My friend Charles: His love for the bygone days
By Tuhin Das | Contributor
*Editor’s note: This column was submitted to The Chronicle by Tuhin Das, a Bangladeshi refugee writer and former writer-in-residence at City of Asylum’s exiled writers’ program. Das lived in the Mexican War Streets for six years, from 2016 to 2022. He currently lives in Crafton Heights and is delighted to meet Pittsburghers.
I met Charles Moore at Randyland in 2017, where I hung out after arriving in America and wanted to meet people in my North Side neighborhood. At first, talking with Charles gave me chances to practice my English, but over time, Charles and I also began opening up about our lives and became friends. Charles was born in Plymouth, Ind. in 1942. His father was a police officer and his mother was a beautician. He is the oldest of three, with a younger brother and sister. Charles has drawn pictures since his childhood, having learned the fundamentals in art class in school.
Charles recalls seeing beautiful, old houses during his childhood that were torn down, causing him pain. He remembers the house which belonged to his classmate’s family that had a unique circular staircase. It was torn down and replaced with a generic cookie-cutter home. He also recalls the demolition of a Queen Anne style home. It had a multi-gable roof with turrets, a balcony, and stained glass. Before it was torn down in the 1950s, Charles bought a heavy stained-glass window from it and carried it home, as he thought his mother would appreciate it. Unfortunately, his parents were less impressed, and they persuaded him to sell it to his history teacher, Miss Garn.
“You made a good deal and sold it for $7,” his father said.
By the late 1980s, Ms. Garn was in a nursing home and her cousin, who was in charge of her affairs, sold that stained-glass window for $1,000. The buyer was an antique dealer from Chicago who said he could sell it for $3,000. Charles was at that auction and wanted to buy the window back, but he didn’t have enough money.
After finishing high school in 1960, Charles volunteered to join the U.S. Army for three years. He was soon deployed to Germany for what the American government called ‘the Cold War.” He was stationed at the border of East and West Germany, near Helmstedt, at the border crossing checkpoint Alpha. He normally carried an M-1 rifle, and one day he could see two communist soldiers on the other side, but he realized he did not have his gun. They waved to him and he walked closer. One looked angry, and was loud and hostile. The other was calm and smiling.
“Are you an American? Do you have a car?” they asked him in German. “As we know, all Americans have an automobile.”
Charles, surprised that this was what they wanted to ask about, replied, “no, not every American has a car. I don’t have one.”
He returned home in 1963, and began summer school at Indiana University South Bend campus, about thirty minutes north of his hometown. Charles lived at his parents’ house and got rides from South Bend commuters for $1 each way. While enrolled in college, Charles spent time with his grandfather who lived a few blocks away. Next to his grandfather’s home was a beautiful Queen Anne style house built in the 1890s. The owner of the house let him inside to see the interior and Charles painted a picture of it. After seeing the finished oil painting, his family had more appreciation for its distinctive charm and intricate details.
He transferred to the main campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, where he lived for the remainder of his four-year program. There, he enjoyed looking at the university president’s house, which was built in 1820, and made a pencil drawing of it. He majored in German language and literature and graduated in 1967 before returning to his hometown to spend time with his mother who was ill with multiple sclerosis.
That fall he moved to Ann Arbor and started a Master’s program in Museum Practice at the University of Michigan. He took courses in art history, including American and European painting and architecture and developed an interest in antiques and decorative arts. During a visit to Gorge Eastman’s house in Rochester, NY he learned about the Southworth and Hawes daguerreotype process, essentially a photograph laid on silver-plated copper made light sensitive with iodine and chlorine or bromine. Intrigued, his interest in the process developed into a PhD dissertation entitled, ‘‘The Careers and Daguerreotypes of Albert Southworth and Josiah Hawes”.
After earning his doctorate in 1975 he took a job as director of the Merrick Art Gallery in New Brighton, Pa. In 1977, his colleague told him about a house lottery being conducted by the City of Pittsburgh in the Mexican War Streets, as the city sold dilapidated homes with an agreement the new owners would renovate them, and they went to Pittsburgh to check it out. On Jacksonia Street they found abandoned houses in very poor condition: with no front doors, boarded up windows, everything was smashed inside, and raccoons and other critters had taken up residence.
