History of The Metropolis House (Ellsworth Ave)
The following is an excerpt of an article appearing at http://www.phlf.org/2006/03/17/researching-the-history-of-your-house/. Courtesy of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation; written by Walter G. Ritchie, May 1988. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
The history of the Greek Orthodox Bishop’s residence in Shadyside illustrates one procedure for exploring a house history. However, the process described below is not the only approach; it merely represents the pattern followed by the author.
1. Site Name and address
The name of the house’s current occupants and its street address is the first and most vital information to obtain. For instance, a mansion in Shadyside is currently owned by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, and is used as the residence of the Pittsburgh diocesan. The address is 5201 Ellsworth Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
2. Site Description
The next step in the process is relatively simple, for it involves nothing more than poking around the grounds of the house and developing a general impression of the property’s character and layout. This step is very important because it establishes knowledge about the configuration of the property and the form of the house.
The bishop’s mansion sits on a corner site at the intersection of Ellsworth Avenue and Colonial Place. The property is rectangular in form, with the house situated approximately in the middle of the site but close to an adjacent property. A garage stands at the house, and is approached by a driveway that connects with Colonial Place. The house, L-shape in plan, is fronted by a large portico.
As you move around the property, you should take notice of any additions made to the house or portions subtracted from it. The removal of a porch will leave blemishes on the wall which often can be seen easily unless purposely concealed. Bricks or stone laid with mortar that is lighter in color than the mortar found in the rest of the wall usually indicates that a door or window has been filed in. Observing these important changes will help you discover how the house has evolved over the years.
Following an analysis of the physical characteristics of your property, you should draw a map as a means of documenting the shape of the site, its relation to nearby streets and intersections, the placement of the house, and the presence of outbuildings and other structures. The map should also include the dimensions of the house and grounds, and the distance of the house from local streets and roads.
The bishop’s mansion stands approximately 38 ft. from Ellsworth Avenue and 20 ft. from Colonial Place. The plot of land measures 80 ft. by 140 ft. The facade of the house with portico is 37 ft., 6 in. long, and the portico is about 14 ft., 4 in. wide. The left flank, the facade that faces Colonial Place, measures 55 ft., 6 in. A small entrance porch located along the left flank of the house is perfectly square, 10 ft. by 10 ft.
If your research uncovers documentation of the house and property dimensions that do not agree with the dimensions you measured, the size of the house and property have changed over time.
4. Interior Layout
Your “on-site” investigation ends with an exploration of the house’s interior. Walk through all the rooms of the house and note their sizes, shapes, and relations to one another. Look at architectural details such as moldings, plaster work, window and door frames, ceiling panels, and fireplace mantels. The spatial configuration of your home and the details that adorn it can help you identify the architectural style, and possibly place the time that your house was built.
In the bishop’s house there is a large central hall on the ground floor, with a dining room and kitchen situated on one side and a living room on the other. The dining room is connected to the kitchen by a swinging door. A massive staircase located at the end of the hall is divided into two flights of steps that are connected by a landing. There is a rectangular window, divided into three panels of stained glass, on the landing wall. The second floor contains four bedrooms, each with fireplace adorned with pilasters and a cornice. A third floor also contains four rooms, one of which appears to be a study.
Remember that alterations are not restricted to the exterior of the house. Inside, you may find rooms that have been divided, closets that have been added or enlarged, or fireplaces that have been sealed.
A portion of the parlor at the bishop’s house has been partitioned from the rest of the room in order to create space for a small chapel. Spatial changes like this one can significantly after the original character of the house.
5. Searching Through Written Records: Deed Research
After completing an investigation of the house and property, you will be equipped with enough information to begin an examination of written records. Written documentation falls into two categories, archival records and public records. Archival records are found at local libraries and historical societies, while public records are housed at City and County offices. Experience shows that public records contain the bulk of the information that opens the door to many other sources. The public record that proves to be the most informative is the deed.
A deed search begins in Room 106 of the County Office Building on Ross Street in downtown Pittsburgh. You must first obtain a “deed blotter” from a clerk in this office, who will request the address of the house which you are researching and the name of its current occupant. The deed blotter lists the “lot” and “block” numbers of the house. These numbers are necessary for finding the date of the most recent property deed. A clerk in Room 107, located on the mezzanine of the County Office Building, will take the blotter and present you with a slip of paper indicating the year in which the most recent deed was recorded. A large hall on the second floor marked “Recorder of Deeds Office” contains most of the deed volumes for the City of Pittsburgh (other volumes are located on the mezzanine level) and the “grantor/grantee” indexes that will be necessary for necessary for locating the volume that contains the most recent deed. Grantor/grantee indexes are arranged numerically according to year, then alphabetically according to the last name of the “grantee” or recipient of the property.
