by Tony Indovina (posted 6-2020)
In Squirrel Hill South near Greenfield, where Beechwood Boulevard winds along the steep hillside above the river valley, you pass two old city stone walls on the left of the road as you travel toward Greenfield. These walls, overlooking the new community of Summerset, are wonderful places to view the Monongahela River valley. A short distance past the second wall, approaching Greenfield, there is a large apartment complex, Beechwood Gardens, sitting back from the road on the left behind a large grassy area. And immediately past these apartments, the Boulevard makes one last turn to the right and goes straight about a quarter mile to the traffic light intersection, where Browns Hill Road goes left toward Homestead and the Boulevard goes right toward the Parkway, ending at the Greenfield Bridge.
On the earliest Warranty Map of Pittsburgh, the area at this last bend of present-day Beechwood Boulevard in Squirrel Hill South was part of the original tract of land owned by William “Killymoon” Stewart, a tract he named Viewland. (The 1914 Warrantee Atlas and maps, found on the Historic Pittsburgh website, historicpittsburgh.org, depict original land grants that settlers of present-day Allegheny County received from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania after William Penn and his descendants vested the land to the legislature.)
The name Viewland was very appropriate. From my third-floor windows, looking southeast over my neighbors’ rooftops across the street, I can see the Mon River bending and flowing from above Braddock. The Stewart homestead, settled in 1819, was once located across the street from my house on land where the apartments are now. And though the Stewarts had much the same view as I do, theirs would have been one of deeply wooded hillsides, and later, farms along the Monongahela River’s banks.
My old house was one of the first built on this section of the Boulevard, when it was Beechwood Avenue running from Schenley Park to Highland Park. A search I did almost thirty years ago, and since lost, determined that the original deed was recorded about 1905. But utility records revealed that the house may have been occupied as early as 1901 (it was common practice then, I was told, to occupy a house before taxes were levied). This was a time when development throughout Squirrel Hill was booming, fueled largely by trolley line expansion. A major line down Murray Avenue (within walking distance of my house) to Homestead spurred early development in my neighborhood. My structure might be classified as a “Foursquare” house, simply described as a mostly square two-and-one-half story house, often with hipped roof and arched entryway, and many variations to allow for economical use of inside space on a city lot. A diagram from Chronology of Sears Catalogue Homes, 1908-1950, shown below, illustrates a typical foursquare house. Mine has customized woodwork with built-in cabinetry, stained glass windows and service steps. While far from a mansion, it was built to appeal to a manager-merchant class of new homeowner, among those who then worked in nearby Homestead. As I learned from doing historic map searches of early owners, my one-eighth acre city lot may be less than half the size that it was originally. After we first bought the house, my wife worked for many years in a labor of love to remove multiple layers of white paint from old oak woodwork, and I removed much gas piping for new ceiling fans, since the house was not originally wired for electricity. By looking at the 1903-06 and 1910 map layers on the Pittsburgh Historic Maps website, I found that my lot was subdivided from the Ostermaier Plan of Lots, one of several such parcels along the 3200 block of Beechwood Boulevard. The owner, Richard Ostermaier, was a well-known City tax collector in 1900 who originally purchased all of his land from the larger Burchfield Plan of Lots, then owned by a granddaughter of William “Killymoon” Stewart (called Killymoon because of Stewart’s family’s origin from the Killymoon area of County Tyrone, Northern Ireland).
Last year, I had the pleasure of connecting with Rich Morris, a visitor from out of town whose family I have since learned much more about. Two generations of this family lived here after the Morris family acquired the house from Morris’ great-grandfather Jacob Pfirman, a successful Homestead businessman who was born in Germany in 1858. The Pfirmans and Morrises called our house home longer than my almost 30 years there. With family photos from inside and outside the house I received after Rich’s visit and some old property map searches, I have begun to piece together much more knowledge of the house. From what was then an enclosed sunporch of the house, this family could view to the south an old ramshackle general store on what is now the large grassy area of the apartment complex across the street. Up until 1950, this was the last remains of Killymoon’s Inn, an early 19th century tavern that “for many years serviced travelers [and] cattle drovers,” according to the SHHS’s book, Squirrel Hill: A Neighborhood History. The inn was run by William Stewart and, at the end, the store was run by his great-grandson, the “reclusive” William Burchfield.
There is much more that I want to research to understand the changes that occurred to my property when it was later subdivided and about its earliest occupants and the neighborhood. I hope to continue expanding my house’s history.