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

Art/Work: Big Industry Art

mural of abstract steel mills on brick wall, Hill District, Pittsburgh, PA

Mural, Hill District

They’re striking images. Tall stacks belching a blanket of smoke that blacks out the sky. Grim men with lunch pails and work shirts. A cauldron of molten metal is poured against a skyline of towering steel vessels. The tools and symbols of power generation: hydroelectric, relay tower, a key struck by lightening. Three ironworkers team up to hammer a bar of hot steel on an anvil as beams of radiant energy stream out, ostensibly the only light source in an otherwise unlit workshop.

tile mosaic depicting various industry and innovation from commercial building in Bloomfield, Pittsburgh, PA

Mosaic, Bloomfield

Mural of steelworker, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

(light-up) Mural, Downtown

Somewhere between social realism and folk art lies the realm of steel town tributes to the workers and industries that built them. The mills are (almost) all gone–as are the coke plants, glass and aluminum producers, bridge builders and pipe rollers. But you wouldn’t know it from the public art that still exists–and continues to get created anew–all over the place.

The depictions are of landscapes and people that many Americans wouldn’t choose to decorate with: rusting blast furnaces, smoke-spewing chimney stacks, utility infrastructure, big men–and they are almost always men–working hard.

Mural depicting workers with lunch pails emerging through the pedestrian tunnel to PPG's Ford City, PA plant

Mural, Pittsburgh Plate Glass workers, Ford City

Painting of steel mill and workers with metal and neon lights mounted to brick wall, Braddock, PA

Mixed (mural with neon lights and metal sign), Braddock

Much of “new” Pittsburgh would rather not talk about the steel industry. The air has been cleaned-up (sort of*), there’s a workforce teeming in eds, meds, and….TEDs (?) over yesteryears’ union laborers, and–amazingly–we’re getting some amount of national attention on things like quality of life, affordability, and fancy food. Famously down-on-itself Pittsburgh is even starting to believe some of the hype. Civic boosters and young urbanites want to put those big smokestacks and ginormous rolling mills as far as they can in the rearview mirror.

Thankfully, though, there’s a great reverence for the people and industries that built the region. In fairness, there’s also just a lot more visual power and romance to it. It’s hard to imagine similar wall-sized tributes to tech workers, robot engineers, bankers, heart surgeons, or academics. That said, The Orbit has long considered itself the Joe Magarac of blogs**–so if you’ve got some bare bricks, give us a call. Like Norma Desmond, we’re ready for our close-up.

Mural painted on cinderblock wall of iron workers hammering hot steel on an anvil, Red Star Iron Works, Millvale, PA

Mural, Red Star Iron Works, Millvale


* The actual quality of the air is still a mess–you just can’t see the problem quite so obviously any more.
** Or at least the Joe Pesci of blogs. You think this blogger is a clown?

Frankie Files: Where’d You Go, Joe?

St. Michael Church, Munhall sans statue of Saint Joseph the Worker

St. Michael Church, Munhall sans statue of Saint Joseph the Worker

Superfan-turned-Munhall Bureau Chief Lee Floyd files his first story for The Orbit with a classic Pittsburgh who-done-it? and where-did-it-go? on a great piece of religion-meets-industry history from the former steel capital of the world.


As a tot, I was cruisin’ around Munhall in Cathy (my mother’s third-owner Cordoba) and watching the power lines move like waves with each pole we passed. Suddenly, I exclaimed, “There’s the Statue of Liberty!” Wrong state, wrong artist, wrong blog! I said it, and my family never let me forget it.

While he didn’t create anything quite as well-known as Lady Liberty, Frank Vittor (1888-1968), Italian-born sculptor and artist, has at least 50 works in and around the Pittsburgh area, including the prominent icons of Schenley Park and Bucco Field. The piece that many Steel Valley residents remember most-fondly is the statue of St. Joseph the Worker. High atop St. Michael’s bell tower, he was certainly hard to miss by anyone passing through the area.

Front of St. Michael Church featuring tympanum, figure in a niche, and rose window

Front of St. Michael Church featuring tympanum, figure in a niche, and rose window

The Slovak St. Michael Parish built the eponymous church in 1927. Though adorned with beautiful sculptures and architectural details, it was not until 1967 that the church acquired the statue of St. Joseph the worker for its impressive bell tower.

Six parishes, including St. Michael, merged to become St. Maximilian Kolbe in ’92. Eventually, the building closed beneath him and the statue ended its 44-year lofty exhibition in January 2010. Though he ended up about a mile away at the new home for the St. Max parish, some people may have thought he skipped town. Now I’ve heard that a saint’s feet don’t touch the ground, and while that my technically be true in this case, one could argue that his pedestal shouldn’t either.
Saint Joseph the Worker statue by Frank Vittor

Saint Joseph the Worker by Frank Vittor in its new location at St. Maximilian Kolbe

“After designing a six-foot-tall plaster model, Vittor sent it to the Bruni Foundry in Rome for casting in aluminum and then to the Vatican for a papal blessing by Pope Paul VI. The sculptor viewed this final statue as another permanent tribute to the working man that he so admired. When Vittor passed away two years later, his Saint Joseph the Worker capped a prolific career…” (Iorizzo, Rossi 153)

I can’t think of a better tribute to the working man of Pittsburgh than what appears to be ladles of molten steel dumpin’ dahn on the world with flames shootin’ aht da back. Typically Joe carries a small wooden L-square and a woodworking tool or staff of flowers. In this case, Vittor fitted him with a badass riveted bar of steel and modern working boots. Now you should also roll up your sleeves and get back to work.

Photos and text by Lee Floyd.

St. Joseph the Worker statue detail of steel cauldron

Why the equator is hot


An Orbit side trip: Reading Lee’s piece and seeing the molten steel pour down on the globe, we couldn’t help but think of one of our favorite, beautifully unfortunate corporate identities: Sherwin-Williams Paint’s old “Cover the Earth” image that perversely renders nearly the entire globe dripping with blood red Sherwin-Williams paint, as if this were an ideal world to strive for.

According to the Sherwin-Williams history/timeline, the concept goes back to the 1890’s, so we can’t claim they were biting Frank Vittor (although Frank may well have been aware of Sherwin-Williams). A special side note to this side trip is that “The paint…is not pouring over the North Pole, as we tend to assume, but over Cleveland, Ohio, the center of the paint universe.” No comment.

Sherwin-Williams "Cover the Earth" identity showing a can pouring dripping red paint on the earth

Sherwin-Williams “Cover the Earth” identity

Sources: