Brush up on the history of Pittsburgh’s Northside by exploring eight notable sites in the Historic Deutschtown neighborhood.
Photo: A map of the eight sites on The Northside’s Chronicle’s self-guided Historic Deutschtown walking tour, via Google Maps.
By Briana Canady
It has been more than a year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While more vaccines are being distributed throughout the state, people are still being urged not to congregate, and to keep a safe distance from each other. Fortunately, wherever you go throughout the Northside, there’s something to look at; something historical. Located next to the North Shore and across the river from the Cultural District, Historic Deutschtown offers you its rich history and a fine collection of 19th and early 20th century residential buildings. Historic Deutschtown was the primary area for Pittsburgh’s German community during the 19th century. This self-guided walking tour will route you safely outside among eight of the many historic landmarks to explore throughout the neighborhood.
You will begin your tour in the western portion of Allegheny Commons Park, the oldest park in Pittsburgh. Known for its canopy trees and wide promenade, Allegheny Commons, according to the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy (PPC), is said to be the “front yard for the Northside’s diverse neighborhoods.” Twenty-two years ago, an advocacy group called the Allegheny Commons Initiative was created to “preserve and restore” the park; three years later, in 2002, a “master plan” for the park was produced. A new and revised “Action Plan” was put together in 2018 to “comprehensively [restore] the Commons as the premier public space of the Northside and a park of uncommon regional significance.”
Hampton Battery Monument
In the eastern part of Allegheny Commons, you will start your tour near the intersection of Cedar Avenue and Lockhart Street at the Hampton Battery Monument. On Oct. 7, 1861, Pittsburgh Battery ‘F’ was organized as a part of the Pennsylvania Light Artillery under the command of Captain Robert B. Hampton. The monument, which portrays an anonymous soldier, serves as a tribute to Captain Hampton. It has the names of the officers and men who took part in 23 of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, including Gettysburg, engraved on its octagon-shaped base. It currently stands as a Civil War reenactment unit. All of the unit’s first officers were killed and their names appear on the monument’s pedestal in a larger size, including Hampton’s. At the base of the monument is a cannon captured at Santiago Cuba in 1898 during the Spanish American War. In 2004, the monument was restored by the Allegheny City Society.
As you walk farther up Cedar Avenue, you will find the Northeast Fountain. Located at the corner of Cedar and East North Avenue and facing the entrance to Allegheny General Hospital, this historic fountain was one of four fountains in Allegheny Commons when the park was originally developed in 1867. In 2018, it was announced that reconstruction of the fountain—a $2.5 million project—would take place in order to “bring this fountain back to life,” the former Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy (PPC) president and CEO Jayne Miller reportedly said. The reconstruction of the Northeast Fountain was part of a collaborative effort between the PPC, Allegheny Commons Initiative, and Northside Leadership Conference. The project took up the space of about one city block and included reconstruction of the historic fountain and its surrounding gardens; new pathway installation; and new signs, benches, and lights. This new fountain opened back up to the public in May 2019, reflecting its original 19th century design.
Allegheny General Hospital
Look to the north of the Northeast Fountain and you can’t miss Allegheny General Hospital (AGH), which opened its doors on Feb. 15, 1886 in two side-by-side brick houses on Stockton Avenue. The hospital, which now has 552 licensed beds, originally had just 50. Steel and metal industrialists James Park and Oliver Scaife along with multitrade venturer John Chalfant were the ones who financially backed the institution. A children’s wing was added to the hospital in 1887 and in 1889, an ambulance was donated to the hospital. AGH was the first medical center in Pennsylvania to open a 24-hour trauma intensive care unit. It was the first in the northeastern U.S. to offer an air medical service, too: That service now spans a 130-mile radius. Over the last five years, AGH has built a new cardiovascular facility, a hybrid operating room suite and ambulatory care center, and a surgical arts training center. In 2019, the final beam was raised for a new $80 million AGH cancer treatment facility.
School House Apartments
From the hospital, go east on East North Avenue, then turn right on James Street. As you walk to the street corner of Tripoli and James, you will approach a large, yellow brick building with brown doors and a green awning at the entrance that reads “The School House.” This yellow-brick building on the 500 block hasn’t always been apartments. Built in 1898, this building was originally known as the New Third Ward School. In 1915, in order to help with overcrowding at Allegheny High School, it became Latimer Junior High School after Alexander Latimer, the former president of a local school board. It closed in 1982 and a developer converted it into the School House Apartments. You can still see many of the original features of the former school inside the building, such as the stairways and classroom numbers.
