Liquid gold in the forest

The buying of timber land for the purpose of securing the bark is naturally incident to the tanning business The company owns a large amount of land acquired in this way and owns and operates some sawmills for utilizing the timber on it — Lewis H. Lapham, 1901.[1]

Western Pennsylvania is well known as the birthplace of America’s petroleum industry. Edwin Drake’s construction in 1859 of the nation’s first large-scale oil well laid the foundation for the industry that spread from Pennsylvania’s forests to the desert southwest within four decades.

Leroy Well. Stereograph, c. 1860-1870. Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

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Pittsburgh: Steel City, Stockyard City (updated)

My paper on the development of stockyards in the eastern United States (and ultimately, Chicago) was presented at the 2009 Vernacular Architecture Forum conference in Butte, Montana. Last week I learned that a revised and expanded version will be published later this year. Details to come. The paper was published in Western Pennsylvania History: Model for the Nation: Sale, Slaughter and Processing at the East Liberty Stockyards (2010).

In the meantime, here’s an illustrated version of the 2009 VAF paper abstract:

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A Levitt Encounter

Architectural and cultural historians for decades have been tuned into the significance of the sprawling Postwar suburbs built by Levitt & Sons bearing the family firm’s name. Recent research into other Levitt developments like Belair in Bowie in the Washington, D.C., suburbs has expanded our understanding of the Levitts’ impact on modern cultural landscapes and in shaping American homeownership. Last week while doing some fieldwork in the Philadelphia suburbs I encountered a 1960s subdivision planned by firm president William J. Levitt (1907-1994).

Named Albidale — Al (for Alice K. Levitt) and bi (for Bill Levitt) plus the rustic-sounding dale — the development included two tracts culled from a large 600-acre horse farm and steeplechase track assembled by Philadelphia philanthropist George W. Elkins (1886-1954) begun in the 1920s. Albidale’s core, dubbed Albidale West by Levitt, includes a cluster of stone homes Elkins built in 1936 for his employees and a pair of eighteenth century stone houses that once were part of farms Elkins bought in the 1920s and 1930s for his expansive Justa Farm complex.

Albidale West Plat. Montgomery County Land Records.

Earlier this year a new book on Pennsylvania’s Levittown, Second Suburb, was published and I have now moved my copy to the top of my reading list. The Levitts were fresh in my mind before I did last week’s fieldwork because I had just read Jamie Jacobs’ chapter on Belair in Richard Longstreth’s new book, Housing Washington. Jacobs’ 2005 dissertation has a valuable discussion of suburban real estate marketing techniques that I am using in my work on Silver Spring’s 1939 World’s Fair Home. Two things intrigue me about Levitt and they are beyond the scope of my current research project: 1) Levitt did not scrape away all evidence of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries to make way for his development; and, 2) Levitt and his wife briefly lived in one of the Elkins houses. Continue reading