Donora’s Cement City turns 100 years old

April 5, 2017
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Scott Beveridge/Observer-Reporter
A row of Cement City houses facing Modisette Avenue in Donora Order a Print
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Courtesy of Donora Historical Society
Cement City as it appeared when construction was completed in 1917.
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Scott Beveridge/Observer-Reporter
Cement City resident Fran Emery will open her door to guests taking a walking tour of her historic neighborhood this month. Order a Print
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Courtesy of Donora Historical Society
Lambie Concrete House Corp. begins construction in 1916 on Cement City in Donora.

DONORA – Living in Donora’s historic Cement City neighborhood comes with several challenges, including finding a place to park a vehicle on its narrow, tree-lined streets.

Macaque in the trees
Cement City as it appeared when construction was completed in 1917.
Courtesy of Donora Historical Society

Maintaining or remodeling one of the houses here can also be daunting because they were constructed almost entirely with poured-in-place concrete with walls and ceilings six inches thick. Yet residents agree that it’s still a charming place to call home.

“There are sacrifices,” said Nancy Charlton, who will open her home for tours this month to benefit the Donora Historical Society in conjunction with Cement City’s 100th anniversary this year.

“You can’t have three vehicles to one house,” said Charlton, whose husband, Brian, is curator of the society’s Donora Smog Museum in the borough’s downtown.

American Steel & Wire Co., a division of U.S. Steel, began construction of 120 Cement City houses in 1916 on property at the southern edge of the borough where the acidic pollution from its zinc mill didn’t kill vegetation. Construction was halted at 80 houses because of cost and a labor shortage, according the historical society.

The houses were built for the mill’s foremen and each one of them came with a white or red rosebush in the yard as well as a lilac bush, Nancy Charlton said. The houses were constructed in the Prairie School style favored by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in a construction method that was popularized by light bulb inventor Thomas Edison.

The two-story buildings with raised basements were given an exterior coating of stucco before their doors opened as somewhat exclusive company houses in 1917.

Macaque in the trees
Cement City resident Fran Emery will open her door to guests taking a walking tour of her historic neighborhood this month.
Scott Beveridge/Observer-Reporter

The houses’ exterior walls were originally shiny and not intended to be painted, said Fran Emery, who also will open her Cement City home for the tour.

Over time, as homeowners here made numerous patches to peeling stucco, the closely packed, fireproof row houses were given exterior coats of paint ranging in colors from dull gray to warm shades of blue, red and yellow.

The society regularly holds walking tours of this community and its old growth sycamore trees. The walks begin at the museum with a presentation that includes seeing photos documenting Cement City’s construction.

Some people attend the tours to learn about the structures and how they were constructed, while others come to see how the interiors are decorated, Charlton said.

“I don’t think people expect them to be nice and others are surprised to see they are so small,” she said.

Macaque in the trees
Lambie Concrete House Corp. begins construction in 1916 on Cement City in Donora.
Courtesy of Donora Historical Society

“It’s like a Hobbit house,” added Emery, recalling the words of a relative who thought her cozy home resembled those discussed in the J.R.R. Tolkien books “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

“I feel it’s a great house and it’s not going anywhere,” Emery said.

Charlton said she values the security her solid house affords her during severe storms.

“I love this house. That’s all there is to it,” she said.

Cement City was listed in 1996 on the National Register of Historic Places as significant for being an intact example of company housing and having been built with innovative construction and design styles.

Reservations are required for the year’s tour which begins at 1 p.m. April 23 at the Donora Smog Museum, 595 McKean Ave. Reservations can be made by calling 724-823-0364 or emailing the society at donorahistoricalsociety@gmail.com.

Scott Beveridge is a North Charleroi native who has lived most of his life in nearby Rostraver Township. He is a general assignments reporter focusing on investigative journalism and writing stories about the mid-Mon Valley. He has a bachelor's degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master's from Duquesne University. Scott spent three weeks in Vietnam in 2004 as a foreign correspondent under an International Center for Journalists fellowship.

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