Places: In search of Willa Cather's East End haunts


Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

During her 10-year stay in Pittsburgh, Willa Cather was associated with a number of houses and other buildings while working as a writer, editor and teacher from 1896 to 1906.

The very first of the houses, the one where Cather landed when she came to Pittsburgh from Nebraska, is a three-story brick townhouse at 6338 Marchand St., Shadyside. It was the home of her employer, James Wickliffe Axtell, who hired Cather as managing editor of his new magazine, The Home Monthly. Absent Axtell, it's unlikely Cather would have begun her career here -- a happy accident her Pittsburgh fans treasure.

The house, now a condominium, and several adjacent apartments in six flanking townhouses were badly damaged in a Nov. 30 fire. Fortunately the buildings, which retained their arched stained glass windows and some (alas, not all) of their historical character after renovations a few years ago, will be repaired. That's especially good news, considering many of the buildings associated with Cather's years here are gone.

Axtell's friendship with Charles Gere, editor of the Nebraska State Journal, where Cather was a part-time drama critic, was the link that brought her to Pittsburgh. She had another connection here: her friend George Gerwig, a Pittsburgh native and University of Nebraska grad who'd written drama criticism for the Journal before Cather did. He moved back to the family's Allegheny City home at 66 Cedar Ave. in 1892.

In 1896, Cather was only a year out of the University of Nebraska; the Home Monthly position was her first full-time job. Under six pen names, she also wrote for the magazine, whose mission, its first issue stated, was "to entertain, to educate, to elevate." Modeled on the Ladies' Homes Journal, it was to be neither a "dignified review" nor only a vehicle for fashion, gossip and recipes.

Axtell greeted Cather at the B&O Station when she arrived in Pittsburgh on July 3, 1896. She lived with the Axtells for a week or so, wrote Kathleen D. Byrne and Richard C. Snyder in "Chrysalis," their 1980 book about Cather's formative years here.

Much of what is known about Cather's first weeks in Pittsburgh comes from her letters to Gere's daughters, Mariel and Ellen. In one, she expresses surprise that the only ornament in the parlor of the Axtell home was a crayon portrait of James' father Philip, a prominent Presbyterian minister who established the nearby Cumberland Presbyterian Church, now Shady Avenue Christian Assembly at Shady and Aurelia Street. She found the Axtells model Presbyterians -- friendly but reserved.

For at least 50 years, until as late as 1939, the seven adjacent townhouses on Marchand Street were owned by John R. Rush, partner with Philip and James Axtell in the East Liberty printing and stationery business Axtell, Rush and Co., publishers of the National Stockman and Farmer. Rush, a livestock dealer in the Pittsburgh stockyards, was married to James' sister and Philip's daughter Mary; they lived in a much grander home nearby at 6214 Walnut St., now McCabe's Funeral Home. (When James Axtell died in 1909 at 57, his funeral was held at the Rush house, making it one of the first of many services there.)

Axtell also was a partner in Axtell, Orr and Co., which published the first issue of The Home Monthly in August 1896. Cather worked in the magazine's office at 203 Shady Ave., corner of Shakespeare Street, also the home of the National Stockman. Today the site is part of the Giant Eagle parking lot at Penn and Shady.

After moving from the Axtell home, Cather lived in four East End boarding houses, none extant, at 309 S. Highland Ave., 304 S. Craig St. (about a block from one of her haunts, the Carnegie museums and music hall complex), 341 N. Sheridan Ave. and 6012 Harvard St.

The Pittsburgh Leader office at 431 Fifth Ave., Downtown, where Cather worked as a drama critic and editor, also is long gone. So are the two high schools where she taught, Central on Bedford Avenue, razed in 1946, and Allegheny on the North Side, a great brick and stone Richardsonian castle. Its large annex, which existed when Cather taught there, remains as Allegheny Traditional Academy.

The Gerwigs' frame house nearby, on Cedar Avenue near Suismon Street, where Cather often socialized, is gone. But the home of other friends, George and Helen Seibel, at 114 S. 17th St., South Side, a second-floor apartment in a two-story townhouse where Cather had many dinners and trimmed the tree every Christmas Eve, remains.

So does the house most closely identified with her today, the large Squirrel Hill home of her longtime friend Isabelle McClung at 1180 Murrayhill Ave., where Cather moved in 1901. That same year, she began teaching and found more time, in the McClungs' third-floor sewing room, to develop her fiction, which began appearing in national magazines.

The best known is "Paul's Case," published in McClure's Magazine in 1905, about a deeply troubled Pittsburgh high school student with a love of the theater and opera, who lives in dreary circumstances (and next to the Cumberland minister) before escaping, briefly, to New York.

Cather must have been dreaming about her own escape to New York, which came in 1906 when she left for an editing job at McClure's. She would return periodically to visit and write at the McClung house; it was there that she finished one of her prairie masterworks, "O Pioneers!"


Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here