Written by Robert D. Christie
Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine
via the Heinz History Center
A separate and distinct chapter in the history of Allegheny is that of the select school for girls and boys established on Ridge Avenue in the First Ward about 1878. Its sponsors and principal-teachers were the Misses Eliza and Sarah J. McCracken, and it was known as the McCracken School. The street number of
their establishment originally was 366, later changed to 611. It was the house at the western end of a row of six three-story residences named the Paulson Block after a former owner, Charles H. Paulson, dealer in hats, caps and furs at 73 Wood Street, Pittsburgh. The buildings of which this school was a part rose abruptly from the street and offered a pleasing view of the park to the north, but a less pleasing topographical feature was that the entire school-side of the block faced the depressed tracks of the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railroad across a narrow unused lot. An iron bridge permitted the public to cross those tracks at street level on Ridge Avenue. It might be supposed that the noise and smoke of passing trains would have deterred the location of a fashionable school there, but the pupils literally took it in their stride, often running to stand on the bridge facing approaching trains and being enveloped in sulphurous smoke and showers of cinders.
The first mention of Eliza McCracken in a Pittsburgh and Allegheny directory appeared in the volume for 1878. Her sister Sarah never was listed until the issue for 1890. The “select school” of Miss Eliza disappeared from the directories in 1896. It was from Steubenville, Ohio, that the McCracken ladies and their brother, John H., a clerk in the employ of the Pennsylvania Company in the ’90s, came.
In the middle ’80s the institutional staff of the McCracken School included, besides the two sisters, a widow whose name was Mrs. Nannie Ridgley, who probably had lived at 67 Arch Street, Allegheny; Miss Margaretta Dihm, who subsequently had a private school at 3 North Avenue; and Miss Bertha Floersheim, who almost certainly was a daughter of Berthold Floersheim, 104 Western Avenue. The last mentioned of these ladies became the wife of City Councilman Enoch Rauh and the mother of Richard S. Rauh, founder of the latterday Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and of the Pittsburgh Playhouse, and a director in many Western Pennsylvania corporations as well as a trustee of The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania.
Tuition in the McCracken School was sixty dollars a year. The number of pupils at any given time was about sixty. Hours of instruction were from nine in the morning until noon, Monday to Friday inclusive. The final period of each week was devoted to a special student activity at which parents were welcome to attend. Miss Eliza greeted pupils in person at the front door. She presided over the senior classes, seated in a swivel chair which was, indeed, her throne. As a child psychologist she was unquestionably a superior person and as a disciplinarian she definitely was without a peer. The pupils too had their points in psychology, learning by practice to appraise at the entrance to the school the emotional weather they might expect inside. If Miss Eliza were cheery, all was well, but if not, one’s breathing scarcely was permitted to be heard. When she admitted a headache, the day was termed “silent” and no one spoke, every pupil having recourse to writing. On normal days recitations were silenced automatically by the passing of locomotives on the Fort Wayne, and the school regularly was showered with cinders but the dirt was unnoticed by Miss Eliza’s charges.
The first exercise of each day consisted of Scripture reading in which pupils as well as teachers participated. Naturally, the three R’s were basic, with Miss Eliza specializing in grammar with emphasis being placed on parsing in a form of game, more familiar in spelling bees, in which the pupils were seated on open benches at the front of the room and moving up or down as answers justified.
A specialty of Miss Dihm, remembered as a gentle and not too exacting person, was mental arithmetic, which successively involved addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, applied to a single problem. One of her pupils, who enjoyed her special favor, was Ed Thaw; and in a bedlam of answers she frequently was heard to say, “Now, listen to Ed.”
