Top 50: PNC site a treasure trove of Pittsburgh archaeological finds
Discoveries included this porcelain quill holder that "was an everyday item in 1850," according to Christine Davis.
Archaeologist Christine Davis holds the head of a porcelain doll made in the 1850s by Germany's Kestner & Co.
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Seven years after the American Civil War ended, evidence suggests that Pittsburgh's first-ever department store owner prepared for an expansion by tossing dishes, dolls and figurines down a brick well and sealing it shut. The items, some gilded and coated in porcelain, then settled beneath 26 feet of concrete, steel and stone for 136 years.
When archaeologist Christine Davis excavated the C. Yeager & Company shaft on a wintry morning last year, many of the original items were, to great surprise, still intact. An English-made porcelain statue of Gen. George McClellan, the Union commander sacked by President Lincoln in 1862; a French-made, beehive-shaped garniture, or ornament, studded with liquid-gold flowers; a cup believed to have been made for Pittsburgh's centennial anniversary in 1858; and the head of a rosy-cheeked porcelain doll made in the 1850s by Germany's Kestner & Co., its hair the color of black ink, its lips red and eyes wide open.
Many pieces were "so valuable," said Ms. Davis of Verona-based Christine Davis Consultants Inc., the person hired by PNC Financial Services Group to unearth any significant artifacts as the bank set the foundation for its 23-story Downtown tower, Three PNC Plaza, set to open next year. "We typically don't find things like this in archaeology."
What Pittsburgh's largest bank discovered deep beneath the surface of Liberty and Fifth avenues was a trove of city history -- a total of 26,000 objects revealing how Pittsburghers lived, shopped and worked in the era before and after the Civil War, a period that established the city as a major industrial power.
The pieces, dating from 1840 to 1872 and representing the remnants of 11 different structures, illustrate just how many interlocking stories can accumulate atop a 1.5-acre plot as it is shaped and reshaped over four and five generations.
Well before PNC, according to Ms. Davis' research, there was Scottish industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who moved the headquarters of his first steel company to part of the site at 31 Fifth Ave. from 1873 to 1876; there was a young Henry Clay Frick, who before getting into the coke business clerked in the linen and lace department at Macrum & Carlisle at 17 Fifth Ave.; there was Christian Yeager, who in 1850 built his department store at 110 Market St., making Joseph Horne one of his first employees; and there was Dr. Francis Tumblety, who occupied a part of the site for seven years amid suspicion from abroad that he was Jack the Ripper.
Before it became a 19th-century business center, and haven for London murder suspects, this same spot belonged to Revolutionary War veteran Patrick Murphy, who purchased as much land as he could around Pittsburgh after the British left, according to Ms. Davis. In the late 18th century, his was a country plot far from the first city settlements near Fort Pitt and wet from a nearby glacial pond (a probable reason why Ms. Davis found no evidence of prior Native American habitation).
But as the pond dried up and frontier Pittsburgh filled with houses and industry, the Murphy family began parceling out the empty land to new people and houses. By 1815, there were 22 occupants on the 1.5-acre site, from an innkeeper to a piano maker. By 1826, there were 50, according to Ms. Davis.
Businesses soon existed side by side with hotels and boarding houses, one for Irish and one for German immigrants. An 1836 city directory lists four grocers, a hair design shop, haberdasher, jeweler, druggist, hardware store, two dry goods stores and the office of a city alderman. In the 1840s, a four-story furniture showroom and warehouse went up, along with a five-story cabinet-making factory and steam plant, as the owner shipped his products down the Ohio River to Western settlements.
A fire destroyed the steam plant and the furniture complex eventually gave way in 1861 to a five-story "Bank Block" office tower built by two German watchmakers, with Allegheny National Bank, the Central Bank and Allegheny Insurance Company as their initial tenants. Painter Emit Bott had a studio in the Bank Block, and this also is where Mr. Carnegie's first steel company (Carnegie, McCandless & Co.) rented its first offices in the mid 1870s.
Beyond the history, the significance of the PNC dig was Ms. Davis' ability to connect individual artifacts to a specific person, store or business via nine wells and privies dropping as low as 36 feet below the surface.
It was typical in the mid-19th century, before the advent of citywide sewer systems, for people to deposit waste in shared spaces, and in this case the stores and boardinghouses had wells or privies that "were kept very clean throughout the time they were used," said Ms. Davis, making it easier to identify items. And when the wells were sealed shut, as happened before construction of a new building on top, the occupants on this site tossed many things at once, allowing Ms. Davis to pinpoint the approximate dates.
"It is a dream come true for an archaeologist," she said.
