The Gilded House that Oil Built

When I was a student at Pitt my photography hobby was only beginning and all I owned was a simple little point-and-shoot that I had acquired a few months before graduation. Unfortunately that means I missed hanging around Schenely Farms and photographing everything…but last week when I was back in Pittsburgh I drove through and quickly snapped some photos out the window of one of my favorite houses. Unfortunately there were quite a few cars honking their disapproval at my stalling so these are the few I managed.

This mansion was built by Pittsburgh architect Louis Stevens for oil pioneer Harry J. Parker in the exclusive Schenley Farms neighborhood. Real estate websites say that was in 1908, the year Stevens first opened up his own firm. An old Schenley Farms house tour brochure says it was built in 1919 and I found blueprints that say 1915. A secret the house will keep for now.

In The Beginning

For a hundred years the Schenley family owned the land and it operated as a diary farm. In 1905 Mary Schenley’s estate sold the land to developers who turned 170 hilly acres of cow pasture into a “model neighborhood for people of means.” In Pittsburgh that meant the original house owners were entrepreneurs, financiers, and management in the top industries of coal, steel, glass and railroads. The creme de la creme.

The whole idea was the brainchild of Cleveland-born developer Franklin Nicola (the fact that he is from Cleveland is not really important, but I’m originally from Cleveland so I feel compelled to mention it ;). Franklin believed that Pittsburgh’s skyline, choked with soot from the industries that ran the city, was in need of a fashionable luxury neighborhood which he envisioned as something like Fifth Avenue in New York City. Franklin had also studied in Rome, Paris, Frankfort and Vienna and wanted to bring that old world charm and elegance to his ideal community in Pittsburgh.

(Despite his grand community plans he later became involved in a bribery scandal for his next project: a town hall. Court proceedings and investigations dragged on phenomenally long: for 15 years! He died in 1938 with little more than $2,000 to his estate).

The Gilded House That Oil Built

I couldn’t find much on oil man Harry J. Parker, the original owner. In 1882, he had a son with his wife who they named Lewis. Lewis married the butcher’s daughter, Blanche Spangler, and they headed down to Texas on oil business.

In 1919 Lewis died. His obituary in the “Petroleum Age” journal noted that he was just 36-years old and an oil operator. For a week he had been suffering from pneumonia until passing away on December 11 at his home in Dallas, Texas. His wife, appropriately from Oil City, Pennsylvania, headed back home. She never remarried and died in 1948 after a long heart illness.

Harry had another son too: George, who lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma (no doubt in the oil business as well). Harry’s daughter had married and become Mrs. R. C. Sharp. Newspaper articles of the time didn’t bother with her name beyond that.

Harry was still living in the house by the 1930 census as a 70-year old man. He was widowed but not retired, still listed as the manager of an oil company. He had two servants living with him. A young 18-year old Scot, Charlotte Murray, who worked as a maid and had recently landed stateside in 1924, and his housekeeper, Katherine Fix, a 47-year old woman who was also a widow.

Harry lived until 1934 when he died of a sudden heart attack at home. On his death certificate his mother is named as Marguerite or Margaret Phipps, a name you’re very familiar with if you’re from Pittsburgh (and if you’re not well I also stopped at the Phipps Conservatory so look for that post coming up very soon. I’m not sure if they’re related but how funny to be so close to the Phipps even if they weren’t!)

The Italian Villa in a Steel City

Stevens, the architect of this palatial home, was supposedly inspired by Villa Lante, a 16th century Italian house designed for Cardinal Gambera. He mixed Renaissance details with a formal Italian villa, and it came out beautifully I think.

Stevens went on to build some of the other homes in Schenley Farms too (where all the streets are named for famous writers and thinkers). Sadly four homes were demolished during the 1970’s. Residents campaigned for five years until it was named a National Historical District in 1978, joining Market Square and the Mexican War Streets as protected communities in Pittsburgh. The plaque reads: “It is a museum of early twentieth century domestic architecture.”

The home was last sold in 2009 for a little over a million dollars, which honestly looking at it seems like kind of a deal!

Here’s two final photos, taken with Google Maps for a clearer pulled back view:

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9