The decommissioned fire station at the corner of Arch Street and Jacksonia Street, across from Randyland today, was filled with rats and trash.
During the sale, interested buyers submitted their name and phone number on a piece of paper, so Charles threw in his lot. The draw took place at the former Allegheny Center Mall, which is now called Nova Place. Soon after Charles received a call from Donald Miller, then the art editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who informed him Mayor Richard Caliguiri drew his name.
Charles quit his job in New Brighton and took a new position at a nearby industrial park making $3 an hour. He applied for a $30,000 loan to refurbish his house. While the work took place, he rented one room of a house at the corner of Beech Avenue and Galveston Avenue for $20 dollars a week until he was able to move in.
Moving to the Northside fed Charles’ fondness of the neighborhood houses, which were mostly built in the nineteenth century, as it reminded him of his hometown. At that time, he was one of a few white people living in the predominantly Black Mexican War Streets. This was quite a contrast from the mostly white communities where he grew up and previously lived.
In 1995, he bought another house — this one nearby on Arch Street — from the Mexican War Streets Society. This house is among the oldest in the neighborhood, and Charles learned through searching the county property records that it was built in 1842 by John McVicker, who died without a will in 1849. When Charles bought it, the house was boarded up and the backside was collapsing. The façade was designed in the late eighteenth century style, so even when it was built, the style was somewhat outdated. The bricks in the façade were laid in Flemish bond fashion, which was unusual in the nineteenth century, as it requires that every other brick is a header and gives the house a distinctive texture (a header is the end of the brick; it ties the bricks in different layers together). The exterior first floor of the façade walls are incredibly thick and sturdy, as they are three layers of bricks thick.
Over the years, Charles has shown me a lot of the architectural intracities of his beloved house. The front door has eight panels, and it has a window above the door called a fan light transom that also reflects the eighteenth-century style. Unfortunately, it was connected with the portion of the house that was demolished, but Charles found it and put it back on the front door again. Stepping inside, the ceiling in the entry hallway is Greek Revival style, which was frequently used in the 1840s. It was the only style inside the house that was modern when it was built, as the rest of the home included outdated trends. The six-panel doors throughout the building are handmade and have mortise and tenon joints, reinforcing their strength and durability. The corners of the doorways and window moldings have decorative bullseye rosettes, which were popular in the eighteenth century. These details are important to Charles because they are integral aspects of American architectural history, which he studied for so many years. But he thinks this is lost on most people, as they do not notice or appreciate all the details and explanations.
It was distressing for Charles in 1999 when he discovered the houses on Federal Street were being torn down. From Henderson Street down to Aden Market, all the houses were demolished. To capture them before they were gone, Charles moved his folding chair around the street and drew the houses, fifteen of them in total. Charles hoped these old houses would be saved by other people, like he had done, so they could be restored as a collection of antique houses. Unfortunately, that did not happen; modern condos and restaurants were developed in their place.
In addition to his appreciation of architecture, Charles is an avid antique collector. As a child he learned to love old things because he saw the value, beauty, and the history behind them. One of his most prized possessions is his first shaving mug that his grandmother gave him. He has a bed from President Abraham Lincoln’s time, which is similar to the bed President Lincoln used at the White House. He collects books, documents, furniture, glassware, clocks, letters, lamps, dishes, photographs, lithographs, and oil paintings. I often sit with him as he talks about these valuables, and he gets louder as he gets excited. I can see him become happier as he shares about his collections, and about how much he loves the pipe organ at his church, as it reminds him of his childhood. Sometimes we have wine and listen to jazz on his dark gray KLH record player, which he bought when he was in grad school.
Charles is 81 now. His grandfather and his father both died at age 83, and Charles wonders about this and if he might share a similar fate, though I hope this is not the case. Through sharing his personal stories and treasured memories, Charles has helped me to better understand the complexities and layers of American history and lives, which has enabled me to further comprehend the depths and preservation of culture and identity.