)
The rest of the story of Fort Street is closely intertwined with the fight by the Daughters of the American Revolution to preserve the adjacent Fort Pitt Block House.
The Block House
The Fort Pitt Block House sat between Point Alley and Fort Street. The name Fort Street likely refers to the Block House, either directly or through its status as the last surviving structure of Fort Pitt. In the nineteenth century it was common to call the Block House itself a fort or to misidentify it as the remains of Fort Duquesne. The 1889 Hopkins atlas labeled the Block House "Old Fort Duquesne"; the 1893 Sanborn fire insurance map labeled it "Old Fort Pitt." George T. Fleming says the name Fort Street referred to the fact that it passed through what was once the site of Fort Pitt.
Fort Pitt itself was built by the British between 1759 and 1761, following the 1758 capture of the French Fort Duquesne by General John Forbes (eponym of Forbes Avenue). After two devastating floods in 1762 and 1763 severely weakened three of the fort's walls, the commander of the fort, Colonel Henry Bouquet (eponym of Bouquet Street), built the Block House as one of three redoubts for additional defense. The date of its construction is inscribed on a stone tablet above the entrance: "A. D. 1764 Coll Bouquet." Its roof gave it a different appearance from other redoubts, making it look more like a blockhouse, a type of fortification that typically stood alone. By the end of the nineteenth century it had been officially named the "Block House."
Sale of the Point
Fort Pitt was decommissioned by the British by the fall of 1772, and the structures were sold to private citizens. Brigadier General Edward Hand (eponym of Hand Street, today Ninth Street) took command of the fort in June 1777 on behalf of the Continental Army, and the fort served as the western headquarters of the Continental Army throughout the Revolutionary War. After the war, the heirs of William Penn (eponym of Penn Avenue), who owned the land on which the fort and the town of Pittsburgh stood, began to sell. The Point—32 lots bounded by West Street, Marbury Street (today's Commonwealth Place), and the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, including the land on which Fort Pitt stood—was purchased by Major Isaac Craig and Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Bayard (eponyms of Craig Street and Bayard Street) in 1784.
A large addition to the Block House was built in 1785, and Isaac Craig moved in with his family. He had married Amelia Neville, the only daughter of General John Neville (likely eponym of Neville Street). They lived here until about 1789, probably mainly in the addition, using the Block House as an annex or kitchen. Their eldest son Neville B. Craig was born in 1797 while they lived in the Block House and adjoining structure; he later became a Pittsburgh newspaper editor and historian.
In 1797 the Point was sold to Peter Shiras and Robert Smith, who had started the Point Brewery there two years earlier. By 1805 the Point and the brewery had been purchased by James O'Hara (eponym of O'Hara Street). He and Isaac Craig started one of the first glass factories west of the Allegheny Mountains in 1797, directly across the Monongahela River from the Point. This factory produced the bottles used by the Point Brewery.
O'Hara died in 1819, and the Point was inherited by his second daughter, Mary O'Hara Croghan. She died eight years later, in 1827, after the birth of her second child, who soon also died. The ownership of the Point passed to her only living child, one-year-old Mary Elizabeth Croghan, under the guardianship of her father William and a group of trustees. At the age of 15, while attending a boarding school in New York, she met and fell in love with an English captain named Edward W. Schenley. The two eloped to Britain, causing a public scandal in Pittsburgh, and were soon married. They briefly returned to Pittsburgh, but soon moved back to England. Mary Elizabeth Croghan Schenley, as she was now known, remained one of the largest landowners in Pittsburgh through much of the nineteenth century. She visited Pittsburgh occasionally, but her last visit was in 1863, and she would live the rest of her life in Britain and France until her death in 1903. She probably never personally visited the Point or the Block House, but as the owner of the Point she played a central role in its history.
