Walking tour highlights Donora's historic Cement City homes

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When it comes to the Cement City Walking Tour in Donora, historian and guide Brian Charlton not only talks the talk but he walks the walk: He lives in a concrete home.

The house was built a century ago as part of a large-scale effort by a local steel company to provide quick and affordable housing for its employees.

"It is solid, and I don't have to worry about termites or tornadoes," Mr. Charlton said.

The free tour, sponsored by the Donora Historical Society, will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Oct. 6. It begins with a slide and artifact presentation at the Donora Smog Museum, Sixth Street and McKean Avenue.

Participants will then carpool to what is called Cement City -- 80 homes on 8.8 acres in the southeast portion of Donora -- for the walking tour. Tour participants will explore a typical, poured-concrete home with raised basement, two stories and a hip roof, a roof with sloping ends and sides. One room is decorated to period with the original floor and woodwork.

Cement City came about in 1915 due to the demand for steel for World War I. Adequate housing for employees became a problem, with expansion anticipated at the Donora steel mills and employee numbers expected to skyrocket from some 6,000 to more than 20,000 workers.

American Steel and Wire Co., which was involved in the steel reinforcement and concrete industries, decided to build worker homes out of concrete rather than traditional wood framing.

Inventor Thomas Edison was influential in turning the housing industry toward the idea because he was disturbed by the unsafe, unsanitary, overcrowded living conditions of working-class families; many homes were fire hazards.

"He envisioned an entire nation of cement homes. He had factories and worker housing, and fires were a big problem," said Mr. Charlton, a member of Donora's historical society. "He thought he could create homes almost on an assembly line."

The housing complex's nickname, Cement City, was given to it by The Donora American newspaper -- concrete was the result of adding sand and an aggregate to Portland cement.

Work began in 1916 on a terraced and graded hillside. The Prairie-style house design, characterized by low-pitched, hip roofs with overhanging eaves, simple detailing and smooth planes, became Cement City's architectural design.

Stained and varnished yellow pine was used for all interior trim finishes, including hardwood floors that cover the concrete slabs.

Once the homes were inhabited, the company provided and maintained flower gardens, tennis courts and playgrounds. It also provided grass seed and maintained fencing.

After a year of construction, the project was halted at 80 homes in 1917 due to unforeseen building costs and a shortage of skilled labor.

In 1996, Cement City was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mr. Charlton, who teaches American history at Belle Vernon Area High School, said Cement City is important historically -- as an early try at low-cost housing and constructing a planned community for workers; as an example of innovative design using poured-in-place concrete to mass-produce fireproof houses; and as an attempt to thwart unions by appeasing workers.

Today, the 80 houses consist of 60 single-family homes and 20 duplexes, few of which are unoccupied.

A home in good condition sells for $50,000 to $60,000, while one in need of repair can be had for about $10,000 -- each a bargain considering the structures' durability and nearly fireproof status.

"Using the same techniques as a hundred years ago would cost the builder about $300,000," Mr. Charlton said.

For more information: www.donorahistoricalsociety.org or 724-823-0364.

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Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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