East Liberty

Pittsburgh East Liberty

Settled in 1810 along the turnpike to Philadelphia, East Liberty by Cather’s arrival had become a railroad suburb and trolley nexus.  By 1900, its Baum Boulevard was the center of the city’s automotive culture, with dealers, garages, and the first filling station.  In “A Gold Slipper” Marshall McCann and Kitty Ayreshire race through East Liberty station to catch the last train for New York.   When Kitty jokes about the station’s name, guessing it is Pittsburgh’s red light district, Cather is poking fun at her former neighborhood, a staid settlement she had rendered quite accurately as Cordelia Street in “Paul’s Case.”  The “liberty” in East Liberty signified free grazing land around a city, not moral abandon, as Killy Ayreshire jokes in “A Red Slipper.”  Cather boarded in East Liberty during most of her first five years in Pittsburgh (see discussion below).

“Cordelia Street” and Home Monthly offices

Cather’s first impressions of Pittsburgh were formed during the week she spent as the guest of her employer, Home Monthly publisher James Wickliffe Axtell, at 6338 Marchand Street.  To reach this neighborhood, approach East Liberty via Fifth Avenue; turn left onto Shady Avenue and continue 0.32 miles, then turn right onto Marchand Street.

6338 Marchand remains, but what Cather knew as a freestanding, ivy-covered house is now built into a solid row of townhouses. Cather was given the bedroom of Axtell’s daughter Clara, and described for Mariel Gere “the Puritan maid’s” collection of Bibles and religious novels. She also noted the stern portrait of “Grandpapa” Philip, a minister of the Cumberland Church, presiding over the Axtells’ parlor.

Both James W. Axtell and Grandpapa Philip were deeply committed to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.  James Axtell wrote several books on Sunday School administration; he is probably the target of the satire of “Sabbath school picnics” and “the shorter catechism” in “Paul’s Case.”  James’s father, Philip was the main force behind the founding of the Shady Avenue Presbyterian Church, which he called “the child of his old age.”  Although Philip was an ordained minister, he never preached in his own church.  In 1896, when Cather attended Sunday services with the Axtells, she heard a sermon by the Rev. James Robert Henry, a well-educated minister who not only became her prototype for “the Cumberland Minister,” in “Paul’s Case,” but also encouraged her to read Gibbon, making him the likely prototype of the “bicycling minister” in “’A Death in the Desert.’”  Both members of the Pittsburgh Writers Club, Cather and Henry became quite close friends: he penned an amusing profile for The Home Monthly titled “Oxford in Old England” and, after a Writers Club reception, invited her to meet Zenda novelist Anthony Hope Hawkins, whom he had known at Oxford. The online archive of the Cumberland Church offers rich biographies and photographs of both Axtells; the eulogy for the Rev. Philip Axtell is by Rev. J.R. Henry: <http://www.cumberland.org/HFCPC>.

The Axtells’ church, many times renamed but externally unchanged, remains as the Shady Avenue Christian Assembly at the corner of Shady Ave. and Aurelia St.  To reach it from Marchand, return to Shady Ave., then turn right and proceed one block.  Aurelia Street, the prototype of Cordelia Street, is on your right, with the church on the corner.   Note that the church’s cornerstone, dated 1911, is misleading; the congregation was founded in 1898, and both halves of the segmented building are visible in a photograph from a 1907 commercial digest.

To the left and behind the church, you will see a Giant Eagle supermarket parking lot at 203 Shady Avenue that is the former site of the offices of Axtell, Rush, Orr & Co., who published The Home Monthly in the same building as their National Stockman and Farmer until April 1897, when the publisher moved to the Heeran Building downtown.

After examining the church, proceed down Aurelia Street, noting the middle-class houses “all exactly alike” lining its right hand side.  Drivers are cautioned that Aurelia, long symbolizing conformity to literate Pittsburghers, is a one-way street.  Although the uniformity of these dwellings may suggest company-built housing, East Liberty was settled in the 1850s as a railroad suburb, so the burgers who purchased these houses were probably white-collar workers like Paul’s father, who seems to have been a manager at the Westinghouse Streetcar Plant in West Pittsburgh.  The left-hand side of Aurelia is given over to more recent townhouses more typical of Shadyside and Squirrel Hill.   Pause to sniff for “the unescapeable odours of cooking,” then return to Shady Ave. via the alley behind these houses.

A Note on Cather’s Boardinghouses: East Liberty and Oakland

Although none of these five houses survive, the following discussion attempts to describe the type of life Cather led in rented rooms with a common table.