The Block House in the nineteenth century
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Block House, the addition built for Isaac Craig, and the brewery were almost the only structures at the Point. John Fanning Watson, who visited Pittsburgh in 1804, later recalled, "A part of the brew-house premises fills the place which was a bastion; at a little distance from it is still there, a small brick five-sided edifice, called the guard-house. . . . In one of its sides, near the top, is a relic, a tablet of stone of two feet by fourteen inches, on which is inscribed 'A. D. 1764, Col. Boquet.' Adjoining to this guard-house are now two small brick houses, which were built from the walls of Fort Pitt. I saw these things in 1804. Then the area of the fort, excepting the said brew-house premises, of Shiras, was all a nearly levelled grass field, from General O'Hara's residence, where I dwelt, down to the point."
The brewery moved out of the Point in 1835. By then the Point had become a residential district with many houses, all leased directly or indirectly from Schenley. The Block House was being rented out by 1836, and by 1843 it was divided into a two-family residence, with one family on each floor. Over the course of the nineteenth century the Block House declined from a middle-class dwelling to a poor, deteriorated tenement. The stone tablet was removed to City Hall in 1872. By 1880, the Point District was the most crowded section of the city. In 1889 an Englishman named Samuel Storey visited the Block House; he wrote, "Not to the public buildings or great industrial works of the city, but to the remains of this fort, was my first visit made. Fort in the real sense there is none, but amongst the narrow and tortuous streets of what is now the poorest part of Pittsburgh an old ramshackle red-brick house stands as its only surviving relic." One of the last residents was an old woman named Sibby Powers, who ran a small candy shop from her window.
An 1850 Pittsburgh directory by Samuel Fahnestock, in a "Note to the Map" at the beginning, describes the Block House:
The mark on the Map of Pittsburgh, between Point street and Point alley, about forty-six feet west of Point street, and about one hundred and twelve feet north of Penn street, indicates the position of the Redoubt, built by Col. Henry Boquet in 1764; and is the only remaining monument of British skill and labor, at the head of the Ohio.
To see this Redoubt, it is necessary to pass from Point street along a nine feet alley, called Brewery alley, leading towards the Monongahela; and when at the distance of forty-six feet from Point street, the Redoubt will be seen about eight feet north of the visiter [sic]. The Redoubt is that square portion of the building, next to Brewery alley. The back portion of the building, which is higher than the Redoubt, was built by Turnbull, Marmie & Co. in 1785, and was occupied as a dwelling by William Turnbull, and afterwards by Major Isaac Craig.
It is greatly to be desired, that it should be preserved and kept in repair.
Acquisition by the DAR
The Pittsburgh Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) was founded in June 1891, and by spring 1892 had begun correspondence with Mary Schenley, asking for the Block House and surrounding property in order to restore and preserve it. In their letter, written by Amelia Neville Shields Oliver (great-granddaughter of Isaac Craig), the DAR said that E. M. Bigelow, the Pittsburgh Director of Public Works (and eponym of Bigelow Boulevard), had promised to widen Point Alley or Fort Street to improve access to the Block House if the DAR were to be given the property. The DAR proposed a park reaching from Penn Avenue to Duquesne Way. They offered Schenley an honorary lifetime membership in the Pittsburgh Chapter and requested her portrait to hang in the Block House. The DAR's entreaty was successful, for Schenley replied on May 23, 1892, agreeing to give the Block House to the DAR, pending details to be worked out by her estate agent.
The ownership of the Block House and surrounding land was officially transferred to the DAR in 1894 for one dollar. At the time, there was an informal understanding among the DAR, Schenley, and Bigelow that a new street, O'Hara Avenue, was to be opened between Penn Avenue and Duquesne Way; the DAR's Block House property was to front on this new street; and Fort Street and Point Alley were to be closed. (City councils had already passed an ordinance that located, but did not actually open, O'Hara Avenue.) The deed included a strip of land, 20 feet wide, from the Block House to Penn Avenue, to provide access after the closure of Fort Street and Point Alley. Two clauses in the deed would later become particularly important: one gave Schenley the right to represent the Block House property in all proceedings about the changes to the surrounding streets, and the other declared that if the DAR ever proved unable to preserve and maintain the Block House then the ownership of the property would revert to Schenley and her heirs.
