Sunday, September 18, 2011

pittsburgh villa of the gilded age

Last weekend I was honored by a visit from my youngest sister, Jordan.  Looking for something unique to do, we took a drive to the nearby Point Breeze neighborhood of Pittsburgh to tour the 19th century mansion of the "robber baron" industrialist Henry Clay Frick.  Perhaps an appropriate pilgrimage for us, as the steel industry built by men such as Andrew Carnegie and Frick were the reasons that our great-grandparents were able to obtain jobs in this country when they first got off the boat.  Even my father worked in the riverside steel mills in the summers of his college years.

The person of Henry Clay Frick himself is infamous for his "immoral" business practices, including his involvement in the Homestead Strike of 1892.  Pinkerton detectives hired by Frick to bring nonstriking steel workers into a steel mill where striking workers had locked themslves in became involved in a skirmish with the armed strikers.  Seven steel workers were left dead, and Frick suffered so much unpopularity that an anarchist even tried to assassinate him several weeks later.  He was definitely not a supporter of unions, something that has remained a blot on his reputation throughout history.  But he was a very rich man, and his daughter, Helen Clay Frick, donated the mansion, the buildings surrounding the main house, and some acreage surrounding it as a museum for the public, known as the Frick Art & Historical Center.  The rest of his vast land was given as a gift to the city of Pittsburgh as a public park, now known as Frick Park.

The last of a dying breed of mansions that once filled the once fashionable Point Breeze neighborhood of Pittsburgh during the Gilded Age (the heyday of this industrial city's once-profitable steel business) the Clayton House is quite a feat in remodeling and expenditure.  The mansion began as an eleven-room, Italian-styled villa bought by Frick and his wife shortly after their marriage in 1881.  After modifications by Pittsburgh architect Andrew Peebles, it was renamed "Clayton."  Further modeling of the house was done in 1892 by Pittsburgh architect Frederick J. Osterling.  The house was the Fricks' primary residence from 1883 to 1905.

In 1905 the Frick family moved to New York City, but kept the Clayton house for the occasional visits they made to Pittsburgh.  After that little remodeling of the main parts of the house was completed, keeping the house in pristine shape to be made into a museum of late 19th century architecture when it was finally opened to the public in 1990.

I was not allowed to take photos of the interior of the house, but if you are in Pittsburgh I highly recommend taking a tour of this beautiful Victorian home.  They had everything from electrical bells connecting to the kitchen to a huge 22-person dining room to an entirely scarlet-colored parlour.  The library is a lovely two-room "family area" that is to die for- wall-to-wall books and leather chairs everywhere.  And the Frick children's two-story Playhouse (once fitted with a bowling alley) currently houses the gift shop and the offices of the Frick Art & Historical Center:

Yes, the Playhouse is about the size of a normal residence.
Didn't everyone have a two-story Playhouse growing up as well?
On site are a greenhouse, a lovely cafe, a car and carriage museum, and a small but excellent art collection exhibiting some of the pieces that Henry Clay Frick collected over the years (he was a patron of the arts as well as an industrial giant).  The grounds are immaculately landscaped and cost nothing to walk through.

The Greenhouse
So if you're in Pittsburgh and want to catch up on local Victorian social, art, and political history, the Clayton House at the Frick and the surrounding grounds are well world your time and money.


  1. You make me want to visit Pittsburg! By the way Harry Thaw, who murdered Stanford White in 1905 is from Pittsbugh. They were both involved with Evelyn Nesbit, the "It Girl" of the era. It was called the murder of the century as Harry shot Stanford in the middle of Madison Square Garden! Anyway I think you might find the story interesting if you don't know it...Anyway I'm a fan of your blog!

  2. @ Edwina Goodacre- You should visit Pittsburgh if only to see the Clayton House. One can also go up to Mount Washington via the two inclines and take a view of our gorgeous skyline, or walk among some of the older buildings and see the years of soot from the good ole days of industrial giants like Frick.

    I have never heard of Harry Thaw or the Stanford White murder. I will definitely have to look it up! Thanks for the heads up, and thanks for the reading my blog!