The Pittsburgh house tour scene is making a major comeback this summer, as folks feel more comfortable with the height of the pandemic behind us.
That comeback sometimes translates into a much higher demand for events that haven’t happened in years.
For example, Allegheny West Civic Council’s A Tour & Tasting in Old Allegheny event on June 23 is already sold out.
To secure your tickets early, try signing up for the email lists of the organizations mentioned here.
Now it’s time to enjoy the warm weather and channel your inner old house geek at this summer’s lineup of historic house and neighborhood tours.
Doors Open Pittsburgh
June 24, 10-11:45 a.m.
While Doors Open Pittsburgh volunteer tour guide Jay Steele doesn’t live in Allegheny West, you might call him something of a surrogate resident. He taught health and physical education at the Community College of Allegheny County’s Allegheny Campus for 35 years as an adjunct professor before retiring in 2020.
Now he’s back at his old stomping grounds to lead Doors Open’s upcoming Walking Allegheny West: Millionaire Row tour.
Steele’s walking tours grew out of “two passions, for exercise and history of architecture,” he says. His Allegheny West tour is a program he developed as a community education course for CCAC, and one he’s taught through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at both Pitt and CMU.
“We’ll talk about the development of where the rich and famous wanted to hang out,” Steele says of the neighborhood’s history as part of Allegheny City, a separate municipality that the City of Pittsburgh annexed as the North Side in 1907.
Portions of Allegheny West were once known as “Allegheny’s Gold Coast” — its very own “Millionaire’s Row” — due to the accumulation of stately homes and the extravagant tastes of their inhabitants.
Some of these mansions once owned by local industrialists are now part of CCAC, such as Jones Hall, the former home of B.F. Jones, and Byers Hall, the former home of A.M. Byers and his daughter, Mrs. J. Denniston Lyons. Steele plans to take tour-goers into some of these buildings, security permitting.
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation
June 24, 10 a.m. to noon
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation (PHLF) docents are ready to introduce you to “the Queen of the Suburbs,” as one writer dubbed the town of Sewickley in 1895. Today, the Borough of Sewickley claims not one but three historic districts, and this tour will focus on the third, in central Sewickley.
“This tour is really about the historic nature of Sewickley and giving people an appreciation of the built environment,” says Karamagi Rujumba, director of education, development & advocacy for PHLF.
The tour’s content will include examples of popular 19th- and early 20th-century architectural styles, some of which were designed by architects of local and national importance.
While attendees will not enter any buildings, the tour will cover both commercial and residential areas.
“The building style in Sewickley is very distinct,” says Rujumba. “We want to show how such a distinctive suburban community grows up.”
June 25, Noon-5 p.m.
Tickets: $18; $40 VIP
Tour organizers in Observatory Hill had big plans for their 2020 event — a 1920s-themed gala and house tour. Unfortunately, the universe had other ideas.
“We had to abandon that plan,” says Jeremy Lawler, president of Observatory Hill, Inc., the neighborhood’s citizen association.
Lawler is excited to be back with the neighborhood’s first tour since 2019. The theme, “Stories of a Neighborhood,” seeks to bring 13 properties, built from the 1870s to the 1950s, together into one narrative.
“We really want to focus on how each individual house is a chapter of the story of Observatory Hill,” he says. “Each home will have a chapter in the program.”
Tour stories range from the every day, such as a doctor who ran his practice out of his home, to the extravagant — one with “a history of very lavish parties and 1920s excess,” Lawler says. Another home on the tour is a former bank that has been converted into a home and an art studio for its owner.
Perhaps the highlight of the tour — and certainly the most conspicuous building to be featured — is the Allegheny Observatory, whose Riverview Park perch dominates views of the neighborhood.
“Having the observatory on the tour this year is like having the crown jewel of the neighborhood on our house tour,” Lawler says.
Tours of the Allegheny Observatory are only available with a timed VIP ticket.
Vendors will also be set up along the tour route, including Custom Candle Co., Rosie’s Flower Shop and food trucks such as Millie’s Ice Cream and Ida’s Sandwich Shop.
To the tour’s organizers, the history of Observatory Hill isn’t necessarily a thing of the past.
“We are the future of these homes, however long we choose to occupy them,” says Lawler. “We are actively creating history today.”
Doors Open Pittsburgh
July 9, 10-11:45 a.m.
Doors Open Pittsburgh volunteer tour guide Jay Steele will be back for more with his second tour on this list, Walking Schenley Farms: Historic District. This tour is yet another of the many neighborhood history walking tours that Steele developed as an adjunct professor at CCAC.
Schenley Farms is “one of the best-kept secrets in the city of Pittsburgh,” Steele says. “You have Fifth Avenue, all this hustle and bustle, and just a stone’s throw away is this quiet neighborhood.”
Steele will use historic images to show participants how the neighborhood developed, which is something of an unusual story.
Schenley Farms was named for heiress Mary Croghan Schenley, who owned the farmland on which the community was developed. It was sold by her heirs in 1905. This made way for a model city designed by F. F. Nicola, a proponent of the City Beautiful Movement popularized by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham.
The design of the neighborhood’s homes reflect eclectic styles and stand in stark contrast to the monumental buildings in neighboring Oakland.
“A lot of people from Pittsburgh really don’t know Pittsburgh until they really experience it,” Steele says. “Pittsburgh has all these really wonderful neighborhoods that they may not know exist.”
If you’re up for a historic home road trip this summer, there’s also the 17th Annual Inside Ligonier Valley Home Tour on June 24, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Early bird tickets are $40 and then $45 from June 18 until the the day of the tour. Happy house hopping!