UPDATE 1/10/18: The Pittsburgh Planning Commission approved the recommendation which will be sent to City Council for final determination.
The wooden street in Shadyside with symmetrical brick homes is exceptional by several standards for historic preservation.
But what Matthew Falcone likes best about Roslyn Place is the closeness among the neighbors, from octogenarians who have lived there since the 1950s to new homeowners who bought into the community a few months ago.
“It’s apparent there’s a sense of community just on that street itself,” says Falcone, president of the board of Preservation Pittsburgh, who nominated Roslyn Place for city historic landmark status. “It’s the sense of place, really. It isn’t a neighborhood in and of itself, but it kind of is. When you’re walking around Walnut Street or Ellsworth and then turn into Roslyn Place, it’s a completely separate environment.”
The Pittsburgh Planning Commission is set to vote this week on the nomination and then City Council will make the final determination. When briefed last month, Falcone says, city planners were excited to learn that renowned urban planner Allan Jacobs included Roslyn Place as the first chapter in his 1993 book, “Great Streets.”
“It’s perceived as an exceptional community in urban planning design,” Falcone says. “(Jacobs) talks about the scale of the community, the closeness of the homes, the design and how the houses interact with the street.”
If it wins historic status, Roslyn Place would become the city’s smallest historic district. Located not far from the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway, the cul-de-sac extends north for roughly 250 feet from Ellsworth Avenue between S. Aiken Avenue and S. Graham Street, and measures about 18 ½ feet across.
Council designated the street itself as historic in May 2017. The Nicolson (or Nicholson) pavement — wooden blocks invented by Samuel Nicolson — is the only one of its type remaining in Pittsburgh. The street is in great condition, Falcone says; the city invested in blocks in the 1980s and, after repaving, kept some for occasional repairs. Public Works crews maintain Roslyn Place well, he says, although the street gets slick in wintry weather because it’s too narrow and fragile to plow or treat with road salt.
The 18 homes along Roslyn Place were built circa 1914 in the Colonial Revival style with Georgian influences and are 2 ½ stories. Except for one stucco façade, all are red brick with pitched slate roofs and one or two dormers. Small front yards have wrought-iron fences.
“It is an exceptional representation of Pittsburgh’s history. What is most unique about it is, it’s such a small neighborhood,” Falcone says. “I think it’s cool the city can acknowledge there’s just as much historic value in this individual storyline as there is with larger historic districts that encompass hundreds of homes.”
The houses were rentals when built by Thomas Rodd, a railroad engineer and architect who designed train stations. He purchased two mansions, demolishing one to build his planned community and living in the other at Ellsworth and S. Aiken as landlord until selling the homes in the 1940s and ‘50s, Falcone says.
“There are still a handful of residents that live on the street from that transition, part of first families that bought into the street, or one buyer removed from that era,” he says. “That’s exceptional in itself because we were able to get some great oral histories.
“The process to nominate the street helped us to get to know the neighbors and history behind it. The street was built before the community was, so the opportunity to have the houses recognized as historic and preserved as an entire community was an exceptional one. The neighbors are enthusiastic about it.”
When the houses need renovations, the owners try to respect the neighborhood’s design, Falcone says. All of them, for example, made similar changes to porches that once were open-air to the left of the main entrance and now are enclosed and recessed into the homes.
In his nomination, Falcone notes that Roslyn Place has become “a familiar visual feature of the City of Pittsburgh and in Shadyside. The neighborhood is regularly featured in the media, travel guides and neighborhood tours of Shadyside. While it is perhaps most noted and recognizable for housing the only remaining wooden street in Pittsburgh, Roslyn Place is remarkable for the sense of place created by the uniformity of design and unique style.”
Falcone is also happy that Rodd’s work will get lasting recognition.
“There’s not much that’s left of his design legacy, even in and around Pittsburgh,” he says. “A lot of the buildings he designed have been demolished over the years, so the opportunity to be able to recognize his design through a historic designation for this community was a nice thing to do.”