Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Historic Brashear Telescope Factory Wall Collapses

The historic John A. Brashear Factory building, in its hey-day, where telescopes and precise scientific instruments were produced in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. More recent photograph at end of blog post.
(Image Source: Historic Pittsburgh. Allegheny Observatory Records, 1850-1967)

By Glenn A. Walsh
Reporting for SpaceWatchtower

A wall, close to Pittsburgh's Perrysville Avenue, of the original factory building used by famous telescope-maker John A. Brashear, in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, collapsed on Monday evening. Consequently for reasons of public safety, the City of Pittsburgh (which at this point in time owned the historic, yet dilapidated structure) found it necessary to demolish the remainder of the building.

Part of a wall of the two-floor and basement factory building collapsed onto a nearby, two-floor apartment building March 16 at about 10:20 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time / Tuesday at about 2:20 Coordinated Universal Time, necessitating the evacuation of the apartment building. The American Red Cross has provided shelter to occupants of the apartment building, until city inspectors declare the apartment building safe to inhabit. The Brashear Factory building had been vacant for about 20 years.

The Brashear Factory building had been officially condemned by the city in May of 2012, due to facade and structural damage including holes in the roof. It seems the wall collapse was due to the freeze and thaw cycle of late Winter, as well as a roof that was rotted-out.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto had been trying to find funding to rehabilitate the historic building, but he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that time had just run-out and the city could not afford the cost. As a City Councilman in 2012, the Mayor had been Executive Producer of a historic documentary, “Undaunted: The Forgotten Giants of the Allegheny Observatory,” regarding the history of the Allegheny Observatory and John Brashear. The author, Glenn A. Walsh, served as a historical consultant for this documentary.

The North Side Pittsburgh building was the headquarters of the John A. Brashear Company, which specialized in high quality lenses and mirrors for telescopes and other optical devices. Later in the twentieth century, this company which produced high-quality telescopes, spectrascopes, and other high-precision scientific instruments was known as the J.W. Fecker Company, which moved out of the factory building in 1954.

Optics manufactured by the John A. Brashear Company were used in the famous Michelson-Morley physics experiment in 1887, for precisely calculating the speed of light, which eventually led to Albert Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity in 1905.

Finished in May of 1886, the Brashear Factory building was accompanied by construction of a new home for John Brashear and his family, next-door. The former Brashear home is in good condition and is currently being used as a half-way house for men with chemical dependencies.

John A. Brashear was a self-taught scientist, whose craftsmanship made the telescopes and scientific instruments he produced second-to-none in quality, in his era. His telescopes and scientific devices were sold throughout the world and were in very high demand.

For a time John Brashear was Acting Director of the Allegheny Observatory, and later for a time, Acting Chancellor of the Western University of Pennsylvania (today known as the University of Pittsburgh); in both cases, he refused permanent appointment to those positions. He was one of three Pittsburgh civic leaders to be instrumental in the design of Andrew Carnegie's Carnegie Technical Schools (today known as Carnegie Mellon University). And, he single-handedly raised the money, in one Summer, needed to build the new and much larger Allegheny Observatory building dedicated in 1912.

John Brashear died at age 79 in 1920. His ashes along with those of his wife, as well as the ashes of another former Allegheny Observatory Director, James E. Keeler, and his wife and son, are interred in a crypt in the basement of Allegheny Observatory.

The cost of the land, buildings, and factory machinery of the Brashear House and Factory on the North Side was funded by Pittsburgh philanthropist William Thaw, Vice President of the Pennsylvania Railroad and a trustee of the Western University of Pennsylvania (today known as the University of Pittsburgh). Mr. Thaw leased the land, buildings, and factory machinery to John Brashear, free-of-charge!

This lease was only terminated by John Brashear's death in 1920. William Thaw admired John Brashear, and Allegheny Observatory Director Samuel Pierpont Langley (in 1887, Professor Langley was appointed Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, then considered the greatest scientific appointment in America), and considered the money he provided to both as his donation to important scientific research.

John Brashear's original home and shop, both much smaller than the new buildings, had been located on Pittsburgh's South Side Slopes (located on the south side of the Monongahela River), above the mill where John Brashear had previously been employed before deciding to start his own telescope-making business. His new home and factory were located on the original Observatory Hill on the North Side (across the Allegheny River from Downtown Pittsburgh, and just up the hill from the site of what would become Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science in 1939), only about a block from the original Allegheny Observatory. Mr. Thaw had, wisely, decided to locate John Brashear close to Professor Langley's research facility (the Allegheny Observatory had been donated to the Western University of Pennsylvania in May of 1867).

The Brashear House and Factory buildings, on Pittsburgh's North Side, were listed on the National Register of Historic Places on 2012 December 26, after a campaign waged for such designation by Pittsburgh-area historic preservationists including the author, Glenn A. Walsh.

Last year, the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh had placed the Brashear Factory building on its annual list of the Top Ten Preservation Opportunities for 2014. The list is an annual effort, by the preservation group, to promote the restoration and reuse of historic properties.

In 1890, the main campus of the Western University of Pennsylvania relocated, from Downtown, to a site between the original Allegheny Observatory and the Brashear Factory building. However, this hilltop location had limited space for expansion, so in 1909 the University campus moved again to the Oakland section of the city, about three miles east of Downtown. By an act of the Pennsylvania General Assembly in the Summer of 1908, the name was changed from the Western University of Pennsylvania to the University of Pittsburgh.

