Heavy Living: Cement City, Donora

2-story cement house with large side yard, Donora, PA

Cement City, Donora, PA

Spoiler alert: Cement City is neither. No, the lovely little residential neighborhood consists of a combined 80 single-family homes and larger duplexes lining just a few streets on a hilltop at the south end of Donora. With its 360-degree views across several different valleys, glorious green lawns, and kid’s bicycles left carelessly on front sidewalks, this is hardly the picture of urban life.

That name, though–Cement City. It’s industrial, brutal–fantastic even–like the fictional world created for a shoot-’em-up video game or dystopian science fiction. One might imagine each resident of Cement City as some version of Snake Plissken or Sarah Connor–an eyepatch, leather wristbands, and heavy weaponry required for the epic quest just to make it out alive.

Rest assured, though, nothing could be further from the truth. That said, Cement City does have a certain retro-futurism in its very interesting past.

row of cement houses in Donora, PA

houses on Walnut Street

In the first couple decades of the twentieth century, the Borough of Donora, 30 miles south-southeast/upriver from Pittsburgh, grew like crazy. It went from incorporation in 1901 to reaching its peak population just 20 years later. That was all on the boom of the American Steel & Wire Company. With its integrated blast furnace, open hearth, and ancillary industries in zinc smelting and product finishing, the U.S. Steel subsidiary was the local employer in this prototypic company town. We learned all about these in our tour of the terrific Donora Smog Museum over the winter.

Twice a year, the same folks from the historical society throw a terrific combined educational lecture/walking tour of Cement City, a hundred-year-old housing development borne of the perfect storm of new innovation, high-demand for middle-management lodging, and a massive corporate entity that could take the whole project on and manage it after its completion.

wooden door detail showing 30 small window panes

original arts and crafts-style wood door

Today, Cement City doesn’t look that different than many other neighborhoods of pre-war, detached, American four-square houses–each with its own concessions to time. Here, a mismatched garage addition or fresh paint job, there, some buckling stucco or an obvious collapse in the fascia. Many houses have decorated with lawn statuary (including a generous number of front yard Marys) and ornamental landscaping; in others, the grill is lit, children’s toys are scattered in the yard, and bass-heavy party music blasts from open windows on this perfect Spring day.

There’s one big difference, though. Under the wide eaves and behind the technicolor paint jobs live skeletons of pure concrete. [Yes: concrete, not cement.] When industrial America needed to grow the most, Thomas Edison was trying to figure out what to do with all the concrete he’d been tinkering with. As a building material, concrete seemed perfect: it was cheap, wasn’t going anywhere, the termites wouldn’t touch it, and–most importantly in a pre-fire code America–it was impossible to burn down.

detail of cement ceiling in home in Donora, PA

basement ceilings reveal the original cement forms

We’ll not go into the whole history here–it’s just too much for one little blog post and we’d get the facts wrong anyway. But if you can go on the tour, D.H.S. president Brian Charlton will spin an engrossing yarn in a history that blends the often at-odds interests of Big Steel, quality-of-life, architectural design, and Age of Innovation new technology[1].

Suffice to say, it’s not easy to build a community of houses out of concrete–even more so on the slanted hillsides of Donora in 1916. Making the project cost-effective proved to be the biggest challenge of all. It takes an entirely different building model to pour in place the walls and floors of any construction. You need elaborate forms, a mobile mixing and delivery system, accounting for multi-day cure times, and then back-filling all the various trades that complete a home.

several cement houses on a hill in Donora, PA

Cement City houses on Bertha Ave.

Regardless, it all got done and the homes remain charming to this day. Eventually, the one-time company village grew from identically-maintained, corporate ownership to being sold off to individuals with the surrounding tennis courts and playground lots redeveloped into newer housing. Early photos show the neighborhood denuded of all vegetation as the land was clear-cut for build-out. Today, hundred-year-old sycamores line the sidewalks and reach way above the rooflines on Bertha and Ida Avenues as flowering dogwoods and manicured cypress decorate front yards.

