Saturday, July 25, 2015

Looking Around Pittsburgh

As mentioned in the previous post, I was looking to share some photos of interesting houses I came across in Pittsburgh.

We visited a historic home which was open for tours, the home of Henry Clay Frick (1849~1919), now part of a larger concern, the Frick Art and Historical Center. Henry Frick grew up in a Mennonite village in Overton PA, and at the age of 21 he realized that certain opportunities presented themselves with respect to bituminous coal. At the age of 21, he borrowed some money and set up a partnership with two cousins and a friend, Frick and Co.. Their company used beehive ovens to turn coal into coke, a fuel which happened to be in great demand by Pittsburgh's burgeoning steel industry. By the age of 30 Henry Frick was a millionaire, and the company of which he became the sole owner, the H.C. Frick and Company, eventually had over 1000 employees.

Henry Frick:


Not, apparently, a man given much to joviality. Indeed, the adjective 'ruthless' is often appended to his name. In 1881, the year Frick married, he made the acquaintance of Andrew Carnegie. Later, H.C. Frick and Company would partner with Carnegie Steel, forming a powerful alliance which dominated the Pittsburgh steel industry. Eventually, this partnership became the US Steel corporation. Carnegie put Frick in charge of his steel operations in the same year.

Frick was a successful businessman, however his name also lives on somewhat in infamy, or not, depending upon your point of view, due to his connection with the Homestead Steel strike of 1892. Homestead Steel, owned by Frick and Carnegie, was the nation's largest producer of steel. In 1892, a labor dispute at the mill escalated into a major event. This was not the first labor conflict at the mill, and earlier strikes there had resulted in gains for the union. The Homestead strike was, in comparison to earlier efforts, more organized and purposeful.

On June 28th of 1892, following unsuccessful negotiations with a union representing a small portion of the total mill workforce - unsuccessful, perhaps, because Frick offered them a cut in pay despite soaring company profits - Frick made the decision to lock out all of the mill's 3800 workers with a stated plan to replace them with non-union employees.

It wasn't that he simply locked out the workers  -that would be a mild understatement - Frick had made plans for battle ahead of time:

A high fence topped with barbed wire, begun in January, was completed and the plant sealed to the workers. Sniper towers with searchlights were constructed near each mill building, and high-pressure water cannons (some capable of spraying boiling-hot liquid) were placed at each entrance. Various aspects of the plant were protected, reinforced or shielded.

The lockout lead the union to surround the mill, which provoked Frick to send 300 Pinkerton Detectives (a private security firm), drawn from New York and Chicago in to break the strike. Initialy, the strikers thought the plain-clothed Pinkerton men were scabs. This confrontation turned into a major battle (more here) over the July 5th to 7th period. Several people were killed, and many were injured. The Pinkerton Detectives lost the battle, however they subsequently received ill treatment at the hands of union workers, which shifted the tide of public sentiment against the workers. Eventually, 7000 troops of the state militia were brought in to disperse the strikers. The Homestead Strike of 1892 was unsuccessful for the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, and was the start of a process of demise for the organization, and a loss of members. It can be said, on the other side of the coin, that the events at Homestead had the effect of discouraging the use of private security forces in resolving labor disputes, and instead encouraged resort to the military and the courts. While Robert Pinkerton told Congress that in the 26 years prior to Homestead his firm had been employed in some 70 strikes against 125,000 strikers, that sort of business pretty much dried up for the company after Homestead. Many states moved to prohibit by law the use of armed guards in settling strikes as a result.

The Carnegie Company came in for heavy criticism afterward, as this account shows:


The 'great expense' mentioned for the militia? It was some $22,000/day; a cost borne of course by US taxpayers.

On July 23rd, an anarchist named Alexander Berkman, who had been avidly following newspaper accounts of the strike, burst into Frick's office and took a couple of shots at Frick with a handgun, and stabbed him several times before being tackled. Frick survived the encounter, and became more entrenched in his anti-labor positions, while Berkman spent the next 14 years in prison. His life story was certainly an eventful one. Berkman, who had no association with the strikers and who had acted without their knowledge in his attempt to assassinate Frick, nevertheless was associated by the public to the strikers, and thereby the cause of organized labor lost considerable public sympathy as a result.

Henry Frick was also involved in another dramatic event a few years preceding the Homestead Strike: The Johnstown Flood. That story is a bit too long to relate here, however a click on the foregoing link should be informative - -or take a gander at this documentary on the Johnstown Flood, which won an Academy Award in 1991:



Not the only disaster avoided by Henry Frick: he and his wife Adelaide had booked tickets to travel back to New York on the inaugural trip of the Titanic in 1912, along with J.P. Morgan. The couple canceled their trip after Adelaide sprained her ankle in Italy and missed the disastrous voyage. Somewhat of a charmed life it would seem.

That is some background on Henry Frick and his life.

The year 1881 was the same year in which Frick and his wife purchased an Italianate-style home at the corner of Penn and South Homewood Avenues, in Pittsburgh's residential East End, a spot which become known as 'Millionaire's Row'.

As an aside, while Pittsburgh is built around a large and beautiful river, the presence of the coal industry along the river banks made the area dirty and polluted. Thus, the poorest denizens had the waterfront property. The wealthy moved up into the hills a bit where the air was cleaner and clearer. It is only in recent years that the usual premium for waterfront property is coming back into place as the city's former poor sections are being gentrified.

The house Frick purchased, for a sum of $25,000, then received a make-over by the architect Andrew Peebles, and was renamed 'Clayton'. A few years later there was a significant expansion made to the structure, overseen by architect Frederick J. Osterling. This is how Clayton looks today:


The look is what might be called a French Chateau style.

Another view:


Some of the stonework in the section facing the camera was not in good condition, although this house has had restoration work done in the early 1990's and in 2013. To fix the stonework would be a major project, as the trouble would appear to originate in the foundation.

The Frick's Clayton House, like the Asa Packer House in Jim Thorpe, is a rare case of a house which contains almost all of it's original interior fittings, furniture, paintings, etc. Frick was a prolific collector of paintings, many of which are on display at another house he used to own in New York, now the Frick Collection.

I toured the house, and as with the Asa Packer residence, interior photography was not allowed. I did manage to find just a very few pictures on the web, and here's one of them:


Some lovely woodwork is found throughout the house, most of which was done in Honduran Mahogany, along with tooled leather wallpaper. Many of the rooms had coffered or paneled ceilings. Overall, like most Victorian-era houses, it makes for a rich scene in nearly every room. Overall, I thought the woodwork was a notch below the Asa Packer House, and perhaps that can be put down to the fact that Asa Packer had apprenticed as a carpenter and had more of an eye for quality - maybe more of a drive to hire the most skilled carpenters he could find. The woodwork in Clayton conveys luxury, perhaps, more than it conveys technical virtuosity.

Sometimes the effect though is a little too much. It's a very richly detailed environment in which to have lived, and I'm not sure how it would feel to spend month after month in such a space.

One room which stood out was the dining room:


It's not easy to make out in the above picture, but to the right of the shot is the base of a fluted mahogany column. What was unusual about these columns was their section profile, which was not a cylinder. Instead, these columns are of a square section with strongly chamfered arrises, featuring entasis as well. I've never come across columns in this form before and they looked really sweet. I pointed out the unusual nature of the form to the docent and she replied that I had been the first to notice that detail.

My favorite space in the house was Henry Frick's personal ensuite bath, which has a curved door and a domed skylight above the tub. It would have been a great place to have a bath, and I wish I could find a picture to show. Definitely check this house out if you are in the area.

I'll conclude this with a part II in another few days. Thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way.

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