Oakland, where the main University campus remains today, became the city's civic, educational, and medical center district. It is where Andrew Carnegie had constructed his museums and main library (Carnegie Museums of Natural History and Art, and the Main Branch of The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh) in 1895, and the Carnegie Technical Schools (today known as Carnegie Mellon University) in 1900. Andrew Carnegie's colleague, Henry Phipps, had establshed the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens here in1893. Schenley Park, one of the city's four large parks, opened in Oakland in 1889.

Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Military Museum opened in Oakand in 1910. The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania established a small museum and historical library in the Oakland neighborhood in 1914 (these were moved to a much larger building, Downtown, in 1996). Mount Mercy College (today's Carlow University) was added to the Civic Center district in 1929. And in addition to being the home to several major hospitals, even the Pittsburgh Pirates called Oakand home, at Forbes Field, from 1909 to 1970!

The loss of the Brashear Factory building is only the latest loss of historic structures related to historic Pittsburgh astronomy. The original Allegheny Observatory building, built in 1860 near the Brashear Factory building site, was demolished in the 1950s. Replaced by a much larger, three-dome, Allegheny Observatory building two miles further north in Riverview Park in 1912, the original Allegheny Observatory building had been used as an orphanage before demolition.

In the late 1990s, we lost the private astronomical observatory of Leo Scanlon, Co-Founder of the Amateur Astronomers' Association of Pittsburgh and strong advocate for the establishment of Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science. Built in 1930 next to Mr. Scanlon's home in the Summer Hill section of Pittsburgh's North Side, this observatory included the world's first all-aluminum astronomical observatory dome. Mr. Scanlon's observatory proved that aluminum was a strong enough material to hold-up such a dome. While the observatory had to be razed in the late 1990s, when Mr. Scanlon moved to a nursing home (he died in 1999 at the age of 96), the historic all-aluminum dome was preserved. In 2013, the Amateur Astronomers' Association of Pittsburgh donated this historic dome to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, to be displayed at the Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County.

In 2002, the historic mid-1880s home of Pittsburgh philanthropist Henry Buhl, Jr. (whose Buhl Foundation built Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science in 1939) was destroyed by a fire started when a kerosene heater ignited items in the house. The 3 1/2-story brick North Side home, which was vacant at the time, may have been occupied by homeless individuals who accidentally started the blaze.

The historic 1805 homestead of Henry Buhl, Jr.'s father, Christian Buhl, located in the north suburban Pittsburgh borough of Zelienople, is now a house museum operated by the Zelienople Historical Society.

The bequest of Henry Buhl, Jr. created the Buhl Foundation in 1927, which constructed America's fifth major planetarium in 1939. Henry Buhl, Jr. had owned the Boggs and Buhl Department Store, which operated from 1869 to 1958, one block south of the site where Buhl Planetarium was constructed. In 2012, Allegheny Square (originally, the town square of the former Allegheny City, until annexed to Pittsburgh in 1907) was rehabilitated and rededicated as Buhl Community Park at Allegheny Square, directly between the original Buhl Planetarium building and the site of the former Boggs and Buhl Department Store.

Originally owned by Mr. Buhl and his brother-in-law Russell H. Boggs, until Mr. Boggs' death in 1922, the North Side retail establishment catered to many wealthy clients, including several industrialists who lived less than a mile away on Ridge Avenue. Some of the former Ridge Avenue mansions are now used as classroom buildings for the main campus of the Community College of Allegheny County.

The historic 1888 mansion of Mr. Boggs, designed by famous architect H.H. Richardson (who designed the Allegheny County Courthouse, which was also completed in 1888), is now used as a bed-and-breakfast hotel. Now known as the Inn on the Mexican War Streets, located in the Mexican War Streets neighborhood of Pittsburgh's North Side (homes in this neighborhood were built shortly after the Mexican War, 1846 to 1848), the mansion sits on West North Avenue, just across the street from the large Allegheny Commons West Park.

Below is a photograph of the historic Brashear Factory building in recent years, before the wall collapse that led to demolition this week. A photograph of the building in its hey-day is located at the beginning of this blog post.
(Image Source: Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh)

More on John A. Brashear: Link >>>

More on the Allegheny Observatory: Link >>>

John Brashear - Links to Special Resources: Brashear Telescope Factory Building:
Link >>>

Related Blog Posts ---

Update: Historic Brashear Time Capsule (2015 April 9):

Link >>>


Dispute: Ownership of Brashear Time Capsule  (2015 March 26):

Link >>>

Historic Brashear Telescope Factory Time Capsule Found & Opened  (2015 March 25):

Link >>>


Brashear House & Factory: Nomination to National Register of Historic Places  (2012 Oct. 11):

Link >>>

Historic Nomination: John Brashear House & Factory, Pittsburgh (2012 Sept. 13):

Link >>>

Centennial: New Allegheny Observatory Dedication (2012 August 28): 

Link >>>


Pittsburgh's Allegheny Observatory: New History Film (2012 April 19) :
Link >>>

Source: Glenn A. Walsh Reporting for SpaceWatchtower, a project of Friends of the Zeiss.

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