All of Cement City’s original houses are still standing, largely occupied and in good shape. A remarkable number of other features–including original sluiced backyard storm drains and locally-made Ellword woven wire fencing–persist as well. There are similar Edison-era collections of concrete houses all over the Northeast and upper Midwest, but Donora’s set of 80 homes makes it the second-largest development of its kind.

detail of Ellwood woven wire yard fence made by American Steel & Wire Co.

hundred year old Ellwood woven wire yard fence, made locally by American Steel & Wire Co., in a Cement City backyard

Like we saw with Aluminum City Terrace in New Kensington, the transition from high-concept, mass-produced worker housing to present day free-market community is an interesting one. Were they alive to see them today, the after-market shutters, dish TV hook-ups, dangling gutter systems, and quaint lawn ornamentation would probably have given Edison and American Steel & Wire fits.

But the fact remains that good design endures, even if the humans that come along later monkey with the architects’ master vision of clean lines and a uniform presentation. It speaks volumes that 100% of Donora’s original concrete houses remain today–a hundred years after they were constructed–in a town that has lost more than two-thirds of its population in the same time frame[2].

cement house in Donora, PA with lawn statuary and porch modifications

Lived-in. Cement City house on Walnut Street with lawn statuary and porch modifications.

The next time you’re in Donora–and yes, make sure there is a next time–you’ll have to take in the classic McKean Ave. twofer of the Smog Museum and Anthony’s Italiano. Grab a hike up to St. Nick’s if you get a chance, too. But then consider making the short drive south and up the hill for a post-pizza constitutional around Cement City’s handful of streets. You’ll not be sorry you did.

concrete house in Donora, PA's Cement City

Cement City house on Ida Avenue

The Donora Historical Society will offer the next Cement City lecture/walking tours the weekend of Saturday, Sept. 22 and Sunday, Sept. 23. at 1:00 p.m. both days.

RSVP by calling 724-823-0364 or email donorahistoricalsociety@gmail.com


[1] Brian Charlton literally wrote the book (or, at least, detailed article) on Cement City. His article “Cement City: Thomas Edison’s experiment with worker’s housing in Donora,” appeared in the Fall, 2013 issue of Western Pennsylvania History.
[2] Donora’s current population is around 4,600 people, down from 14,000 in 1920. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donora,_Pennsylvania

The Donora Smog Museum

miniature models of blacksmith shop tools in the Donora Smog Museum

miniature blacksmith tools by Joseph Hostenske, Donora Smog Museum

The big display case has a plate glass front, top, and interior shelf like you might see showcasing diamond necklaces or gold earrings in a jewelry shop. In fact, it may well have done just that in a previous life. Inside, though, is a different type of treasure.

Tiny replicas of an entire blacksmith shop–work benches, heavy tongs, hammers, wrenches, pick axes, and pliers; wheelbarrow, anvil, shovel, and coal bin–have been rendered in perfect miniature by hands that could only have known the real thing. An ink-calligraphed placard on a repurposed photo stand informs us the collection of pieces was created by Joseph Hostenske, “the first blacksmith to learn his trade in Donora, Pa.”

model of blacksmith tools, Donora Smog Museum

miniature blacksmith set made by Joseph Hostenske, the “first blacksmith to learn his trade in Donora”

The Hostenske collection exists somewhere within the realms of folk art, personal history, and–for anyone who’s ever wanted to see Barbie and Ken really get down to hard labor–the world’s most grueling set of doll house accessories. How fascinating would it be if we all reduced the most memorable of life’s possessions to 1:12 scale?

The little blacksmith set is also among the most interesting array of items in a room full of very stiff competition. That space is The Donora Smog Museum.

mannequin with majorette uniform, Donora Smog Museum

majorette mannequin in Donora Dragons black-and-orange

Any way you slice it, little Donora has had a tough run. Like its fellow Mon Valley (ex-)steel towns–Clairton and Duquesne, Monessen and McKeesport–Donora experienced the familiar boom and bust of big industry setting up shop right at the turn of the 20th century, building a massive economic engine that provided thousands of good-paying local jobs, a thriving community and business district, and then ultimate collapse under the weight of newer, more-efficient technology and changing global economics.

