Vanished Westinghouse estate here yields some secrets

Here is the article that chronicled the beginning of Westinghouse Park’s rediscovered and the first step in the new master development plan. That step was made by archaeologist Christine Davis, who recently died. Seventeen years is a long time, and many steps remain. But all great accomplishments start somewhere. RIP Chris.

May 2, 2006  By Patricia Lowry / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 

George Westinghouse IV greeted archaeologist Christine Davis with a handshake and a question: “Did you find the grave?”

A startled look flashed over Davis’ face. Last fall, she and her crew had done exploratory excavations on his great-grandfather’s Point Breeze estate — now Westinghouse Park — and found a tantalizing array of artifacts, but no tombstones.

“What grave?” she ventured.

“Thomas Edison is buried in the back yard,” Westinghouse said.

Its Point Breeze neighbors want to excavate George Westinghouse’s former estate, Solitude, and interpret it as a historic site. The house was demolished in 1919, after the land was donated for a city park

At that, the archaeologist and the heir had a good laugh.

The rivalry between Edison and Westinghouse is legendary. For about a decade in the late 19th century, the question of the day was, which of their systems would be the first to electrify the country — direct current, promoted by Edison, or alternating current, developed by Nikola Tesla, who sold the patent to Westinghouse?

The decisive moment came in 1886, when Westinghouse and his engineers generated electricity at a Downtown factory and sent it by alternating current to a building in Lawrenceville, where 400 lamps were kept burning for two weeks.

“It was the first successful exhibition ever made in the United States of the transmission of electrical energy for any considerable distance through the medium of alternating current,” which, unlike direct current, can be carried long distances with the aid of transformers, wrote Westinghouse’s friend and biographer, Francis Leupp. Although much of the work was done Downtown, Westinghouse’s home was a living laboratory, where exposed electrical wires festooned the ceilings, so he could easily make improvements.

Concurrently, Westinghouse was experimenting with harnessing natural gas for lighting and heating. Because Marguerite Westinghouse liked to have her husband at home, the gas wells were drilled in the back yard — four of them, beginning in 1884. Their wooden derricks towered over her flower beds and his laboratory on the estate’s south lawn, along Thomas Boulevard.

Westinghouse’s home lab was part of the estate’s two-story brick stable built in the same Second Empire style as the house; the lab’s basement contained a generator and engine room for the pioneering lighting and heating systems. Wires and pipes passed through a subway tunnel to the house. There were rumors Westinghouse was conducting secret experiments there, and they were right.

Some experiments, of course, had to be done in the open, and much to the amazement of neighbors. After striking gas in the summer of 1884, Westinghouse wanted to test its illuminating qualities. He erected a pipe, about 60 feet high from the mouth of the well, and a bundle of flaming, oil-drenched rags was hoisted by pulley to the top of it. When the well was uncapped, a pillar of flame shot 100 feet into the night sky, then died down to a steady fountain of flame. People a mile away could read their newspapers by it, Leupp reports. By 1886, Westinghouse had invented a piping system, an automatic cut-off regulator and a gas meter and eventually distributed natural gas to his immediate neighborhood.

Archaeologist Christine Davis, left, laughs at a joke by George Westinghouse IV of Atlanta, Ga., while leading a tour at Westinghouse Park in Point Breeze. At right is Ed Reis, executive director of the George Westinghouse Museum in Wilmerding.

Today, there is no evidence that any of these world-changing events occurred on the 10.2 acres bounded by Thomas Boulevard, Lang Street, Murtland Avenue and the former Pennsylvania Railroad tracks, alongside which Westinghouse kept his private rail car. Westinghouse Park’s neighbors want to change that. They want to interpret what remains of the estate as a historic site, said Cheryl Hall, chair of the North Point Breeze Planning and Development Corp. To that end, the neighborhood group asked the city to sponsor an exploratory dig to see what, if anything, lies buried beneath the lawn. About 30 neighbors came to the park last week to meet Westinghouse’s great-grandson and to hear Davis talk about the excavation.

George Westinghouse

“There’s not a brick missing from this tunnel,” Davis said of the nearly 200-foot-long, round-arched subway from house to laboratory that one of her colleagues explored and photographed last fall. Even the tunnel’s ceiling rods, from which Westinghouse suspended electrical lines, are intact. Another tunnel, now in need of repair, ran from the house to the railroad tracks.

When the Westinghouses bought the property in 1871, Leupp reports, it came with a three-story, mansard-roofed house, which they enlarged as they prospered. However, Davis said her map and deed research indicates the Westinghouses built their home. Marguerite named it Solitude, their great-grandson said, a name inspired by the small Catskills settlement of Solitude, which disappeared before the Civil War and near which Marguerite had grown up.

But as the years went by, Solitude was increasingly alive with industrial and social activity. The Westinghouses and their only child, George, had dinner guests almost every night, often co-workers and their families and occasionally visiting dignitaries.

Marguerite “lives in greater style, entertains more splendidly and wears more gorgeous, varied and elegant toilets, has more and finer diamonds than any woman in Pittsburg,” Adelaide Nevin wrote in “The Social Mirror” in 1888. “Her table appointments are simply superb, the entire service being of solid silver and gold … and the cut glass, Sevres, Dresden and other fine porcelains are worth a small fortune.”

The couple, who also had homes in Massachusetts, New York and Washington, D.C., died within three months of each other in 1914. Four years later, their son and his wife Violet sold the Point Breeze property to the Engineers Society of Western Pennsylvania, which intended to establish both a city park and a memorial to Westinghouse there (which, as it turned out, was erected in Schenley Park). The 1918 city ordinance accepting the estate stipulated that the house be removed by the city within six months. When it was demolished the following year, at least some of the building was collapsed into the basement. The stable/laboratory survived into the 1960s, when it was replaced by a park maintenance building on the same site. Davis hopes to excavate beneath a portion of its concrete floor.

Among the 1,249 artifacts recovered from seven test units on the house site were fragments of granite and marble; shards of painted stained glass, a Haviland porcelain saucer and a crystal perfume bottle. A permanent repository for them will be chosen by the city and community. One possibility is the George Westinghouse Museum in Wilmerding, where the inventor’s great-grandson is a trustee. Although Westinghouse lives in Atlanta and visits the museum every other year, last week was his first walking-around trip to the house site, which he’d seen only once before, 20 years ago, on a guided drive-by tour.

As the family historian and only male heir through the father’s line, he is trying to gather for the museum some of the Westinghouse possessions that had been divided among descendants in 1946, after the men came back from World War II. They had been stored in eight rail cars before ending up in a warehouse in Victoria, B.C.

The neighborhood group also wants to identify, preserve and interpret Solitude’s historic landscape features, which include stone steps leading from Lang Street and Murtland Avenue, stone entrance pillars, carriage drives and 45 hardwood and specimen trees, notably pin oaks planted in clusters of three. The Davis report identifies six other species: horse chestnuts, Norway maples, gingkoes, sawtooth oaks, a Siberian elm and an Amur cork.

The neighbors would like to see gas lighting in the park and a new shelter reminiscent of the stable. They also are seeking the park’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places; approval should help secure funds for further excavations. If and when they happen, they hope to involve neighborhood schoolchildren in the search for what remains of the home and workshop of Pittsburgh’s greatest inventor.

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