Walkabout: East Liberty area has greater history than some realize

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Two years ago, members of the East Liberty Valley Historical Society began searching for artifacts to exhibit. They had a fine collection of photographs but wanted to add dimension to tell the story of the East Liberty Valley, a place with a considerable legacy but known to few Pittsburghers today.

More than 100 items have been confirmed -- from marine fossils to rare paintings of the rich and famous to a brass railing from a bar -- and the society is opening its show, "From Brachiopods to Bakery Square," Aug. 16 at the Royal York Auction Gallery, 5925 Baum Blvd.

East Liberty's story is bigger than East Liberty. When the historical society formed in 2002, its goal was to link the neighborhood to the ones that grew out of one large wilderness tract. East Liberty became that area's hub and power center.

Al Mann, the historical society's president, said many people have asked him how East Liberty Valley was named. As a resident of Highland Park, he has a vantage point near his home.

"East Liberty is part of a level piece of ground that runs for miles east to west," he said. "I take people to the top of the hill at the corner of Heberton and Hampton. You can see the East Liberty valley" below.

What are now 11 neighborhoods were, in the 1700s, recognized as a whole -- a valley and hills of verdant wilderness spanning Highland Park, Stanton Heights, Morningside, Lincoln, Squirrel Hill, Friendship, Homewood, Larimer, Point Breeze and Shadyside.

"The depth of history of this area has to do with the valley as a jumping-off point for the Industrial Revolution," said Ed Lesoon, a businessman who has bought and renovated numerous properties in East Liberty. "All the industrialists were here."

Bob Simon, owner of the Royal York Auction Gallery, said the society "is reaching back to fossils and coming forward" to show a neighborhood that was positioned to survive "the low period" of urban renewal in the 1960s.

Mr. Mann said the show should interest the greater region because of the uniqueness of the items and because so much of what we know about Pittsburgh and American culture draws on East Liberty's history.

The oil pioneer Charles Lockhart built the world's first commercial-scale oil refinery at the current intersection of Washington Boulevard and Butler Street, and the first gas station was established in East Liberty.

"When autos were first introduced, families in East Liberty purchased 2,000 of the first 3,000 in the city," Mr. Mann said.

The show will include at least 60 photos of the valley's most famous son and daughters. Mr. Lesoon is donating a large collection of items found in some of the buildings.

"The most unusual is the brass rail from the bar of the original Brass Rail Restaurant at 5921 Penn Ave.," he said.

"We have a safe and deco aluminum columns and a lamp from the original Henne Jewelry Store, 6018 Penn Circle. I have a miniature claw-legged tub that came out of the Governor Hotel," now part of the development of the Indigo Hotel on Broad Street. "I also have magnificent bronze and brass sconces and chandeliers and stained glass from a mansion that was converted into an apartment building, the Stanton Arms at 5701 Stanton Ave."

A collection of brachiopods -- marine fossils that resemble clams -- indicate the area was once under the sea.

Other items in the exhibition include a candy mold from Bolan's Restaurant; memorabilia of the boxer Billy Conn; two bronze gryphons once displayed at the Pittsburgh Zoo; a sculpture by Virgil Cantini, designer of the "Joy of Life" fountain at Baum Square; works by the Pittsburgh painter Joseph Wooodwell and his daughter, Johanna Hailman; portraits of Charles Lockhart and his wife Jane; and a plaque that was on the former Mansmann's Department Store, a Penn Avenue fixture from 1888 to 1978.

The historical society, with 100 members, is sponsoring the show with the East Liberty Chamber of Commerce and East Liberty Lutheran Church. The society's 2008 book, "Pittsburgh's East Liberty Valley," is part of Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series.

Opening night is from 6 to 9 p.m. The show will run through Aug. 31. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday except Thursday, when hours are from 6 to 9 p.m. The show will accept donations but is publicized as free to the public.

neigh_city - intelligencer

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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