Mount Washington Developer Aims to Preserve a Slice of Civil War History

by / Wednesday, 05 March 2014 / Published in News
Source: NPR

On Mount Washington, in the woods between Fingal and Greenleaf streets, there’s a mound of dirt that’s been getting a lot of attention lately.

It’s about a hundred feet across and was created during the summer of 1863, as Confederate troops were heading to Gettysburg.

Ilyssa Manspeizer, director of Park Development and Conservation at the Mount Washington Community Development Corporation, said it’s not the kind of structure you might think of as a fort.

“It’s not made of bricks, it’s not made of stone, it’s not made of wood or any other structure. It’s just soil,” Manspeizer said. “The soil was dug out and built up along the sides in a ring.”

As the Confederate army approached Pennsylvania and, some feared Pittsburgh, Maj. Gen. William Brooks at the Department of the Monongahela commanded that earthen forts, or redoubts, be built on the highest points in the city.

Pittsburghers came together for weeks to build three dozen redoubts and artillery batteries in a 12-mile ring around the city, along with one fortified structure. Companies offered up their workers by the thousands. Bars and saloons were ordered to close their doors so as not to distract from the effort.

One of the redoubts is just off Fingal Street. An original map showing all the locations of the defenseworks hangs on the end of a bookcase, in the William R. Oliver Special Collections Room at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland, which visitors have to make an appointment to see.

Ilyssa Manspeizer said over time, the redoubts themselves were forgotten. The only two that remain are in Morningside and on Mount Washington.

The Mount Washington CDC twice tried to buy the six-acre parcel of land on which the fort sits. They’ve been buying up privately-held parkland on Mount Washington for years to add to Emerald View Park, which was created when the city combined Grandview, Olympia and Mount Washington parks in 2006.

“We, through Allegheny Land Trust, approached the landowners twice before, to ask if we could discuss purchasing it so that we could add that property to the park,” Manspeizer said. “Both times they said no, which was very disappointing.”

Developer Jeff Paul, however, did not meet the same disappointment. Paul owns Pomo Development, and he has plans to put 26 houses on the site, which he said he’s been interested in for at least five years.

“We like to do high-end home construction,” Paul said. “These are definitely not inexpensive homes.”

He said Pomo’s price point on the development will be between $400,000 to $500,000. The company has built other homes in the Mount Washington area, including a 22-unit townhouse development in Duquesne Heights.

Paul said as soon as he started thinking seriously about purchasing the land, he approached the Mount Washington CDC.

“I actually called them before I had my initial plan or drawing even ready,” Paul said. “As soon as I called them, I met with Ilyssa at the site I believe that day.

Manspeizer said Jeff was excited about the opportunity to preserve a historical site and that he’s been “extremely thoughtful” in his approach to the development.

Paul’s initial plan was for 30 houses, with four right on top of the fort location, but the CDC asked him to remove those four houses.

“So that’s what we did,” Paul said.

Paul said many people in the area don’t even know the redoubt is there.

“We went to some of these historical foundations and they didn’t even know it existed, so they were happy that we’re preserving this, and we’re preserving part of it and that we’re going to create an actual park out of the rest of it,” Paul said.

The rear half of the redoubt will be bulldozed, to make way for the extension of Bradley Street as well as underground infrastructure. Paul plans to delineate the outline of that portion of redoubt with pavers inlaid into the asphalt. The part where troops would have actually stood to look down toward the West End Bridge will remain untouched, and Paul he said he’ll erect an informational plaque nearby.

Members of the neighborhood association will be charged with maintaining the small trail leading up to the development.

“If the development goes through the way it’s planned, then a lot more people will know about the fort,” Manspeizer said. “A piece of the property that will have the remaining part of the fort on it will become publicly accessible and people will be able to enter through Emerald View Park, going along the trails, and enjoying a … historical story about Pittsburgh in a way they’ve never been able to understand it and enjoy it before.”

However, not everyone is happy with the compromise that Jeff Paul and the CDC have worked out.

“What is left is a tiny fragment,” said David Vater, an architect who has lived on Mount Washington for 30 years. “It’s not even one quarter of the mound of the redoubt, so I think that’s a great loss.”

In 2009, Vater prepared a historic nomination form for the site and gave it to the Mount Washington CDC in the hopes it would be able to buy the parcel and fully preserve the redoubt. He said the redoubt is more than just an interesting slice of history.

“I think it shows us that a war effort is a shared commitment by the entire citizenry,” Vater said. “It is the soldiers on the front line, and it is the factories that produce the equipment that they get, and it is the citizens who give up their day’s work and go dig trenches to support the war effort. It is a patriotic duty.”

But with the map tucked away in the library and available for viewing by appointment only, and the redoubt itself unmarked and overgrown, currently little homage is being paid to that ideal. A partial preservation may be Pittsburgh’s only workable option for memorializing this particular chapter in history.