Dan Rooney and historian Carol Peterson team up to write about Allegheny City

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During the first half of the 20th century, Pittsburgh's North Side abounded with characters like Nettie Gordon. Between 1910 and 1934, she was the reigning "First Lady of the Underworld." The West Virginia native ran "resorts" that were really brothels.

In a newspaper photo that shows police leading Gordon away, she wears a black hat and hides her face with a fan. It seems worth noting that the madam lived with a staff of servants in an apartment building at 10-12 E. North Ave. Today, it's the Light of Life Rescue Mission, a refuge for homeless men.

Nettie Gordon is just one of the fascinating people readers will meet in "Allegheny City: A History of Pittsburgh's North Side" by Dan Rooney, longtime Allegheny West resident, Steelers chairman and former U.S. ambassador to Ireland. The book's co-author is Carol Peterson, a well-known house historian and preservationist who lives in Lawrenceville. The duo appear tonight at 6:30 in the Senator John Heinz History Center to discuss the book and sign copies. The event is free. The hardback book, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, costs $24.95.

Ms. Peterson met Mr. Rooney about 20 years ago when he hired her to research a history of his home on North Lincoln Avenue. "Mr. Rooney's parents bought the house in 1939 when he was 6 or 7," Ms. Peterson said. The Rooneys were renting an apartment in a building on Western Avenue so they "carried all the furniture across the back alley" when they moved.

Mr. Rooney and Ms. Peterson began collaborating in 2007 and often walked through the neighborhood.

This North Side story opens in 1783, the year that the area's population consisted of "a few hardy white squatters and an uncertain number of American Indians," according to the authors.

Four years later, in 1787, the Pennsylvania General Assembly carved out a 3,000-acre stretch of land called the Reserve Tract out of a wilderness that lay across the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh. Veterans of the American Revolution received lots in Allegheny Town as compensation for their military service.

Scots-Irish, English and Irish immigrants began arriving soon after. Initially, Allegheny Town citizens lived in modest log homes. There were ferries, four inclines, a canal, cotton mills, a rope manufacturer and slaughter houses.

Of all the North Side landmarks that have disappeared, Ms. Peterson's favorite was the market house, which was built in 1863 and stood at Federal and Ohio streets. The market occupied a city block and its architecture featured brick corbels and round arched windows. It was torn down in 1965 to make way for Allegheny Center.

By the late 19th century, large mansions had begun to appear on Ridge Avenue, North Lincoln and Brighton Road. Between 1890 and 1910, Gilded Age millionaires and their families lived in style and local newspapers recorded their social lives. There's B.F. Jones, the steel innovator of Jones & Laughlin. There's iron pipe manufacturer Alexander McBurney Byers, iron ore titan William Penn Snyder and William Thaw, whose fortune derived from banking and transportation.

The Byers mansion on Ridge Avenue became part of the Community College of Allegheny County. The Snyder mansion became the home of an insurance company called Babb Inc., while the Thaw mansion, which still stands next to the Rooney family's home, houses architectural offices and apartments.

Less well-known is Adam Reineman, a Troy Hill man whose wealth lay in land ownership and whose 19th-century home still stands on Lowrie Street although its signature clock tower is long gone.

The book explains how the "old is bad" mindset of the 1950s and '60s ruined the walkable business district on Beaver Avenue when the state Department of Transportation built Route 65 through the neighborhood of Manchester. That debacle prompted North Side residents to organize more effectively when construction began on Interstate 279 through the East Street Valley, and St. Boniface, a Roman Catholic church, was spared.

Given all that has disappeared from the landscape, Ms. Peterson is especially glad to see that the Garden Theater, an example of art deco design on West North Avenue, will be preserved as part of a new block redevelopment project.

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Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648. First Published May 1, 2013 4:00 AM


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