A Place in Time spotlights a significant cultural resource - a district, site, building, structure or object - entered in the National Register of Historic Places.
Roslyn Place is one of the few surviving wooden-paved streets in the country and the only one made entirely in the Nicholson pavement method. Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, PHMC

Roslyn Place is one of the few surviving wooden-paved streets in the country and the only one made entirely in the Nicholson pavement method.
Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, PHMC

It’s not often that architectural historians look down — we usually leave that to the archaeologists — but on Roslyn Place, one of Pennsylvania’s newest National Register–listed historic districts, we turned our heads to the ground to consider something that is rare in America: a wood-paved street. Roughly 26,000 oak blocks make up the 250-foot-long cul-de-sac surrounded by 18 houses in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood.

Roslyn Place is the only surviving uncovered wood-paved street in Pittsburgh. Although a handful of partially wood-paved streets exist nationally, Roslyn Place remains the only street in the country paved entirely in accordance with the technique known as Nicholson pavement, a method patented in 1859 by Samuel Nicolson (1791–1868). The benefit of using wood for streets when compared to other paving options at the time, like cobblestones or Belgian blocks, is that it provided a flat and more forgiving surface, which was quieter and more comfortable for horses and pedestrians alike. To preserve the wood and prevent the road surface from rotting, the 4-by-8-inch oak blocks were injected with creosote.

This small, somewhat hidden enclave was designed and developed by Thomas Rodd (1849–1929), who was the Pennsylvania Railroad chief engineer for all lines west of Pittsburgh. In 1889 Rodd and his wife Mary moved their family from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and purchased two large adjacent lots in Shadyside that abutted the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks. After more than a decade of owning this land, Rodd submitted to the Pittsburgh City Council his plan to subdivide the larger lot into 18 smaller parcels encircling a central road.

In 1915, after the city council approved the plan, Rodd proceeded to build the neighborhood of his design. Eighteen Colonial Revival–style houses were clustered together; some were detached, others were paired as twins, and four were joined together sitting at the end of the cul-de-sac. What gives Roslyn Place its true character is the consistency of the design, scale and uniformity of the buildings to create a sense of place within the district. The Colonial Revival style, with elements of the Georgian period, can be seen in the symmetry of the brick facades and interior chimneys, the eight-over-eight wooden double-hung sash windows, the dormer windows on the hipped slate roofs, the bracketed and coffered semicircular hoods over the front doors, fluted door surrounds, and pedimented porches.

 

The Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office held the public meeting for the National Register nomination for Roslyn Place in the middle of the wooden street. Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, PHMC

The Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office held the public meeting for the National Register nomination for Roslyn Place in the middle of the wooden street.
Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, PHMC

Even though Rodd had the land subdivided so that each house sat on a separate parcel, he retained ownership over 17 of the 18 houses, and they were rented into the 1950s. With the Rodd family retaining ownership of the entire neighborhood for more than 35 years, Thomas Rodd’s singular vision for this enclave was preserved, both in its edifices and its wood-paved street. The variety of sizes of the houses on Roslyn Place has in recent years attracted a diverse mixture of occupants who are proud of the community in which they live and continue to advocate on behalf of their historic street. In the 1980s, when the street was in need of extensive repairs and the City of Pittsburgh wanted to pave over it with asphalt, it was the residents who pushed for the restoration of the wooden paving, thus keeping the street’s unique place in Pittsburgh’s history secure. In 2019 the nomination of the Roslyn Place Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places was supported by 100 percent of the residents. And, in a first for the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, the public meeting for the nomination was held in the middle of the street.

 

Recent listings in the National Register of Historic Places include Lawrenceville Historic District, Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, and Andrew S. and Elizabeth Miller House, Bellevue, Allegheny County.

 

Jenna Solomon is a historic preservation specialist who reviews National Register nominations in PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office.