Notes:Oliver Avenue

From Pittsburgh Streets

Source:Evans, pp. 299–303:


The Scotch-Irish are stout loyalists, to people and to places. Oliver recognized that his prosperity came from Pittsburgh; his allegiance remained with Pittsburgh. He became one of the largest, if not the largest, individual owner of downtown Pittsburgh property.

His brother, Senator Oliver, had purchased the Pittsburgh Gazette and, desiring to obtain a new publication building and advertising office, had started negotiations with the Vestry of Trinity Episcopal Church for a part of the property of the church on the corner of Virgin Alley and Carpenter's Alley for a publication house, and had made an agreement to buy the 40 feet on the corner of Smithfield Street and Virgin Alley for an advertising office.

[p. 300]

Henry W. Oliver took over from his brother these two projects and, starting with the original purchase at the corner of Smithfield Street and Virgin Alley, speedily bought all the property fronting on Smithfield Street between Sixth Avenue and Virgin Alley. He also negotiated with Trinity Church for the purchase of the property along Carpenter's Alley fronting on Sixth Avenue adjoining the church building, which had been used as a burial ground from the early days of the French and Indian War. Having obtained this property, he vacated Carpenter's Alley and thus had a solid block of property upon which was afterwards built the Henry W. Oliver Building.

In connection with this last purchase from Trinity Church, there is told one of the stories characteristic of Oliver's never-failing sense of humor. Having to deal with a church vestry which had no personal interest, it was difficult to come to a conclusion with the negotiations, but after a long negotiation, William R. Blair, Esq., who acted for the church, finally announced to Oliver that he had made all arrangements and went over the details of the purchase as agreed upon. Oliver said, without a smile, that he was very sorry but that he could not make the purchase on those terms. Mr. Blair, aghast at the loss of his time and trouble said, "What's the difficulty? I thought I had fulfilled all your wishes." Oliver answered, "Well, you know I bought some time ago the church property fronting on Virgin Alley, giving a mortgage which is due in three hundred years. You now propose that I shall buy this Sixth Avenue property and give a mortgage due at the same time. I am afraid that my family may not have the money to meet both mortgages on the same day and so you will have to make this mortgage four hundred years." Having had his joke, Oliver carried out Blair's arrangement.

Having once entered on the purchase of this property, Oliver's usual public spirit was roused and he began to agitate for the widening of Virgin Alley, and in that connection said to the City Councils:

[p. 301]

I stood one day on Fifth Avenue at the crest of the hump and looked down over a hurrying mass of people that made the streets black as far as the eye could see. I stopped to think of something I had learned only a short time before; that the vast business interests of this city of ours were centered in an area of less than fifty acres.

Think of it! Crowding our interests into space of that size! As I looked, I saw skyscrapers going up on every side of me, harboring their thousands of toilers, and I asked myself what our narrow streets would do if these thousands kept on growing. I saw then the necessity of more thoroughfares and I made up my mind to do what I could for Virgin Alley.

He then bought the properties at the corner of Virgin Alley and Wood Street, and Sixth Avenue and Wood Street, and negotiated with the First Presbyterian Church, whose church building then stood on Wood Steret, a lease of this property, the removal of the church building to other property of the Church on Sixth Avenue and the building of a new church building there, paying a bonus of $150,000 in cash and rent of $30,000 per year for 999 years for the lease of the church property, which could not be sold outright because it was received by the Church under grant from the Penns for church use.

Oliver then bought the property extending on the northerly side of Virgin Alley from Wood Street to Liberty and along Liberty; the property at the corner of Virgin Alley and Liberty Avenue, on which a department store building was subsequently erected; the property on Virgin Alley extending through to Fifth Avenue, occupied by the McClintock's carpet store, and the southeasterly corner of Wood Street and Virgin Alley.

It is said that Oliver had made a bet with A. W. Mellon, who had for ten years been trying, unsuccessfully, to put through the widening of Diamond Alley, that he would carry through the widening of Virgin Alley before Mr. Mellon could finish up with Diamond Alley. In his characteristic way, Oliver took the wind out of the sails of possible objectors and expedited the proceedings by agreeing that the assessments of damages on account of the taking of [p. 302] strips of his property on the eastern side of Virgin Alley should be upon the basis of the square foot cost to him of this property, brushing aside the question whether the taking of a part of lots, already small and irregular in shape, would not entitle him to an award of damages at a rate greater than one based upon the square-foot cost.