And then there’s the killer smog. Like Johnstown and Love Canal, Centralia and Hopewell, Donora is primarily known to outsiders as the site of a deadly environmental disaster. In October, 1948, a rare weather event called a temperature inversion caused an exceptionally low cloud ceiling over the Mon Valley that remained unmoved for five days. The deadly smoke produced by the Donora Zinc Works had nowhere to go and ended up poisoning thousands of locals, ultimately causing the deaths of twenty-six.

painting of historic sign reading "Donora: next to yours, the best town in the USA", Donora Smog Museum

“Donora: next to yours, the best town in the USA”

At one point, Donora had a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored welcome sign declaring it Next to yours, the best town in the USA. That deferential boast may be hard for an outsider to understand–even put in context that it was erected at the town’s economic peak, while the mill was still running and the streets and storefronts were full of people.

The original sign hasn’t survived–or, at least, no one knows where it is–but it’s made its way into Society for Better Living, a wall-sized painting of Donora history by Cal. U. associate professor Todd Pinkham. The big work hangs on the museum’s north wall and forms a kind of overture to all the museum will have to offer as well as hazy nostalgia for many small town things any Donoran would have internalized. There’s a parade float sponsored by the Zinc Works, steelworkers in wool caps, famous local residents, and, of course, the mighty blast furnaces of U.S. Steel’s Donora Works.

painting of images from Donora history overlapping, Donora Smog Museum

detail from “Society for Better Living,” Todd Pinkham’s Donora history painting

All those elements come alive in the Donora Historical Society’s museum. The Orbit was lucky enough to get a personal walk-through with museum curator/archivist/educator Brian Charlton and volunteer Mark Pawelec. To call what these guys do a “labor of love” would be underselling both labor and love.

Pawalec is a lifelong Donora resident who commutes way past Pittsburgh just because he can’t imagine leaving his home in the valley. Charlton clearly battles outsider status having grown up five miles away in Monongahela. There aren’t a lot of quantitative rewards to spending your Saturdays preserving the history of a town that frankly many of us down river couldn’t place on the map. But luckily there are more ways to measure success than with a calculator. The quick repartee this pair exchanges when they share names and dates, facts and figures is great to witness and the service they’re doing for the whole Mon Valley is immeasurable.

very old black-and-white panoramic photographs of Donora, PA

historic panoramic photos of Donora

On what is obviously the most threadbare of shoestrings, Charlton and his crew of volunteers have dug deep to illustrate the full scope of 20th century life in Donora. There are its claims to fame, for sure–U.S. Steel’s vertically-integrated operation, responsible for everything from the steel cables of the Golden Gate Bridge to your (grand)mother’s kitchen tongs; famous local athletes Stan “The Man” Musial and the Ken Griffeys (Junior and Senior); and, of course, that deadly smog.

But the museum–and the town of Donora–goes much deeper than these handful of historical bullet points. Donora was an immigrant landing spot that brought newcomers from all over the world. Those new residents founded dozens of local churches and a comparable number of ethnic social clubs–some of both survive today. While America was (and is) still very much racially divided, the museum includes photos of integrated company picnics, school sports teams, and local musical groups that existed before the civil rights movement took hold nationwide.

student display with smokestacks and dates around air quality legislation, Donora Smog Museum

air quality history display (detail)

For such a tiny entity–in a town of less than 5000 residents–The Donora Historical Society has made some impressive connections. The museum has joined The Heinz History Center’s History Center Affiliate Program and partners with California University of Pennsylvania for a series of student-led research projects and videos in their “Digital Storytelling” program, led by Christina Fisanick, associate professor of English.

The text- and photo-based displays that fill the center of the Smog Museum have originated from a combination of these sources. The Donora Historical Society’s web site hosts a terrific set of short documentaries from the same collection of sources.

display with news stories and photographs of the Donora smog of October, 1948

history of the Donora smog displays

The services offered by the DHS extend beyond the Smog Museum’s walls. The group offers regular tours of both Eldora Park and Cement City–an early housing development based on Thomas Edison’s design for efficient, fireproof, poured-in-place concrete construction. Donora claims one of the largest collection of Edison concrete homes in the country.

The museum features a collection of documents including the original blueprints for Cement City in their extensive archive of local history. The big, back room is filled with bookcases and file cabinets full of detailed town maps, photos, and glass negatives.