Miss Floersheim, regarded with great popularity, was instructor in elocution, and a matter to which she devoted much effort involved a gesture whose value was enhanced by the idea that it had been imported from Paris. This consisted of a sweep of a hand, partly open, but the essential feature, supposed to give it grace and elegance, lay in the separation of the second and third fingers, while the others remained in contact. Her instruction registered to such an extent that after sixty-seven years one of her pupils, though unconvinced of its artistry, still could demonstrate it. On Fridays, at eleven a.m., a chosen group of pupils was called upon to display their histrionic abilities not only before the school but often before their parents. The field of endeavor was divided into four categories of which each pupil, advised in advance, might make selection — namely: (1) Recitation of a selection of prose or poem from memory; (2) Selection, a chosen reading; (3) Facts, the narration of actual occurrences; (4) Anecdotes, stories of a biographical nature.
These exercises were not without their occasional surprises. One of the McMurtry boys — Ed or Burt — was capable of performances looked forward to with expectation of originality and he did not fail. His entire declamation, devoid of gesture, could be: “It rained Friday. That is a fact.” The same young man is remembered as the youthful genius who applied his newly acquired knowledge of electricity to wiring the kitchen doorknob in order that he, having provoked his playmates to pursuit, could dart through and slam the door so that it offered a surprising shock to any youngster who grasped it. He also was the inventor of a form of bicycle which departed from all accepted standards in that it had a small wheel in front and handlebars which were behind the rider seated upright.
On another Friday a performer presented a descriptive bit which included a takeoff of the names of physicians, such as Dr. Thinman, an authority on diet, and Dr. Merriman, whose name was a signal for hearty laughter, to which Miss Eliza, not having followed the narrator closely, called an instant halt, demanding the cause of such mirth. When it was explained that the script called for merriment, she responded: “I understand. Proceed with your laughter.” — which was then impossible.
Another pupil, George Thompson by name, acquired a reputation which did not exactly endear him to the school at large. It was alleged that he never was late and that he never missed a day’s attendance. What he may have lacked in scholarship was, in the estimation of certain teachers, compensated for by this virtue and when his academic errors were about to incur the derision of fellow students Miss Eliza solemnly would say: “Remember, George has never been late!”
There once was some intimation that the pupils might find a calendar helpful at school, with the result that Al Bissell promptly brought a huge one to be hung on the wall of the study room. In modern times such a calendar would seem appropriate enough, but not so in those days. Al’s contribution peremptorily was ruled out on the ground that if all pupils were to be allowed to bring in such calendars the whole wallsoon would be completely covered with them.
Somewhat novel was a bulletin board consisting of a slate and pencil outside the study door. If a pupil had occasion to leave the room, his name was inscribed thereon to be erased when he returned. This gave his absence official sanction without undue notice or discussion.
A two-way flag was used as an incentive to inspire girls or boys as the case might be. One side of it was blue and the other side was red, and if the girls had excelled on a given day the blue side was displayed while if the boys were deserving of commendation the red side was exposed to the student body as a signal of masculine superiority.
No search for a record book of the McCracken School students has been successful but among the names of pupils recalled are:
John Frederick Byers
George B. Logan
Hester H. Singer
Bessie C. Hamilton
In 1949 Anna Scott wrote:
“The row of houses where the school was located was very old … My impression of the schoolrooms [is] that they were very dark. There was a large front room on the second floor, where most of the students sat. Then we went down two or three stairs into the back room where a Mrs. Fulton presided over the little children. On the third floor front there was a smaller room for the older students. I do not remember the teacher in charge there, though I think she was very popular.
“I think the yearIattended … must have been 1893 because I remember Miss McCracken went to the World’s Fair in Chicago and gave us a very vivid report of it.”
This account of the McCracken School is basically a result of interviews with Carroll Fitzhugh and John Ricketson.
12:00 pm — 1:00 pm
With its concentration of major historic buildings and modern skyscrapers, Grant Street is downtown Pittsburgh’s showcase thoroughfare. You’ll explore some of Pittsburgh’s grandest buildings—the Allegheny County Courthouse, City-County Building, Frick Building, Union Trust Building, and William Penn Hotel, among others—and enjoy views from two urban spaces: Mellon Green and Mellon Square. Grant Street is rich in history and full of architectural details that delight the eye.
