East Washington tour focuses on “painted ladies”

October 20, 2013
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Scott Beveridge / Observer-Reporter Pittsburgh author Lu Donnelly discuss the ornate trim on the president’s mansion at Washington & Jefferson College while leading a tour Sunday of an historic East Washington neighborhood.
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Photos by Scott Beveridge / Observer-Reporter
Above, Sandy Mansmann, coordinator of Washington County History & Landmarks Foundation, documents a walking tour Sunday the group held through an historic East Washington neighborhood. Order a Print
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Scott Beveridge / Observer-Reporter
Fred Boni discusses the history of his 1850s house on South Wade Avenue, East Washington, with a group of architecture buffs taking a walking tour Sunday. Order a Print

A tour narrator pauses outside the president’s mansion Sunday at Washington & Jefferson College and then describes its late-1800s architecture as unbridled exuberance designed as a tribute to the original owner’s great wealth.

Built in the Queen Anne style in East Washington for James Duncan, an owner of Duncan & Miller Glass Co. in Washington, it boasts ornamentation, some created from broken glass, across nearly every inch of its exterior.

“The railroad would deliver the doodads you could attach to the house yourself,” said Lu Donnelly, a Pittsburgh author who guided the walking tour to East Washington’s so-called “painted lady” houses.

“It spoke to the originality of the owner and would be considered excessive today,” said Donnelly, who conducted the tour as a fundraiser for Washington County History & Landmarks Foundation.

The discussion outside the Duncan mansion on East Wheeling Street was the first of nearly 30 stops nearly as many tourists made in the borough’s historic district, which also included houses on South Wade Avenue.

They discussed the many varieties of styles that were either combined or solely used to create the houses along the tree-lined streets between the mid 1800s and the early 1900s.

“Here they quieted it down and coated it with shingles,” Donnelly said of a mansion at the corner of the two streets now used to house W&J students. “It’s still a massively big house.”

Along the way a homeowner, Fred Boni, walked unsolicited to the edge of the lawn to discuss his house bearing Colonial and Victorian elements with the group.

Boni said Col. Alexander Leroy Hawkins was the most famous resident of two-story brick house on South Wade. Hawkins led a company into the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, and it became one of the strongest units in the state because of the amount of respect he earned from his soldiers.

“He was very beloved,” Boni said.

This mansion was first used as a farmhouse and the other houses in the neighborhood were eventually built on property annexed from the farm, he said.

The tour of the “painted ladies,” which earned the nickname because of their colorful ornamentation, was the culmination of a year’s worth of research the foundation conducted into accomplished women in the history in Washington County, said Sandy Mansmann, the organization’s coordinator.

“This kept with the theme,” she said.

Donnelly, a member of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, said the East Washington area has an excellent collection of historic houses.

“So much is still here,” she said. “You have a wonderful collection of Queen Anne houses. People drive to San Francisco to see painted ladies, but they only have to drive 1 1/2 hours to see these ones.”

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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