Mt. Lebanon Historic District

A Place in Time spotlights a significant cultural resource - a district, site, building, structure or object - entered in the National Register of Historic Places.
Parker Drive in Mt. Lebanon’s Parker Gardens residential subdivision features rolled curbs, brick streets, and large houses in period styles. Courtesy Skelly & Loy Inc.

Parker Drive in Mt. Lebanon’s Parker Gardens residential subdivision features rolled curbs, brick streets, and large houses in period styles. Courtesy Skelly & Loy Inc.

Although Henry Ford had introduced the Model T in 1908, making the automobile affordable for the average American, it was not until the 1920s that automobile ownership really began to rise. In 1910 there were 500,000 cars in use. By 1920 the number rose to 9.5 million. By 1930 it sprang to 27 million. With so many cars, people who worked in cities were no longer tied to railroads or streetcar lines. They now could drive anywhere they wanted outside of town, leading to a new form of suburban development.

Auto-oriented suburbanization in the South Hills area of Pittsburgh, however, did not immediately boom, because the steeply graded topography of the region was just too much for early cars to overcome. The region was cut off from the city by the front-face escarpment of Mt. Washington, a ridge that severely impeded travel into and out of the city. The situation had been ameliorated somewhat by the construction of a streetcar line and tunnel through the escarpment in 1901. The streetcar passed through Dormont and into Mt. Lebanon, but the limited carrying capacity of streetcars could not keep up with population growth in the South Hills.

Starting in 1924, with the opening of the Liberty Tunnels through the escarpment for automobile travel, the South Hills experienced rapid population growth and suburbanization. At Mt. Lebanon, in the area that is now a historic district, a few subdivisions along the streetcar line grew into a massive automobile suburb consisting of 38 residential subdivision plans, six schools, seven churches, two large parks, several landscaped parklets and two commercial districts, all covering an area of 1,306 acres. The growth in Mt. Lebanon is highlighted by the number of building permits issued: From 1924 until the end of World War II, an average of 189 permits were issued per year, with a high of 424 in 1928 and a low of 0 in 1944. Between 1920 and 1930, the population jumped 494 percent, from 2,258 to 13,403. Automobile ownership increased from six cars in 1912 to 3,966 by 1934.

The automobile-oriented residential subdivisions of Mt. Lebanon featured curvilinear streets designed to conform to the topography of the area and to provide scenic vistas, as well as views of individual building lots. Many streets had brick paving and some had rolled curbs to protect the wheels of the automobiles. The subdivisions also included parklets, providing greenspace for the inhabitants. The sizable building lots featured relatively large houses, generally two stories, set back a distance from the street. Garages were part of these subdivisions, but they were not the focus of the lots. The houses were mostly constructed of brick and stone in the popular architectural styles of the day, such as Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, French Renaissance Revival, Bungalow/Craftsman, and Foursquare. Property owners were free to choose their own architects and builders, and this accounts for the wide variety of styles. Even in residential subdivisions, which were more regulated, homeowners could choose their own builder or architect, but the plans had to be reviewed and approved first.

The type of suburban development that occurred at Mt. Lebanon would not last. Circumstances following World War II would fundamentally alter suburbanization, not only in the Pittsburgh region but throughout the United States. Curvilinear streets continued to characterize these developments, but the large lots with a variety of housing types set back from the road gave way to small lots with houses made from standardized plans and prefabricated materials. The goal of these suburbs was to meet the needs of a growing population, including 6 million returning veterans, and to address the lack of investment in new housing that was seen in many places across the country during the Great Depression and World War II.

In 2014 the Mt. Lebanon Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places for its significance as a premier interwar automobile suburb.

 

Recent listings in the National Register of Historic Places include Beck Farm, Walker Township, Centre County; David Mayer House, Manheim Township, Lancaster County; Experimental and Safety Research Coal Mines, South Park Township, Allegheny County; Mine Roof Simulator, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, South Park Township, Allegheny County; Penn Wynn House Apartments, Philadelphia; and Washington Memorial Chapel, Upper Merion Township, Montgomery County.

 

Keith Heinrich is a historic preservation specialist who coordinates the National Register Program for the western part of Pennsylvania at PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office.