Grant Street & Mellon Square
Advanced bookings are appreciated. For more information or to make reservations, contact:
Mary Lu Denny – (412) 471-5808 x 527
Join us at Western Pennsylvania’s first and only LGBT community-owned building! Share in our exciting plans that will allow us to serve our community even more and celebrate the anniversary of marriage equality.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
7:00 – 9:00 pm
911 Galveston Avenue • Pittsburgh, PA 15233
Complimentary beer, wine, soda and light hors d’oeuvres
RSVP by May 15 to www.deltafoundation.us/may20 or call (412) 322-2800
Download, Print and Share the Event Flyer
7:30 – Guests
- Bridget Miller, Mary Cassatt Garden
- Rev. Larry Homitsky, Calvary Church
- Sarah Sweeney, Artist Model Buhl Grant
7:50 – Historic Preservation Awards
8:00 – Neighbor of the Year
8:05 – Approval of the Minutes from April
8:10 – Treasurer’s Report
8:15 – City Council Grants
8:20 – 2015/2016 Budget Proposal
8:50 – Treewells/Flower Order
8:55 – Upcoming Cleanups
9:00 – Wine Tour Update
9:05 –Upcoming Membership Events
9:10 – Committee Chair Q&A
Send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have additional agenda items to add.
I think I’m going to get a t-shirt made that says “I go to meetings, so you don’t have too.” – (maybe all the Board officers need a tag line?). And every time I go to a meeting that I think turns out to be a waste of time, I get to meet someone doing something really cool. At a GTECH meeting about neighborhood grants that I attended to see if our neighborhood would qualify for something, I found that Bridget Little from Manchester is picking up where Dr. Jean left off: continuing her work to make that area safer and prettier for all the folks coming off the train and into the Northside neighborhoods. I’m hoping she can make it to one of our neighborhood meetings to talk about the project some more. In the meantime, for the folks who were encouraging us to add the Cassatt Garden to our monthly clean ups, Bridget has a website set-up where you can volunteer to help: marycassattgarden.com. We’ll keep the monthly clean-ups focused on areas actually in Allegheny West for now, although we’re happy to support efforts all over the Northside.
Speaking of efforts all over the Northside. At the most recent Buhl Foundation meeting, I ran into Annette Trunzo, who – it turns out – is the leader of the northside-wide group that is tackling litter. She’s done an incredible amount of research already on all sorts of urban design questions around which signage and receptacles are the most successful. Considering that Allegheny West just got a huge grant ($13,000) from Councilwoman Harris, at least part of which is intended for new trash cans of our very own, it was really serendipitous timing. If you’re interested in helping Annette out, let me know and I’ll put you in touch. The committee is putting together a plan to request funding from the Buhl Foundation.
Finally, while I’m in general happy to “spare” folks from meetings, we still need to have a quorum at the Membership Meetings to make decisions and get things done! This month, the committee chairs will be handing out a budget proposal to be voted on next week. Think of it as “shopping”, not budgeting. My personal feeling is that a budget is one of the most public signals of what an organization values and what they want to accomplish for the year. The more people that have input into the process the stronger the organization will be!
The Allegheny West Civic Council along with the Allegheny West Local Review Committee announces the 7th Annual Neighborhood Preservation Awards. These awards are presented to property owners in Allegheny West who have done projects over the past year, used elements of historic preservation and adhered to the neighborhood guidelines to renovate their buildings. These property owners researched their projects and went through the Historic Review process to achieve their success.
The 2015 Awards Recipients
825 Western Avenue
Neighbor: Nick Mastros
This building was the local VFW for many years and stood vacant for the last 3. The project included repointing and cleaning the brick; repairing/replacing and repainting all wood trim; painting the decorative metals at the cornice spires; replacing the roof, downspouts and gutters; installing new wood double hung windows on the 2nd and 3rd floors; and restoring the original front doors and installing them in their openings with the original jambs and trim.