A characteristic story showing Oliver's popularity is told in this connection. One of the properties fronting on Fifth Avenue and extending through to Virgin Alley which would be affected by the improvement and whose owner, therefore, by refusing to agree to the widening, would delay the proceeding, belonged to Samuel C. Grier. Oliver turned over to his lawyer the job of obtaining signatures of all of the property owners, but the lawyer was unable to get in touch with Mr. Grier. No matter how many times he called or when he called, Mr. Grier was always out, so the lawyer stationed himself in the vicinity of Mr. Grier's office in this building to catch him on the fly, and when he finally met him Mr. Grier said, "Well, you've caught me at last. I am almost ashamed of myself for having dodged you, but I felt I knew what you wanted, that is, to get my signature to the Virgin Alley widening. I didn't want to see you because it doesn't suit me to sign, but there is nothing which I could refuse Mr. Oliver, so if you will bring the papers around, I'll sign them."

The widening of Virgin Alley was put through without a single objection or appeal, in time to win his bet with Mr. Mellon, if there was such a bet. Immediately after, the Pittsburgh Press started a movement which resulted in the change of the name of Virgin Alley to "Oliver Avenue."

Another evidence of Oliver's public spirit was his purchase of the property on Sixth Avenue above Smithfield Street on which the Nixon Theatre was built. His only requirement, although he financed the purchase of the property and a large part of the cost of the building, was that the theatre should be commensurate with the importance of Pittsburgh as he saw it and that the space between the seats [p. 303] should be large enough so that people would not be uncomfortable.

He also bought the Lewis Building at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Smithfield Street from his old partner, W. J. Lewis; from D. T. Watson and C. B. Jones the property on Smithfield Street adjoining this building. From Stevenson and Ferguson he bought the property on Sixth Avenue adjoining the Duquesne Club. A part of this he sold to the Club, of which he was often called the "Father," and of which he had always been a generous helper, for instance, giving them a long term contract for the supply of light, heat, and power at very much below the cost price. Oliver furnished this supply from a central power plant which he built on a part of this property to supply all of his real estate holdings in the neighborhood as well as real estate of some others. On the Smithfield Street corner, his Estate erected the Gimbel department store.

During the last years of his life, Oliver was continually thinking of the plans of the office building which he intended to erect on the Smithfield Street block, between Sixth and Oliver Avenues, visiting and carefully examining the details of other office buildings in the various cities he visited, and getting ready to make this Henry W. Oliver Building his memorial, as the finest office building in this country of its day. In the end, his real estate was finally improved with this large office building, three large department store buildings, numerous smaller mercantile buildings and two theatre buildings, the largest individual holding of improved downtown real estate in Pittsburgh.

To do


  • p. 37: "The first Church service held in Pittsburgh was on April 17, 1754. On that date, the day after Contrecoeur had captured Fort George, the Rev. Father Denys Baron celebrated the first mass. Not long following, the first chapel was established and named 'The Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin at the Beautiful River.' Regular services were conducted by Catholic chaplains and accurate records were kept of baptisms and deaths, which provide the earliest source material for Pittsburgh. The first entry bears the date July 11, 1753, and the last is dated October 10, 1756. There was a total of fifteen baptisms and forty-two interments."
  • pp. 40–41: "The original eleven trustees [of the First Presbyterian Church] were Major Isaac Craig, Col. Stephen Bayard, Col. John Gibson, General Richard Butler, Gen. Alexander Fowler, Adam-[p. 41]-son Tannehill, George Wallace, John Withers, Robert Galbreath, David Duncan and Rev. [Samuel] Barr. To these trustees, John Penn and John Penn Jr. sold two and a half lots on 6th Street and Virgin Alley for five shillings. ¶ Now named Oliver Avenue, Virgin Alley had been named by the French at Fort Duquesne. Called 'L'Allée de la Vierge,' it meant, the road of Virgins, or a path leading to a cemetery. Fort Duquesne had buried her dead in an Indian mound on the site of the First Presbyterian Church."
  • p. 175: "Virgin Alley, renamed Oliver Avenue after Henry W. Oliver, steel magnate, was widened in 1903."

Source:Toker, pp. 46–47: "The Sixth-Oliver corridor is perfect in its symmetry, with Mellon Square to the east and Oliver Plaza to the west, two Daniel Burnham skyscrapers at the ends of the block, two venerable churches in the middle, and an Indian burial ground on its central axis. The burial ground originated in a small hillock that must have been one of the few dry spots in the Triangle when the Allegheny River regularly flooded it each spring. The French, knowing the Indians had used it, took it over for their own burials from 1754 to 1758. (Virgin Alley, a name that caused such embarrassment in Pittsburgh that it was changed to Oliver Avenue in 1917, was the sanctified way leading to the cemetery—the Allée de la Vièrge.) The British and Americans added more graves still, so that by the time of the last burial in 1854, 4,000 recorded bodies and probably ten times that many unrecorded ones rested here. When the Penn heirs carved up the town in 1784, the sacredness already attached to Sixth Avenue made it the obvious choice for the three free lots they doled out to the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and German-Evangelist congregations. The Presbyterians and Episcopalians are still on the block 200 years later; the German and Evangelist congregations are only a few hundred feet away."