We’re booked for the April 22 Cement City tour so maybe you’ll see a follow-up story then.

blueprints for cement house, Donora Smog Museum

Cement City blueprints

The Smithsonian, this ain’t. The Donora Smog Museum doesn’t have the corporate endowments, government sponsorship, or turnstile receipts to have virtual reality experiences or interactive phone apps. Heck–other cultural institutions have gift shops larger than the entire Smog Museum.

But in this one turn-of-the-century former bank building–still retaining design elements from a past life as a Chinese restaurant–there is so much heart, love, and dedication to the history of its town that it does everything we can hope from such a place. The experience is eye-opening, educational, a little bit melancholy, a little bit wacky, and very thoroughly Orbit-approved.

safe from Donora Slovak club or beneficial society and other historical items, Donora Smog Museum

items from the museum including a safe from the former Donora Slovak club or beneficial society

Getting there: The Donora Smog Museum is located on McKean Avenue at the corner of Sixth Street. It takes around 45 minutes to an hour drive from the city of Pittsburgh. The museum is open every Saturday from 10 AM to 3 PM. For more information, see: http://www.donorahistoricalsociety.org

Bonus tip: The pizza at Anthony’s (just down the block at 557 McKean) is among the very best this blogger has ever had. The dough (the dough!) was like the best ciabatta bread–a little toughness to the outside and an unbelievably delicious, chewy, airy middle. Do yourself a favor and get a couple cuts after you visit the museum.

exterior of the Donora Smog Museum

The Donora Smog Museum, 595 McKean Ave., Donora, PA

Onion Dome Fever: St. Nicholas Orthodox, Donora

exterior view of onion-domed St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora

The Orbit may be cheap, but at least we love a bargain.

Like a cat’s mad scramble at the first wafts of eau d’tuna fish floating up the stairwell, throw a couple of glorious onion domes in the sky and get out of the way. The Orbit will come a-runnin’, leaving scratches in the wood floor and taking out everything on the end table as collateral damage.

Pair the steeple spectating with a nice (if too short) city step climb–its attendant views of town and the curling Monongahela River no small bonuses–and you’ve just served up an all-you-can-blog super buffet in Orbitville. Like Roger Daltrey, this blogger would call that a bargain–one of the better ones he’s seen lately.

foreground sign with removable letters saying "Sunday service 10" with St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in background, Donora, PA

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church rises at the top of the short hill that bridges Donora’s McKean Ave. business district on the flats with the residential neighborhoods up above. It is fully accessible from numerous paved roads, but a short hike on the 8th Street city steps takes the visitor straight up the hillside to the base of ol’ St. Nick’s eponymous way. The calves aren’t quite done yet, as you’ve still got another solid block-length walk uphill to the reach the church itself. The South Side Slopes, this ain’t, but the six or eight vertical stories will do in a pinch.

view up city steps to St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA

On a typically gray mid-winter day–we weren’t encumbered by any of that bothersome sunlight–the otherworldly green shapes of the church’s oxidized copper spaceship ornaments are both the brightest thing you’ll see and the most distinct forms on the horizon. Visible from pretty much anywhere in town, the big emerald orbs poke out over commercial storefronts and through bare trees, as halos on wooden homes and antennae to the aether. Come to me they seem to whisper from afar, and heed their siren song we always do.

mosaic of St. Nicholas above entryway to St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA

St. Nicholas has such a traditional, classic look that it was a little surprising to find out it had been erected in the early 1950s, replacing a smaller, 1916 structure just down the hill*. This blogger takes his sight-seeing seriously and is currently working off the demerits for failure to scrutinize (let alone photograph) the symmetrical pair of cornerstones on either side of the building’s face.

Typically, such arrangements seem to contain the same information, inscribed in English on one stone and the congregation’s original language on the other. This seems like it would be Carpatho-Russian Cyrrilic, but we’ll have to wait for the inevitable return trip make-good to verify.

Oh…and there will be a return trip. We can hear St. Nicholas calling even now…

exterior view of onion-domed St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA


* http://stnicholasorthodoxdonora.org/history.html