Schmittdiel Horse Shoer
At the corner of Middle and Suismon Streets you will find the Schmittdiel Horse Shoer. This landmark building was a local horseshoeing shop originally owned by John Schmittdiel who made horseshoes in the 1860s and 70s. It is now owned by local resident and restoration architect, Bob Baumbach. After more research on the building, Baumbach determined that the building was most likely built around 1866 and remained a blacksmith shop until the 1920s. In 2019, the building turned into a memorial event space for Malcolm McCormick, better known by his stage name: Mac Miller, a Pittsburgh native who died in 2018 at age 26. The space was used as the headquarters for an “immersive listening experience and multimedia exhibition,” which was held to remember and honor Miller’s posthumous album release that year, “Circles.”
East Ohio Street
Continue walking south on Middle Street, crossing Shawano, Foreland, and Emlin Streets until you reach East Ohio Street, the main commercial district of Historic and East Deutschtown. This multiblock business district along Pittsburgh’s East Ohio Street used to be full of row houses in the 19th century. Most of the buildings along this street today actually date back to the 1890s, and this particular street was one of the earliest Croatian sectors in the country.According to artist Laurie Lundquist, whom in 2013 was commissioned by PennDOT to create “Behind Every Wall,” a six-panel art project featuring historic Northside images sandblasted onto a retaining wall alongside Route 28, East Ohio Street used to be a “state-of-the-art canal with horses and mules pulling flat-bottomed pack boats up and down the rock-lined waterway.” This corridor later became the center of all types of commerce in Deutschtown, with businesses and services that include Huntington Bank, Rite Aid, The Farmer’s Daughter flower shop, and Sweet Time General Store—which serves as a Contract Postal Unit for the United States Postal Service. Building numbers 517 and 519 were newly built by Bruce Klein of Bernie’s Photo Center, and at 531 East Ohio St. is Photo Antiquities, which is claimed to be the largest photography museum in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world.
Avery College Historical Marker, Former Site of Avery College
Traveling eastward on East Ohio Street, you will find the Avery College Historical Marker located on the right side of the street in front of H&R Block. This marker, placed at the intersection of East Ohio and Nash Streets, serves to capture the memory of Reverend Charles Avery, who founded Avery College and the impact of his decision to endow an institution for free to people of color. According to ExplorePAhistory, this “demonstrated [Avery’s] faith in education as a catalyst to racial progress in American life.” Continue walking until you get to Nash Street, then turn right on it and approach Avery Street. This corner is where Avery College once stood. Built by Avery in 1849, Avery College—originally known as the Avery Trade School for Colored Youth—was an institution dedicated to the higher education of African Americans in the U.S. Avery himself was a successful entrepreneur in the cotton and pharmaceutical trades and a loyal abolitionist. He arrived in Pittsburgh from Westchester County, NY in 1812 and believed that education was an important factor in the improvement of race relations in the U.S. The Northside Chronicle reports that the college “provided African Americans with a free liberal arts education including the subjects of science, literature, and languages.” The institution was made of brick and was three stories tall; the top floor was an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. It is believed that the basement of the building, which had a tunnel leading to a canal and ultimately the Allegheny River, was used as a station on the Underground Railroad. In 1858, Avery died and the institution’s name was changed to Avery College. It stayed open in Historic Deutschtown until the early 20th century when the school was demolished to make way for highway construction.
The Priory Hotel and Grand Hall
Continue down Nash Street, then make a right onto Lockhart Street. Here you will find the rear of the former St. Mary’s Priory—now the Priory Hotel—that was built by the congregation of the former St. Mary’s Parish—now the Priory’s Grand Hall—to house Benedictine monks and priests. According to Priory Hotel history, the St. Mary’s Parish was founded in 1848 by immigrants from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland who lived in the area at the time; It was the first Roman Catholic parish in the now-Northside.
Completed in 1854, the space could hold more than 900 parishioners. Now it serves as a venue for weddings and various events. According to Pittsburgh Magazine, it and the adjacent hotel retain some of their original features, such as a three-story skylight and hardware for both doors and windows. There’s even a walk-in safe inside the hotel’s Monk’s Bar—which lays claim to being the smallest bar in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania—that was used to hold parish baptism certificates and records.
In the early 1970s, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) planned to build an Interstate 279 route leading to Pittsburgh’s northern suburbs that cut directly through the site of the St. Mary’s Church and priory. The state eventually paid close to $1.3 million for the church, its adjacent building, and the priory. The final mass at St. Mary’s took place in 1981 and was set to be demolished the following year, but activists from the Northside and neighboring church St. Boniface convinced PennDOT to reroute their planned highway. In 1984, Ed and Mary Ann Graf acquired the former church and priory via auction and in 1986, they officially opened the Priory Hotel.
Walk down Lockhart Street and turn right onto Cedar Avenue to return to the starting point of this tour.
There is so much to learn in this national historic district. From this self-guided tour alone, you can see a number of historic attractions that are well known in Historic Deutschtown and make the area a magnet for visitors. This community continues to grow with more young professionals among its residents, as well as newer developments that include renovated homes and new businesses.