The DAR decided, after discussion, to demolish the adjoining Isaac Craig House, and its bricks (which had originally been part of Fort Pitt) were used for the Block House restoration, which cost $4000. The stone tablet was returned from City Hall and reinstalled in the Block House wall in January 1895, and the Block House opened to the public as a historical site and museum that July.
For the next five years, no progress was made toward the opening of O'Hara Avenue or the closure of Fort Street and Point Alley. The DAR petitioned the city to vacate Point Alley in May 1900 because their property line ran down the middle of the alley and they wanted to erect an iron fence. They were told it would be too expensive for the city to buy out the remaining leases, which would not expire for several more years. So the DAR put up a temporary wooden fence. They did install a wrought iron gate, donated to the DAR by Ella G. Maloney in 1898, adorned with the DAR insignia. The gate came from the Sixth Street Suspension Bridge, designed and built by John A. Roebling in 1859 and demolished in 1892. This gate still serves as the entrance to the Block House grounds today, though it has been moved at least five times.
The fight begins
In late 1901, city councils vacated First Street, Second Street, and Greentree Alley as part of a plan to clear the Point District and build warehouses there. Soon afterward, Fort Street and Point Alley were also vacated. The closure of these streets had been expected and even welcomed by the DAR, but they had been relying on the opening of O'Hara Avenue. However, it now became clear that O'Hara Avenue would not be opened. This meant that the only access to the Block House would be the 20-foot-wide frontage on Penn Avenue.
The redevelopment plan was driven by a nameless "warehouse syndicate" represented by Franklin F. Nicola, a well-known real estate developer in Pittsburgh who had previously worked with the Schenley estate to develop the Schenley Farms district in Oakland. The syndicate had obtained an option on all the property in the Point District still owned by Schenley (not including the Block House). Rumors spread that the syndicate planned to turn over the Point to the railroads, later supported by an exposé in the Pittsburgh Leader in January 1902, which the syndicate denied.
On the advice of their lawyer, the DAR made a proposal to the syndicate: in exchange for 20 feet of the Block House property facing O'Hara Avenue (leaving 24 feet between the Block House itself and the proposed rail lines), the DAR would receive an additional 65 feet of Penn Avenue frontage. At a DAR meeting on December 13, 1901, Nicola made a counterproposal: the syndicate would give the DAR an additional 10 feet on Penn Avenue, in exchange for 39 feet of the Block House property facing O'Hara Avenue and $10,000 in damages. This plan, which would leave only eight feet between the Block House and the railroad construction, was very upsetting to the DAR. Nicola's next proposal was even more so: he proposed that the DAR give up the Block House property entirely in exchange for $25,000, the removal of the Block House to Schenley Park, and a memorial tablet on Penn Avenue. This offer was promptly rejected by the DAR. Nicola then asked for a private meeting with five specific members of the DAR, who had ties to prominent businessmen and politicians, but all five women refused.
After these talks broke down, Nicola and the DAR embarked on publicity campaigns. Nicola and Director of Public Works J. Guy McCandless claimed that the DAR was initially supportive of the development at the Point and that visitor numbers at the Block House were low; the DAR rebutted these accusations in several newspaper articles. For their part, the DAR sought and received support from many other organizations, including the Sons of the American Revolution, the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, and the Pennsylvania Society of the Colonial Dames of America.
In February 1902, the DAR began to seek support for the establishment of a "Point Park" around the Block House, an idea that had been suggested in various forms since 1836. The DAR gathered 150 signatures for a petition presented to the city councils. But the park was opposed, of course, by Nicola and the warehouse syndicate, who argued that it would cost tax dollars and hinder the economic improvements they aimed to bring to the city. The Chamber of Commerce was unanimously in favor of preserving the Block House but voted against supporting a park. In the end, the DAR's park plans ended up going nowhere.
Battles in the courts
The regent of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the DAR at this time, leading the preservation effort, was Edith Dennison Darlington Ammon, born in 1862 on her family's estate, Guyasuta, just up the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh (today's Sharpsburg). Her mother was the granddaughter of James O'Hara and a first cousin of Mary Schenley. Her father amassed a large collection of historical books and manuscripts and early maps of Pittsburgh, and her mother was a prolific author on the history of Fort Pitt and colonial Pittsburgh; the contents of their library later became the Darlington Memorial Library at the University of Pittsburgh.
