Squirrel Hill

Pittsburgh Squirrel Hill

Exiting the Carnegie parking lot, go proceed north on S. Craig Street, then take a right onto Fifth Avenue and drive 1.1 miles.  Congratulate yourself if you are able to make the quick right onto Murray Hill Avenue on the first pass.  Unless your vehicle has an offroad suspension, you should slow to a creep as you ascend the Belgian block pavers toward the top and the McClung house, number 1180.  Here Murray Hill intersects the much smoother Fair Oaks.  One guidebook to the city calls Murray Hill’s archaic paving “exclusion by cobblestone” (Seeing Pittsburgh).  The former McClung house is a private residence, but neighbors do not mind Cather fans parking along the curb.  Alternate parking for vans and larger groups is available at Chatham University, which has a parking lot that opens midway up Murray Hill (ask at the security office for a guest tag).

The current owners undertook a comprehensive, down-to-the-studs restoration of the house after purchasing it from Robert and Betty Mertz in the 1990s.  Although iWiIlla’s writing room

In 1895, the McClungs had moved from neighboring Allegheny City (now the North Side) to 1176 Murray Hill Avenue, which survives as as the somber neighbor to their better known mansion.   Helen Cather Southwick recalled that her aunt had stayed with the McClungs for a short time in 1176 Murray Hill in the fall of 1899 (159).  According to the same source, the considerably larger house on the corner, 1180, was deeded to Judge Samuel McClung on March 1, 1901, and Southwick concludes that “Cather must have moved into the house at about the same time as the McClung family did” (161).  A three-and a half story Queen Anne mansion, it afforded enough bedrooms for the McClungs’ six children and their houseguest.  On the third floor, which Willa shared with the McClungs’ two live-in servants (whom the 1900 census described as a 19-year-old German cook and a 16-year-old chambermaid named Jeannine Augusta),  Cather had her own bedroom, a small writing space in a converted third-floor sewing room, and her own bathroom.  If she returned late from the theater or from musical evenings at the Nevins’ Vineacre or the Slacks’ Bonnie Brae, she could ascend to her room via the rear, servants’ staircase, avoiding waking the family.

Her new neighborhood, like her home, had space to spare. Murray Hill Avenue then held few houses, and Squirrel Hill was aptly named for its many oak trees.  Cather has Young Albert Engelhardt admire Judge Hammersley’s “fine oak trees” as Albert hikes up the hill, but visitors will note that the dominant trees are sycamores.   Fair Oaks Street which joined Murray Hill at the McClungs’ corner, was just being repaved in 1909 (the McClung house is visible on right?).   Because 1180 commands the corner, Catherphiles can peer up at the back of the house from Fair Oaks.  The rightmost dormer of the rear of the house was Cather’s writing room, where she wrote “Paul’s Case,” “A Sculptor’s Funeral,” put together the two halves of O Pioneers!, and copyedited The Song of the Lark.

In addition to the two live-in servants, the McClungs probably employed a part-time laundress and a chauffeur (who lived elsewhere) and hired additional help when they entertained important people at dinner parties (Byrne and Snyder).  After Willa became part of the household, she and Isabelle hosted their own teas for peers and favorite students.

Cather could not resist using her adoptive Pittsburgh family as the models for Judge Hammersley and his widowed daughter, Margaret Parmenter in “Double Birthday” (1929) probably because the McClungs’ own moves responded to the tide of fashion among the wealthy elite.  When Sam McClung began his law career in partnership with his brother William, both lived near Shields Station (Edgeworth), not far from Ethelbert Nevin’s relatives.  As early as 1852 the railroad had made commuting to the city practical from Edgeworth and other villages in the Sewickley Valley.  Every weekday, men like Sam McClung and Robert Nevin took the commuter express, which covered the fourteen miles to their downtown offices in under thirty minutes.   As Sewickley’s star waned, both Samuel and William McClung had moved to the west side of Allegheny City by 1889, which was an exclusive and highly regimented neighborhood, to the extent that a family’s street address reflected their rank in Pittsburgh’s Blue Book.   William, the elder brother and the firm’s senior partner, resided at a surprisingly prestigious address–228 North Avenue, literally next door to millionaires (“Across the River”).  Sam McClung’s Locust Avenue address (from 1889-1895) was a few rungs below his brother on Allegheny’s social ladder, but still eminently respectable.  Isabelle’s youth spent in Allegheny no doubt inspired Margaret Parmenter’s summer holidays with her aunt, when she knew the Englehardt boys on Allegheny City’s German east side, whose house on the park faced the Irish and English west side.

Other Attractions

Chatham University, which in Cather’s day was The Pennsylvania College for Women, was the alma mater of Rachel Carson, the founding voice of the modern environmental movement.  Cather probably attended occasional lectures at the Pennsylvania College for Women.
Squirrel Hill is filled with trendy, upscale boutiques, historic taverns, and eateries.  One of the best restaurants for Mediterranean food, pizza, vegetarian dishes, or desserts such as cheesecake is Aladdin’s Restaurant at 5878 Forbes Ave, Pittsburgh 15217

Leave a Reply