The latest deed recorded for the house at 5201 Ellsworth Avenue was made on May 11, 1956, with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese listed as the grantee of the property. A search for a 1956 index containing a list of property recipients a list of property recipients whose last names begin with the letter “A” revealed that the May 11th deed was recorded in Volume 3522. The document found in this volume indicated that the house was sold to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, Inc. by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in the Sixth Diocesan District of May 11, 1956, for the sum of $25,000. The property extended eastwardly 80 ft. along Ellsworth Avenue to the property line of Mary E. Moorhead, northwardly 140 ft. along the line of Moorhead’s property to the property line of Frederick W. McKee, westwardly 80 ft. along the line of Mckee’s property, and then southwardly 140 ft. along Colonial Place.
Existing structures included a three-story brick residence and a brick garage. The deed also indicated that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Sixth Diocesan District bought the property from Edward A. Azen by a deed made on June 30, 1955 deed listed Edward Azen as the grantor, or seller of the property, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese as the grantee, and a price of $33,000 for the house and grounds. The dimensions of the property and the number of existing structures remained the same. A reference to a previous property transferal indicated that Norman H. Azen granted the property to his son Edward A. Azen on August 7, 1951 by a deed recorded in Volume 3296 on page 365.
Every deed contains a reference to a previous deed that was made when the present grantor of the property purchased the real estate parcel from a previous grantor. Thus, a whole chain of deeds can be uncovered, extending as far back into the past as the year in which the property was first formed.
The deed made when Norman Azen granted his property to his son in 1951 indicated that he had purchased the house and grounds from Gretchen Park Rose on August 2, 1948. An examination of the 1948 deed revealed that Gretchen Park Rose received the house from her brother Albert Park upon his death in 1941. It also indicated that both Gretchen and Albert were the children of an earlier owner–Cora M. Hubbard–who bought the 80 ft. by 140 plot from Frederick W. McKee on April 1, 1901.
Frederick W. McKee, in turn, bought the property from Edward B. Alsop in January 1, 1900, but the plot of ground which he purchased measured 80 ft. by 220 ft. Because the length of the property was reduced by 80 ft. in 1901, it is obvious that Mckee retained some of the land for himself when he sold the plot to Mrs. Hubbard.
A statement found in the 1900 deed indicated that the property purchased by Mckee was only a small portion of land bought by E. B. Alsop from both George S. Griscom and Mary H. Moorhead in 1897. Alsop combined the parcels of land to form a property which extended eastwardly 200 ft. along Ellsworth Avenue, northwardly 590 ft. from Ellsworth to the southern line of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, westwardly along the southern line to a neighboring property, and the southwardly 725 ft. from the railroad tracks to Ellsworth Avenue. Earlier deeds showed that all of his property was originally owned by Maxwell K. Moorhead, a wealthy iron manufacturer who acquired large parcels of land throughout the city of Pittsburgh.
6. Written Records: Plat Maps, Books, etc.
The deed search uncovers valuable information which can be used to facilitate your investigation of other materials. For instance, plat maps and Sanborn insurance maps, which diagram existing properties and structures in relation to major streets and intersections, are arranged according to city divisions known as “wards.” Information about the ward in which your property is located can be found on the deed. An 1883 deed recording the sale of Shadyside property to Maxwell Moorhead indicated that the land was situated in the 20th Ward of the city of Pittsburgh. This information was used to find a plat map of the property that was made before Moorhead sold a portion of his land to George Griscom. The library at the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania in Oakland possesses several volumes of plat maps made for the city of Pittsburgh in the year 1890. A diagram of Moorhead’s property was in a volume marked “Wards 16, 20, 22, 23.” Maps dating from other years were easily obtained simply by knowing the number of the ward in which the property is situated. A Sanborn fire-insurance map dating from the year 1935 showed how the property appeared when owned by the family of Cora M. Hubbard.
Information obtained from a deed research can also help you piece together facts and details about the evolution of your property and the building of your house. The most informative sources available for dating the construction of your home and identifying its architect and builder are published histories, magazine articles, and building journals.
A short piece written about the bishop’s mansion and its neighboring twin was found in a local history entitled Landmark Architecture: Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, published by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation (1985).