Ammon decided that the DAR needed to pursue legal means to save the Block House. The petition asking city councils to vacate Fort Street and Point Alley had been signed by Nicola and John W. Herron, the latter acting under power of attorney for Mary Schenley. To be valid, the petition required the signature of the majority owner, who was Schenley; neither Nicola nor the syndicate actually owned land at the Point (only an option). Ammon argued that Herron did not have the right to sign for Schenley, and the DAR filed suit against the petition in February 1902. At first the DAR was successful, winning the suit in June. But Schenley, Nicola, Herron, and the City of Pittsburgh appealed to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. In January 1903, that court found that the DAR had waived its right to petition when it signed the Block House deed, and the lower court's ruling was overturned.
It was revealed in October 1902 that the industrialist Henry Clay Frick had secretly purchased the entire Point District (except the Block House) from Schenley in February of that year for $2 million, plus the reversionary clause in the Block House deed for a mere $10. After their loss in the Supreme Court, the DAR attempted to purchase extra land around the Block House from Frick, but he told them that would be impossible because he had already sold the whole Point to the Pennsylvania Railroad.
The railroad began demolition and construction work in 1904. The DAR, represented full-time by Ammon's husband Samuel and his law firm, filed various suits against the city and the railroad for damages and to prevent harm to the Block House. In the end, after a series of appeals, the DAR was awarded $12,000 in damages. The railroad continued its construction, part of which was to raise the grade of the Point. Because the DAR refused to move or raise the Block House, a tall wall and fence had to be built around it to protect it from the rail yard.
The political battle
In January 1903, shortly after learning that the Point had been sold to the railroad, Ammon opened another front. Pennsylvania's new governor, Samuel W. Pennypacker, was a supporter of the preservation of historic buildings. With assistance from her husband and his law partners, Ammon drafted a bill to protect the Block House and introduced it in the state legislature. It quickly passed the House but met resistance in the Senate. There, for political reasons, it was combined with a bill that expanded the rights of eminent domain for railroads. Ammon personally lobbied for the bill, by now called the "Mrs. Ammon bill," and it passed both houses by mid-April. But it was vetoed by Gov. Pennypacker because he felt it gave too much power to the railroads while the historical preservation portion was too narrowly focused.
Two years later, while the DAR's court battles were still ongoing, Ammon tried again. She drafted another bill, broader in scope than the first, which was introduced in the legislature in February 1905. This bill took two years to pass both houses but was finally signed into law on May 10, 1907, by Gov. Edwin Stuart. Known as "Edith's law," it protected a wide range of Pennsylvania colonial and revolutionary buildings and sites from seizure by private corporations through eminent domain.
Point State Park
The DAR's 1902 attempt to establish a park at the Point did not bear fruit, but just 16 years later a city committee began to study the feasibility of such a park. At that time, two bridges posed a significant difficulty for a park at the Point: the Manchester Bridge across the Allegheny and the Point Bridge spanning the Monongahela. These bridges met at the tip of the Point. A national park was proposed in 1937; this led to archaeological excavations in 1941–42 to determine the original locations of Forts Duquesne and Pitt, but the park proposal stalled. After the Second World War, commercial development proposals for the upper Point included studies for a state park. In October 1946 it was announced that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would finance construction of Point State Park. The Pennsylvania Railroad property was acquired in 1949 by eminent domain. The Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne Bridges, replacements for the Point and Manchester Bridges, were completed in 1959 and 1963, respectively.
The construction of the park led to uncertainty for the DAR. "Edith's law," which protected the Block House, applied only to private corporations; the state still had the right to condemn the property. Some 12 years of negotiations between the state and the DAR, at times quite tense, concluded in 1963 with an agreement that the DAR would maintain ownership of the Block House and the immediately surrounding land. In 1974, the fountain at the Point was completed and Point State Park was formally dedicated.
Emily M. Weaver, former curator of the Block House, has written two excellent publications about its history: a book, The Fort Pitt Block House (2013), and a journal article, "Railroaded: How the DAR saved the Fort Pitt Block House" (2014).
