by Eric Lidji (posted 11-2020)
H. Miller & Sons was a leading contributor to the development of Squirrel Hill in the years between the wars, when middle class families began moving into a neighborhood previously occupied by large estates and wide-open spaces. The general contracting firm built dozens of homes in the neighborhood, as well as some of its best-known landmarks.
Herschel Miller (1861-1930) was trained as a carpenter in his native Russia and pursued his craft after immigrating to the United States in the late 1880s. He started a contracting firm around 1890 and eventually brought several sons into the business. They initially built residential properties in the Hill District and undertook more significant projects year by year. Their first big commission came in 1913, when they were hired to build the new Concordia Club, an elite Jewish social club that had recently relocated from the North Side to Ohara Street in Oakland. The project led to a series of commissions originating from the local Jewish community. H. Miller & Sons oversaw construction of the original Hebrew Institute in the Hill District in 1917, Caplan Baking Company factory on the South Side in 1919, the B’nai Israel synagogue in East Liberty in 1923, the new Montefiore Hospital in Oakland in 1928, and several downtown office buildings.
H. Miller & Sons appears to have begun building houses in Squirrel Hill as early as 1916, but its heavy involvement with the neighborhood dates to late 1919, when it formed the Pittsburgh Housing Corporation. The corporation was created to address a perceived shortage of middle class housing in the city at a time of rapid population growth and mobility into the middle class. It acquired and subdivided estates into units of residential housing, seeking economies of scale through the bulk purchase of construction materials.
The first project in this initiative came in December 1919, when the Pittsburgh Housing Corporation purchased the Harry Darlington Estate for $51,500. A few months later, in late March 2020, it awarded a $250,000 contract to its affiliate H. Miller & Sons to construct 10 single-family residences. The estate had filled most of the southern side of Northumberland Street on the block between Wightman and Murdoch streets. The company built at least five of the 10 houses—5506, 5512, 5516, 5532 and 5536. Some of the remaining vacant plots were sold to people who pursued construction independently.
The Pittsburgh Housing Corporation replicated this process in January 1922. It acquired much of the north side of Phillips Avenue between Murray and Shady avenues from Sylvester L. Teemer. A month later, it awarded a contract to H. Miller & Sons to build 10 single-family residences “of distinctive English design.” The company built houses at 5901, 5903, 5907, 5911, 5915, 5919, 5923, 5925, 5929, and 5933 Phillips. The last of those properties was acquired by William Miller, one of the “sons” in H. Miller & Sons.
That spring, in late May 1922, H. Miller & Sons also received a contract to build five houses on the southern side of Hobart Street in the block between Murdoch Street and what is now Leith Way. A local architect named Thomas Hannah designed the houses.
These projects represented a systemized approach to residential construction. Every aspect of permitting and construction was reduced to a formula. In an article in the Daily Post in 1922, the housing project engineer of the Pittsburgh Housing Corporation said that the formula could be replicated on any scale. Even an entire town could be built.
The Pittsburgh Housing Corporation receded from the public record starting in 1924, but H. Miller & Sons continued its involvement in Squirrel Hill through three large construction projects. The first was the Terrace Court Apartments on Shady Avenue near its intersection with Douglas Street, also constructed from a design by Hannah. (The property is now called The Square at Squirrel Hill.) The apartment building was constructed in late 1923 and early 1924. It was one of several new apartment projects in Squirrel Hill around that time—a moment when developers were working to make the newly desirable neighborhood more available to middle class families and singles.
A few years later, in September 1925, H. Miller & Sons received a $1,153,100 contract from the Pittsburgh Board of Education to construct Taylor Allderdice High School from a design by architect Robert Maurice Trimble. The contract came amid a slate of major civic, commercial and religious projects, shifting H. Miller & Sons away from housing.
H. Miller & Sons returned to Squirrel Hill in 1930 to build the first addition to the Beth Shalom synagogue at Shady and Beacon. The addition was built from a design by architect Alexander Sharove, who had also designed the original sanctuary in 1923.
Herschel Miller was unable to attend the dedication of the addition in 1931. He died during the construction of the Beth Shalom project. Following his death, his sons expanded the operation. H. Miller & Sons became Steelwood Corp. and implemented its systemized formula at several large-scale residential construction projects in Sewickley, Beechview, Stanton Heights and other suburban sections of Allegheny County. The company built more than 1,500 housing units in the decade after World War II, carrying the spirit of its Squirrel Hill project of the early 1920s into new corners of the region.
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-454-6406.