After partaking the Axtells’ chilly hospitality during her first week in Pittsburgh, Cather must have been relieved to discover accommodations at Mrs. Harriet Meskimen’s boardinghouse at 309 South Highland Avenue, a street “practically given over to boarding houses” just six blocks from the Axtell & Orr offices (“Boarding”).  She told the Gere sisters she commuted to work via bicycle, occasionally racing streetcars.

In 1902, writing from the comfort of the McClung house, Cather as “Henry Nickelmann” satirized her boardinghouse existence in a never-reprinted article published in the Pittsburgh Gazette and titled “Boarding, Not Living: Some Types One Meets in the Game of Progressive Eating”:

Boarding houses are proverbially gregarious; where you find one you will always find another.  In the East End, Marchand street, Alder street, Shady avenue and South Highland avenue have been for some years practically given over to boarding houses. . . . Five years ago if you met a homesick looking man whose accent proclaimed him to be a stranger, if he were moderately despondent in manner, you could safely address him a Mr. Blank of Marchand street.  If that missed him, South Highland was sure to catch him.  Many of these people contracted the atmosphere of their particular boarding house in a little time, and a veteran could almost tell from a stranger’s attitude toward the city at what table he fed and what people were helping to form his impressions of his new surroundings.  There was a Shady avenue pessimism, an Alder street tedium vitae and a Weltschmerz [world-weariness] that belonged peculiarly to Marchand street.


While satirizing the Axtells’ neighborhood, Cather also gently mocked her own long residence in East Liberty.   The article focuses on types of boarders, or as Nickelmann put it, “Varieties of the Genus Crank.”  The major distinction he discovered between housemates was between the longterm, settled boarders and the “flitters,” those who moved from place to place, hoping to find better accommodations.  Henry/Willa admits to being a flitter in the past:  “I used to be lured from place to place by Arabian tales of a clever crowd here or a cheerful one there, but I found these to be airy fancies, built upon nothing.  In the end I always found the patrons of my boarding houses the same at bottom, like the viands” (“Boarding”).   As a veteran of many moves, Henry recommends that a young man stay put and make the best of his relationship with his landlady:

On the whole, the most successful boarder is the constant one who endures quietly and sticks it out in one place.  He humors his landlady and she humors him.  They make concessions on both sides and become adjusted to each other.  In time the old boarder becomes a tradition.  Newcomers in the house are taught to respect him.  They would no sooner take his place at the dinner table if he chanced to be late than they would usurp his pew at church.  The servants respect him.  His shaving water goes up him every morning, his private bottle of beer is on ice for him every night.

Like Thea Kronberg during the long Chicago winter she studied with Madison Bowers, Willa seems to have been a flitter, but also cultivated long term relationships with favorite landladies.   In 1897, when Mrs. Meskimen moved her business to Oakland, within strolling distance of the Carnegie Institute, Cather, who had just returned from summering in Red Cloud and been hired by the Pittsburgh Leader, followed her. The federal census of 1900 shows that Mrs. Meskimen’s large house on 304 S. Craig Street had ten boarders, the majority of whom were unmarried clerks and salemen in their thirties.   Cooking and laundering for these ten were Harriet (a 63-year- old widow), her 30-year-old unmarried daughter Florence, an Irish housekeeper, an Irish cook, and a twelve-year-old Hungarian girl-of-all-work: fifteen people in all.

Cather must not have liked this crowded house, for she moved back to East Liberty in 1899, where she sojourned briefly with Mrs. Eliza Davis at 341 Sheridan Avenue, a household of six.  This arrangement must not have been satisfactory either, for she moved again quickly to the house of Mrs. Marie Eyth on 6012 Harvard Street in East Liberty in 1900.  Like Thea Kronberg, Cather must have been weary of moving about.  Flitting boarders, according to Henry Nickelmann, “always believe they have bettered matters by changing [houses], but in a few years you will find them where they began, starting the old road again . . . they all get disciplined in some way or other, and some fine day you see them go up the old steps on South Highland, hunting for their latch key.” Just 38 years old in 1900, Mrs. Eyth was within a decade of Willa’s age.  As importantly, Cather was the only boarder, sharing the house with Mrs. Eyth and her 59-year-old mother.  George Seibel observed that Mrs. Eyth supplied Cather with cups of strong black coffee when she returned from the Leader offices in mid-afternoon to write stories (Byrne and Snyder 95).  Marie Eyth could also be prevailed upon to play the latest composition by Ethelbert Nevin on the house piano (31).

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