Perhaps the most significant find was the well belonging to C. Yeager & Company. Before and after the Civil War, Mr. Yeager was a well-known figure in Pittsburgh, stocking the city's first department store with items acquired on trips overseas. In 1872, perhaps in preparation for an expansion, many porcelain dolls, plates and cups were tossed in a backyard well. Ms. Davis, looking over the objects in her Verona office, marvels at what was thrown away.
"Like these things," she said, holding a beehive-shaped garniture. "You never find something that's gold. This is all actually liquid gold in each one of these little flowers ... you just don't find things like that. And we are holding things like these up [at onlookers Downtown] and people are coming up to us at lunch or in the evening after work [asking] 'What did you find?'"
Ms. Davis is animated as she ticks through her other discoveries. "This is something you would never find today," she said, holding a porcelain quill holder that "was an everyday item in 1850."
She points to a cup with the faded outline of an American flag, eagle and plow all visible "when you put it in a certain light," said Ms. Davis, who believes this piece was manufactured specifically to celebrate Pittsburgh's 100th anniversary.
Ms. Davis also found the remnants of a child's high-top shoe, glass marbles, tiny bowls and cups made for doll houses and a collection of tiny stick figures that served as dolls for children of lesser means. There are also plates depicting historical scenes, such as Pompeii, and foreign countries, which Ms. Davis believes were used to teach children about the world over dinner. The objects all date to the 1850s and 1860s, including a small porcelain statue of Gen. McClellan.
"We don't understand why he would have discarded such things..." Maybe, she said later, "he was thinking, OK, the Civil War is over, I want to forget about this. We are going to throw away everything having to do with the Civil War."
Other wells and privies on the PNC site produced evidence of how middle-class people lived, day to day, in the 1850s. From a boardinghouse Ms. Davis found chamberpots, mixing bowls, mugs (many made in Pittsburgh) animal bones, jars and glass bottles (also made in Pittsburgh) for ink and medicine.
The bones show that pigs' feet, she said, were most likely used for stews at the German boardinghouse, formerly a hotel. There were also large cuts of beef and sheep. Elsewhere, she found evidence of single slices of meat -- most likely served at the Hong Kong Tea Store at 27 Fifth Ave. starting in 1862.
Ms. Davis clearly is captivated by the image of the Hong Kong Tea Room, a place for conversation, music and food in the mid-19th century Pittsburgh.
"It was almost like the Starbucks of its day," she said. "We have a harmonica; we know they were drinking from saucers rather than from cups ... we have a lot of the saucers they were drinking from." And the settings were pure white. "These two young guys who opened the Hong Kong Tea store ... were going for it. They were going for the latest and the greatest" -- only to be put out of business later by a nearby grocery that became the A&P.
Another discovery that added color to the period were violet seeds -- thousands of them. These most likely originated from the Knox Botanical and Seed Store at 29 Fifth Ave.
Jeremiah Knox, a nationally known vintner and horticulturalist nicknamed the "strawberry king," had a farm on Mount Washington and the shop on Fifth Avenue where he sold flowers and objects he collected while traveling abroad. His violet seeds were spread throughout the PNC site, suggesting that other shops decorated with flowers amid the smoke and soot of 19th century Pittsburgh. Mr. Knox's uncle, it turns out, co-founded the law firm that became Reed Smith -- soon to be the lead tenant in PNC's new 23-story tower.
Other objects uncovered during the PNC dig suggest that Pittsburghers were interested, or perhaps worried, about health and nutrition in the 1850s and 1860s. For example, Ms. Davis found an array of medicine bottles on the site; one reading, "E. Warner Indian Physician Syrup." That product was the offering of a Pittsburgher who lived with Native Americans for seven years so he could learn to heal as they did. And Dr. Warner's great-great grandson, it turns out, still practices medicine in the Pittsburgh area.
The multitude and specificity of what was found underneath the future Three PNC Plaza qualify the project as one of the most productive urban archaeological sites in the United States, according to PNC and Ms. Davis. More is now known about Pittsburgh's early ties to world trade and the westward expansion of the United States; more is known about the many businesses and entrepreneurs who opened, closed and sold in the middle of Downtown, and how the mix of buildings that emerged on this spot 150 years ago was similar to the vertical divisions that will be inside Three PNC Plaza -- offices, housing and a hotel.
The experience changed Ms. Davis' view of Pittsburgh, past and present.
"We think of the smoky city," she said. "That is what Pittsburgh's reputation was. What we learned from these artifacts is that there was another side to the story. It wasn't just about iron and steel. It wasn't just about Frick and the Mellons. There was a whole group of people operating their stores and living in the boardinghouses and hotels and residences that had another story to tell."
Middle-class people, she said, "were coming to shop here, to drink tea," to find their first home after arriving in the young city, looking for work.
Here, Ms. Davis said. "was the emergence of the great American middle class in Pittsburgh."
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First Published March 18, 2008 12:00 am