by Helen Wilson
In 1921, the eight-story Joseph Woodwell Building in Downtown Pittsburgh was moving, sidewalk and all. The lights were on, water ran, elevators went up and down, telephones rang, and people went about their business—while the building was being moved inch by inch to its new foundation forty feet away. Second Avenue was being widened, and the Woodwell Building at the corner of Wood Street and Second Avenue (soon to be renamed the Boulevard of the Allies) was in the way. It had to be torn down—or moved.
What does this have to do with Squirrel Hill? Well, the John Eichleay Jr. Company, the engineering firm that moved the Woodwell Building, was moving buildings and other large structures all over the place in the early 1900s. Given the time and effort it took to build a large, solid building, it was less expensive and easier to move both it and everything in it than to tear it down.
The Eichleay Company moved hundreds of buildings in and around Pittsburgh, including five houses in Squirrel Hill . Two are still on Murray Avenue in the block between Hobart and Douglas streets. In 1927 they were moved up and back so storefronts could be added. The Framesmith and Games Unlimited now occupy the spaces. The location of another house, possibly on Wendover Street, has not been positively identified. A fourth house is a private residence. Horses and steam engines did the pulling, and the buildings were moved on rollers. But the lifting was done by crews of brawny men, who raised and lowered the structures without hydraulic assistance.
Moving the fifth house—the Brown mansion—was one of the first (1903) and most difficult jobs the Eichleay Company undertook. The mansion was originally located near the bottom of Old Browns Hill Road on the Monongahela River, but the railway wanted to expand, and it wanted the land on which the mansion stood. Captain Samuel S. Brown had lived in and loved the house, even though by then he had given it to his nephew and his wife. Captain Brown hated to see it torn down, so he asked the Eichleay Company to move it up the bluff. The pictures of the cribbing used in raising the mansion show a remarkable feat of engineering. The house was moved 168 feet up the treacherous rock ledges and then back 500 feet from the edge. Nothing was damaged. Not even a pane of glass was broken. Unfortunately, in 1913 the house burned down, a loss estimated at $200,000—a huge sum for that time. Sam Brown’s nephew, James Ward, who was living in the house with his wife at the time, rebuilt the house to even grander proportions.
Although the estate passed into other hands in the course of time, it was always called the Brown Estate. The Jewish Home for the Aged purchased the estate in 1931, repurposed the mansion, and built a larger institutional facility next to it. The mansion lasted until the new Jewish Association on Aging campus was built in the 1990s.