A Place in Time spotlights a significant cultural resource - a district, site, building, structure or object - entered in the National Register of Historic Places.

Charleroi, in eastern Washington County, possesses a formidable concentration of historic and architecturally significant residential and commercial buildings. Nearly seventeen hundred of the borough’s buildings have earned designation as the Charleroi Historic District, added to the National Register of Historic Places on November 9, 2007.

Developed in 1890 by capitalists and real estate speculators on the western bank of the Monongahela River, Charleroi experienced phenomenal sales prompted by the region’s booming industries. Its promoters and investors showed little concern for the community’s design and aesthetics, but concentrated on creating a major new industry, the large Charleroi Plate Glass Company, and recruiting Pittsburgh manufacturers to relocate along the borough’s riverfront. Promising employment opportunities made it possible for the Charleroi Land Company to sell more than one thousand small residential and commercial parcels in a relatively brief period of time, earning the community the moniker “The Magic City.” Within three years of its creation, Charleroi reached a population of five thousand residents. From its very beginning, Charleroi boasted an unusually large number of retail stores for a community of its size, most of which were located in modest storefront buildings. Beginning in 1900, the borough became increasingly important as a regional shopping hub, building on the commercial developments that had accompanied its meteoric growth. From the 1920s through the 1950s, Charleroi emerged as a retail and wholesale center for residents of western Pennsylvania’s Monongahela Valley.

Charleroi’s earliest buildings, built between 1890 and 1915, represent an extensive concentration of small dwellings and storefronts, including a number of scaled-down versions of the Queen Anne and Colonial Revival styles popular at the time. While these buildings give the Charleroi Historic District an undeniable uniformity of scale and character, later buildings designed in the Classical Revival style lend a sense of maturity to the streetscapes. Some of the community’s buildings are the best examples of the known works of local architects R. L. Barnhart, John Merwin Beall, S. Lloyd Beall, and J. W. Ramsey.

With much of its integrity intact, Charleroi is characterized not by the size or style of any particular building, but by the repeated vernacular building forms that create a strong sense of predetermined urban design. In addition to the uniform rows of repeated houses that make up the majority of each block, buildings erected for neighborhood stores were located at street corners, providing a “bookend” effect for the dwellings and reinforcing the appearance of an urban plan.

The Charleroi Historic District comprises about 80 percent of the borough and corresponds closely to the portion of the community that was laid out in two large plans of lots in 1890. Of the historic district’s 1,693 buildings, nearly 800 are front-gabled houses, mainly built of wood frame, two stories tall, and two to three bays wide. Ten company houses built in brick by the Charleroi Plate Glass Company in 1890 are unlike all the other housing in the community — they are three-story duplexes with flat roofs. There are 112 Queen Anne style houses with distinctive building elements, ninety-two buildings in the Colonial Revival style, fifteen in the Gothic Revival style, several in the Dutch Colonial Revival style, and a handful in the Norman Revival style. Other styles represented in the district include Mission, Craftsman, Italianate, Greek Revival, Art Nouveau, Beaux Arts, Cottage, Shingle, and Tudor Revival. At least 160 buildings have been identified as bungalows.

To many, the community’s name is as unusual as its rich meld of architectural styles. Promoters selected Charleroi because the mix of industries was to include glass factories, coal operations, and iron and steel plants—the very industries for which Charleroi, Belgium, was well known. They had also hoped to attract Belgian glass workers, engineers, industrialists, and investors to their new community. One of Charleroi’s prominent residents was Irish immigrant John K. Tener (1863–1946), early baseball legend and, from 1911 to 1915, governor of Pennsylvania (see “Major League Governor John Kinley Tener” by Richard C. Saylor, Summer 2005).

 

Information and background about the Charleroi Historic District was obtained from the National Register nomination initiated by Terry A. Necciai, RA, while a principal of Terry A. Necciai, RA, Historic Preservation Consulting. He is a project architect with the Alexandria, Virginia, office of John Milner Associates Inc.

 

The editor gratefully acknowledges Carol Lee, National Register and Survey Coordinator of PHMC’s Bureau for Historic Preservation, for her assistance with this installment of A Place in Time.