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- "Pittsburgh councils: Regular meeting yesterday: Considering the retrenchment ordinances—legal points raised—an interesting discussion—the ordinances favorably acted upon in Select Council—the police pay reduced—the firemen not touched—the city printing—the codification of the ordinances." Pittsburgh Gazette, Dec. 14, 1875, [p. 4]. Newspapers.com 86344074. [view source] pittsburgh-councils
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- "Big improvement is now assured: Common council decrees the street vacations needed by warehouse scheme: Mrs. Schenley to give bond: Assurances of this fact overcame objections and a demand for delay: Select likely to act soon." Pittsburg Post, Oct. 29, 1901, p. 7. Newspapers.com 86383884. [view source] big-improvement
- "Close vote on three vacating ordinances: Surveys committee of Councils, by vote of 12 to 10, favors grants in the point district—victory for the Schenley estate." Pittsburg Press, Oct. 26, 1901, p. 2. Newspapers.com 141915976. [view source] close-vote
- "An ordinance authorizing the vacation of Second street, from Penn avenue to Duquesne way." Pittsburgh city ordinance, 1901, no. 376. Passed Nov. 25, 1901; approved Dec. 6, 1901. Ordinance Book 14, p. 249. Reprinted in the Pittsburg Post, Dec. 11, 1901, p. 7 (Newspapers.com 86389443); and in the Pittsburg Press, Dec. 14, 1901, p. 5 (Newspapers.com 141826074). [view source] ordinance-1901-376
- "An ordinance authorizing the vacation of First street, from Penn avenue to Duquesne way." Pittsburgh city ordinance, 1901, no. 377. Passed Nov. 25, 1901; approved Dec. 6, 1901. Ordinance Book 14, p. 251. Reprinted in the Pittsburg Post, Dec. 11, 1901, p. 7 (Newspapers.com 86389443); and in the Pittsburg Press, Dec. 11, 1901, p. 12 (Newspapers.com 141825301). [view source] ordinance-1901-377
- "An ordinance authorizing the vacation of Greentree alley, from Penn avenue to Duquesne way." Pittsburgh city ordinance, 1901, no. 378. Passed Nov. 25, 1901; approved Dec. 6, 1901. Ordinance Book 14, p. 252. Reprinted in the Pittsburg Post, Dec. 11, 1901, p. 7 (Newspapers.com 86389443); and in the Pittsburg Press, Dec. 10, 1901, p. 7 (Newspapers.com 141824959), and Dec. 11, p. 12 (Newspapers.com 141825301). [view source] ordinance-1901-378
- "Point district to be vacated: City will be reimbursed by Mrs. Schenley's agents for street improvements: Great warehouses going up: Councils pass many measures for sewer work---more contracts to be made: M'Tighe's death lamented." Pittsburg Post, Nov. 26, 1901, p. 9. Newspapers.com 86389154. [view source] point
- "To investigate a city office: City assessors said to be doing too much political work: Busy meeting of councils: Select councils pass two resolutions over Brown's veto: Common was quite lively." Pittsburg Press, Oct. 29, 1901, p. 11. Newspapers.com 141918282. [view source] to-investigate
- "Brown signed Point vacation: Fort St. turned over to warehouse syndicate—women will fight on: Will make their plans soon: Ground around the old block house is too sacred to be easily given up: May appeal to councils." Pittsburg Post, Dec. 21, 1901, p. 2. Newspapers.com 86391260. [view source] brown-signed-point-vacation
- "Brown signed vacation bills: Approved today to Fort street and Point alley ordinances." Pittsburg Press, Dec. 20, 1901, p. 1. Newspapers.com 141827904. [view source] brown-signed-vacation-bills
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- "Blockhouse now in court: Daughters of American Revolution filed petition regarding monument: Were ordinances legal?: Defendants are Mary E. Schenley, F. F. Nicola, J. W. Herron and City of Pittsburg: Full text of the paper." Pittsburg Post, Feb. 16, 1902, p. 3. Newspapers.com 86411272. [view source] blockhouse