Obituary: Alex Watson / Turned the tide for North Side preservation

May 25, 1922 - March 28, 2013

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In 1960, as homes all around his were being demolished, Alex Watson and his partner, Merle Dickinson, had bought and begun restoring a 20-room manse that had been carved into 17 apartments on North Lincoln Avenue in Allegheny West.

Among the first new investors in historic homes at a time when many were slated to be razed throughout the North Side, Mr. Watson, who died March 28 at age 91 in Louisiana, became a beacon to others and helped turn the tide toward historic preservation.

A native of West Deer who, according to his niece, Barbara Taylor, was eager to "move to the city" after college and naval service, Mr. Watson helped found the Allegheny West Civic Council, served as the neighborhood's historian and kept all paperwork and files pertinent to it.

He received the Northside Leadership Conference's lifetime achievement award last May. Neighbors are planning to plant a tree in his memory in the neighborhood, said longtime friend and neighbor Tom Barbush.

"He was among the people who convinced me to buy a home in the lower North Side," said Mr. Barbush, who with his wife, Fran, raised two daughters in Allegheny West. "He represented the spirit that this neighborhood was going in a good direction.

"If we were trying to sway a politician, we would invite him to Alex's so they could have a sense of what this neighborhood could be; we had to convince people on Grant Street," Mr. Barbush said. "He volunteered his home for the house tour and the Christmas tour every year and he was at the table at every civic council meeting.

"He was a model of community advocacy."

A graduate of the University of Michigan, Mr. Watson was a horticulturist who managed the Sears & Roebuck garden department when it was in Allegheny Center Mall until his retirement.

Mr. Watson designed and supervised the transformation of a vacant lot into a garden at Western Avenue and Brighton Road and was "the visionary" whose advocacy saved a row of buildings on Western Avenue known as the McIntosh Row, Mr. Barbush said. "He advocated for the civic council to buy them to stop them from being demolished as they became vacant.

"We got a consortium of lenders and renovated them and rented them for many years under the Section 8 family program. Alex was not only the initiator of that idea, but he also became the property manager."

A master craftsman, Mr. Watson made miniature replicas of Allegheny West homes that his neighbors collected as Christmas ornaments every year.

With passions for gardening, theater, opera, drama and music, he was a popular host at the neighborhood's Christmas tours when he entertained visitors on piano with sing-along carols.

"Alex always said the best years of his life were living here in Allegheny West," said resident Carol Malakoff. "We first met him on the very first Allegheny West House Tour, and when we started doing the Christmas tour 33 years ago, his house was on tour every single year."

Mr. Watson's niece said his health began to fail last year, when she moved him to be near her in Columbus, Ohio. When her family relocated to New Orleans later in the year, he went with them.

His remains will be interred at East Union Cemetery in Cheswick. No local memorial is planned.

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Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at


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