857 Western Avenue
Neighbor: John DeSantis
This building was originally a 1905 industrial building, the Pioneer Paint Co. and later, in the mid-Twentieth century, became a gas station. The property underwent a complete rehab to an office building and garden space. The concrete building walls were exposed and polished. A historic cornice was added around the structure. The garage doors were replaced with faux carriage house style doors. Brick sills and headers were added. A brick retaining wall and wrought iron fence were added around the property and plantings were installed.
These projects greatly add to the historic ambience of the Western Avenue streetface, contribute to the economic development of our neighborhood and enhance the quality of life in Allegheny West. To celebrate Preservation Month, the awards will be presented at the Membership Meeting of the Allegheny West Civic Council on Tuesday, May 12th at 7:30pm at Calvary United Methodist Church, corner of Beech and Allegheny Avenues.
The Neighbor of Year awards will presented at the Northside Leadership Conference Dinner on June 11, 2015. If you’re interested in attending (and it’s fun!) tickets will be available soon from the Northside Leadership Conference, so save the date.
Last membership meeting we, the nominating committee, nominated Nick Smerker as this year’s neighbor of the year. It’s never an easy decision since so many people do such great work on the neighborhood’s behalf.
Here’s the bio that will be published in program for the NSLC Annual Dinner:
Nick moved to Allegheny West several years ago and noticed right away that alleghenywest.org needed to be overhauled and cheerfully volunteered. He spent months meeting with our neighbors to find out how they were hoping to use our community website. Once we had a basic structure set up, he patiently worked with many different stakeholders on creating useful content. The result is a beautiful, modern website that still manages to highlight the historic nature of the neighborhood. We’re even more grateful that he’s continued the hard work of maintaining the site, even adding new features as we continue to find new ways of using it.
When he is not fixing the internet presence for the AWCC, Nick works for Education Technology Services at Penn State University as a traveling multimedia consultant. His role with Media Commons takes him to spaces located at Commonwealth campuses throughout western Pennsylvania and he engages him with faculty and students as they produce digital media.
When not traveling for the University, Nick spends his time working on a many freelance projects, including various roles at Signum University, an online liberal arts initiative he helped found in the summer of 2011. You can check out some examples of his recent work at: alleghenywest.org, theparadorinn.com or kentuckknob.com.
Gene and Fran have both been working diligently through the 311 line to try and get the street lights back on on Beech Avenue. (We’re setting up a pool for which day the week of the Wine Tour the City decides to tear up the street.)
Carl & Cecile and Deb & Doug got up an insanely early time to host the neighborhood cheerers for the Marathon. Thanks to everyone who helped out.
Our insurance agent Megan & Scott from Babb Insurance spent a Friday afternoon scrambling to set up parking for the folks displaced by the marathon. Thanks to Hal for his suggestion that we should look for parking – he’s looking out for folks.
Talk about above and beyond…Deb and Trish have been helping out home owners on tour with actual gardening, along with all the Tour arrangements!
If you’d like to recognize a neighbor who went above-and-beyond for you or the neighborhood this month please send a note to email@example.com or give Cathy a call at (412) 418-2027 and we’ll make sure they’re recognized in the Gazette.
May 15th: the Mixer will be an Allegheny West Art Show and Party at 832 Western Avenue, 6:30 pm. Dennis Bergovin suggested having an art show featuring Allegheny West artists and their artist friends. Linda Iannotta offered to organize the food and everyone will bring their own beverage of choice. If you have art that you want to exhibit contact Dennis at (412) 323-0539 for details about submission. The rest of the neighborhood is invited to come, eat drink and enjoy the art.
May 25th: the Memorial Day Block Party, first street party of the summer. Mark your calendars, join the fun and get better acquainted with your neighbors.
You don’t have to leave the city limits to buy farm-fresh vegetables: Visit the Farmers Market in East Park, along Cedar Avenue. You can find farm-fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, cheese, baked goods and flowers. Take advantage of this wonderful community asset in our Commons. The Market begins May 15 and is open from 3:30 to 7:30 pm.