According to the author, Edward B. Alsop divided the property he purchased from Griscom and Moorhead into 12 individual lots. He built two identical houses (one of which is now the bishop’s residence) in 1898 as monumental showpieces to announce a new development named “Colonial Place.” A Pittsburgh architect, George S. Orth, was chosen to design the homes for Alsop’s new residential court.
A magazine article written about Colonial Place, which was found by chance at the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, reinforced the information presented in Landmark Architecture but provided some extra details. The house, according to the author, was designed in the Colonial Revival style, popular at the turn of the century. George S. Orth was described as a successful local architect who designed several notable houses within the city.
By learning the identity of the man who built the bishop’s mansion, it is possible to uncover other hard-to-find documents. A building permit made on November 2, 1897 under the name of E. B. Alsop was found in a “Building Permit Docket” at Hillman Library, University of Pittsburgh, Oakland. The permit recorded the construction of two brick houses, each three stories high, 37 ft. wide, and 55 ft., 6 in. deep.
On one singularly successful day of research, luck intermingled with fate to uncover a rare piece of documentation. A book entitled Pittsburgh Illustrated, dating from the year 1889, was found in the Pennsylvania Room at Carnegie Library. It contained a photograph of Maxwell K. Moorhead’s Shadyside residence. His house, an eclectic mix of Queen Anne and Second Empire styles, stood on the property for several decades before Alsop laid out Colonial Place.
7. Architectural Style and Furnishing
After you pinpoint the construction date of your house, you will probably want to identify the style of its architecture. Many books written about the styles that constitute our nation’s rich architectural past serve as useful guides for identifying American architecture. Every century produces architectural styles, each of which enjoys a certain amount of popularity. Knowing the year that your house was built can help you identify its style, but you must also examine its form, ornamentation, and detailing.
For example, the bishop’s residence was built in the 1890s, a decade in which the Colonial Revival style achieved popularity. The house exhibits such elements as a portico, quoins, a Classical cornice, and sash windows divided into small panes. These architectural features and the house’s date of construction indicate that the residence was designed in the Colonial Revival style.
A discovery of your house’s architectural style may prompt a desire to reconstruct the interiors as they appeared in the past. One way of finding out what a furniture styles prevailed during the time your house was built is to look at newspapers, magazines, and mail order catalogs from the period. A 1916 edition of the Pittsburgh Gazette Times, found on microfilm at the Carnegie Library, contained an ad for “friends Furniture.” It included illustrations of bed and dining sets that were designed in the most popular styles of the day. Advertisements found in newspapers and magazines can prove to be very helpful when putting together a period-style interior.
8. Researching a Family House: City Directories and Social Registers
When you have finished thoroughly researching the history of your house and property, you will want to begin a detailed investigation of its past occupants. The deed research provides you with a list of names, yet it offers no information about the lives of the people who once resided in your home. The chain of occupants which you uncover must therefore be used as a basis for further investigation.
The house at 5201 Ellsworth Avenue was owned by many people, but only members of the Hubbard family resided in the home for a long period. Consequently, the Hubbards became the focus of an in-depth look at the house’s occupants.
City directories and social registers found at the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania offered interesting details about the Hubbard family its lifestyle. A listing of prominent families from 1916 indicated that John Winslow Hubbard, husband to Cora M. Hubbard, belonged to several prestigious clubs in the United States. It also listed the names of his two children, Cora Winslow and Albert Pack. A 1911 city directory showed that Hubbard was president and owner of Hubbard and Company ax manufacturers.
Other material written about John Winslow Hubbard was found in several biographical texts in the Pennsylvania Room at Carnegie Library. The Book of Prominent Pennsylvanians, published in 1913, includes a picture of Hubbard along with a short description of his past life and recent accomplishments. Another book, Men and Women of Wartime Pittsburgh, discusses the contribution of Hubbard and his many companies to the World War effort.
Since Maxwell K. Moorhead was the original owner of Hubbard’s property and a notable Pittsburgher, information about his industrialist was uncovered to shed more light on the property’s past. A book entitled Palmer’s Prominent Pittsburghers of the Past contained a nineteenth-century photograph of the contented old fellow, and indicated that he was president of the Monongahela Navigation Company.
The discovery of biographical records on the occupants of 5201 Ellsworth Avenue concluded the search for the house’s past. Overall, a sufficient amount of material was uncovered to help the researcher assemble a house history from bits and pieces of available information.
The research process described here will provide you wish some ideas on how to approach your own house-history search. If you are still uncertain about which documents you should investigate or what information they contain, review the outline presented in the following section. It provides a detailed definition of each record, and indicates where the record may be found.