South Side

Pittsburgh South Side Flats

The core settlement of this two-mile stretch along the Monongahela River, across from downtown, was originally named “Old Birmingham” in honor of the English industrial city that was the birthplace of its founder, Dr. Nathaniel Bedford.  It was consolidated with the city of Pittsburgh in 1872 and renamed the South Side.  South Side is divided equally between “flats” and “slopes”:  the Monongahela’s floodplain and the gentler terraces of 367-foot-high Mount Washington.  As Franklin Toker has noted, after the Civil War this topographical divide became ethnic and architectural as well:  Slavs tended to settle in brick row houses on the flats, while Germans occupied frame houses on the slopes.

Begin the tour by crossing the Smithfield Bridge from downtown.  This is the bridge that Albert crosses on foot in “Double Birthday,” contemplating the “lights along the sheer cliffs of Mount Washington, high above the river.”

To the right of the Smithfield Bridge landing is Station Square (to enter the parking lot, turn left onto Carson St. after the bridge), a complex of shops and eateries, anchored by a Sheraton Hotel—a convenient stop at the beginning or end of this South Side tour.  Behind Station Square is the lower berth of the Monongahela Incline, a cable car that trucks commuters and tourists alike up and down Mount Washington (2 minutes, and about $1.00, each way).  The viewing area at the top of this incline, perched just above the convergence of the Allegheny and Monongahela into the Ohio, offers a breathtaking and instructive prospect of the city.

114 South Seventeenth St.  To reach the touchstone of Cather’s South Side experience, continue east on Carson St. to the area of S. 17th St.  Find meter parking on Carson St., or, alternatively, turn right on S. 18th St. (S. 17th St. is one-way in the opposite direction), proceed two blocks, double back on 17th St., and find parking near 114 S. 17th St (a private residence). This two-story brick row house was rented by Cather’s cultured German friends, the editor George Seibel and his wife Helen, in 1896-97.  Cather came here weekly to read French and German literature; she celebrated Christmas here as well, in the German tradition, once with Dorothy Canfield (the future novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher) as her companion.  Cather published a 1902 newspaper profile of the neighborhood entitled “On the Christmas Side: Germans Observe Many Quaint Yuletide Customs Brought Over from the Fatherland.”  At the time the Slavic character of this neighborhood was still taking shape; Cather remembered it as German.

Cather had this immigrant German culture in mind when, in 1929, she used 114 S. 17th as the prototype for Albert and Uncle Albert Engelhardt’s home in “Double Birthday,” “a little two-story brick house, a workingman’s house” in “a queer part of the city, on one of the dingy streets that run uphill off noisy Carson Street.”  In the story the Engelhardts occupy a second floor apartment, which is approached “by a narrow paved alley at the side of the building” leading to “an outside flight of wooden stairs at the back.”  This narrow pathway is visible behind a fence to the right of the house.  The Engelhardts lease the downstairs rooms to the family of a retired German glass engraver named Rudder, who was once employed by Albert’s father.  Old Birmingham, with 76 glass factories, was in fact the center of American glass manufacturing after the Civil War.

St. Paul of the Cross Monastery. 148 Monastery Ave., NE corner St. Paul St.  To reach this South Side landmark, follow S 18th St. about a mile up the slopes and turn right on Monastery Ave. This Romanesque-Gothic style monastery, designed by German immigrant architect Charles S. Bartberger and completed in 1854, is the original home of the Passionist Fathers in the U.S.  Dramatically situated atop the South Side slopes, the building is mentioned in “Double Birthday” as an occasional destination of Albert and Uncle Albert Engelhardt:  “Sometimes on a fine Sunday, his nephew would put him aboard a street car that climbs the hills beyond Mount Oliver and take him to visit an old German graveyard and monastery.”  The graveyard mentioned is St. Michael’s German Catholic Cemetery between Quarry St. and Arlington Ave.  Both monastery and cemetery are associated with St. Michael’s Church (on Pius St. at Brosville, dedicated in 1861 and now closed).  This church, another Bartberger design—this one in the German Romanesque or Rundbogenstil (Round-Arch Style)—looms halfway up the slopes and is visible just beneath the monastery, calling to mind the opening words of Henry Adams’s Mont St. Michel and Chartres, “The archangel loved heights.”

Restaurants, etc.  The bohemianism that Cather enjoyed with the Seibels on the South Side, and which the Engelhardts nurture in “Double Birthday,” is nowadays at large in the neighborhood as a whole.  The blocks between 12th  St. and 20th St. on Carson are thriving with bookstores, theatres, cinemas, cafes and funky eateries offering everything from sulvaki to sushi.

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