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The Little House That Did: Sunnyledge, Inspiring an Architectural Landscape

MONDAY, JANUARY 9, 2012

By


Along Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh’s fashionable Shadyside area sits a somewhat plain brick house, larger than many by today’s standards, but still modest in comparison to the 19th century mansions that remain on the boulevard. 

But if you listen, this understated house speaks volumes about the people who called it home, and the men who built it and many other buildings throughout western Pennsylvania and New England.

Sunnyledge was erected in 1886 (completed in 1888), the commission of an architectural firm out of Boston by the name of Longfellow, Alden & Harlow. Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow, (nephew of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow), Frank Ellis Alden and Alfred Branch Harlow had all previously worked under the master, Henry Hobson Richardson, at various times.

Richardson, for whom the Richardson Romanesque style is named, is responsible for several prominent Pittsburgh structures, most notably the Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail.

 Allegheny County Courthouse

 Pamela Simmons

Today Richardson’s Allegheny County Courthouse holds its own amidst a sea of 20th century skyscrapers.

 Bridge of Sighs

 Pamela Simmons

The courthouse and jail are connected by the “Bridge of Sighs,” a walkway to the new home of prisoners whose luck didn’t go so well in the courthouse.

Sunnyledge’s owner, Dr. James H. McClelland, founder of the currently well-established Shadyside Hospital (originally the Pittsburgh Homeopathic Hospital), set about to build a house that could accommodate his immediate family, four siblings (Robert, Will, Mamie and Sallie), and a doctor’s office and waiting room, complete with a separate entrance for his medical practice.

 Dr. J.H. McClelland

 Pamela Simmons

 Portrait of Dr. James McClelland in the Sunnyledge library.

Local and successful architect George Orth submitted an initial design to McClelland, which was rejected for being too “gingerbread.” (Download a pdf of Orth’s Sunnyledge plans here.) McClelland knew that the Queen Anne style was on its way out and was impressed by the new Richardson courthouse going up downtown.

 Orth Sunnyledge elevation

 Courtesy Robert Meyerjack

 Elevation of George Orth’s proposed design for Sunnyledge.

The story, as passed on by McClelland’s daughters, goes, “He got into his buggy, rode down to the courthouse and asked H.H. Richardson to design him a house.” There is evidence that McClelland and Richardson also discussed the building of a stable as early as 1882, but the stable was never built and a rendering of it, once in existence, seems to have disappeared.

When Richardson died in 1886, the Sunnyledge commission landed in the laps of Longfellow, Alden & Harlow. (Download a pdf of Longfellow, Alden & Harlow’s Sunnyledge plans here.) Well established in New England but not yet in Pittsburgh, Sunnyledge became a pivotal point in the history of Pittsburgh’s architectural landscape, as the firm went on to design and execute many buildings in and around the city.

This quote from Margaret Floyd Henderson’s comprehensive book on the subject, Architecture After Richardson: Regionalism before Modernism–Longfellow, Alden, and Harlow in Boston and Pittsburgh, demonstrates how important the Sunnyledge commission was to the future of their business in Pittsburgh. “The lot is very steep and not easy to handle . . . out in the East End, the swell suburb of P[ittsburgh]. It makes me tremble to think how much depends on this house for our future success here. It will make or break us.”

 Longfellow, Alden & Harlow Sunnyledge elevation

 Courtesy of Sunnyledge

 Longfellow, Alden & Harlow front elevation of Sunnyledge.

Longfellow, Alden & Harlow Sunnyledge elevation identification

Contrasting with Orth’s ornate Queen Anne design, Sunnyledge was described by Longfellow in Henderson Floyd’s book as, “very simple and bricky and solid, but has a certain style of its own.”

 Sunnyledge 1980s

 Pamela Simmons

 Sunnyledge, ivy-covered in the mid-80s.

Despite its name, sunlight was at a premium at the Sunnyledge site. It is built on a shallow slice of land at the foot of a steep grade. Longfellow, Alden & Harlow employed a solution addressing both circumstances that they would repeat in future commissions. The staircase runs parallel along the back wall of the house, allowing room for a deeper reception area. Tall, ornate windows run from the upper level down, transcending the second floor and thereby providing light to both levels.

 Sunnyledge staircase

 Pamela Simmons

Sunnyledge staircase first floor (above) and second floor landing (below).
 Sunnyledge staircase upper level

In Henderson Floyd’s book, credit for Sunnyledge is attributed to just Longfellow and Harlow, as from 1886 until March of 1887 theirs were the only names in the company’s official identification, with Alden participating as agent. Alden became a partner in 1887, as is evidenced by the statements below.

 Longfellow, Alden & Harlow Sunnyledge statement
Statement from 1886 with payment confirmation reading, “Longfellow & Harlow for F. E. Alden.” Note the statement is for “house and stable.” The stable was never executed.

 Longfellow, Alden & Harlow Sunnyledge statement
 Statement from July of 1887 shows Alden in header as full partner.

The McClellands were “movers and shakers.” Historic documentation shows that they were very involved in education, politics, and causes, not to mention that McClelland is “doctor to the (Pittsburgh) stars.” McClelland’s cousin, Elizabeth Black Moorhead, comments on lively lunches in the McClelland dining room in her book, Whirling Spindle, “The McClellands one and all, kept abreast of the times and delighted in argument and discussion . . . I learned more at the McClellands’ table than I ever did at school.”

Sunnyledge was completed successfully, and via the McClelland network Longfellow, Alden & Harlow received referrals and introductions that lead to commissions galore.

Between the three men, more than 70 projects were undertaken in the Pittsburgh area alone, with only a few of the designs never being executed. Private homes, warehouses, churches, banks, and other commercial and government buildings arose all over Pittsburgh featuring that unmistakable Longfellow, Alden & Harlow/Richardson Romanesque, solid appearance. They designed and erected hotels including the Dorset, Fort Pitt, and the Hotel Henry, none of which remain standing today. They built banks; Commercial National Bank, Pittsburgh Bank for Savings, Third National Bank and People’s Savings Bank, to name a few.

The firm’s most notable Pittsburgh accomplishments are clearly the Duquesne Club (Pittsburgh’s exclusive men’s club) and the Carnegie Institute (Museum) and Library.

 Duquesne Club

 Pamela Simmons

Pittsburgh’s prestigious Duquesne Club, still thriving today, opened in 1873 and counted Andrew Carnegie, H.J. Heinz, and George Westinghouse among its members. Since then the Duquesne Club has hosted the likes of Ulysses S. Grant, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush, Prince Charles, and Princess Diana.

 Carnegie Museum

 www.andrewcarnegie.tripod.com

Carnegie Museum, part of the Longfellow, Alden and Harlow complex built in 1895, includes the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Music Hall, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and the Carnegie Museum of Art.

 Carnegie Library

 www.andrewcarnegie.tripod.com

 Carnegie Library

In 1896 the firm amicably became Alden & Harlow when Longfellow chose to remain in Boston and Alden and Harlow had relocated to Pittsburgh. 

Post-split, Alden & Harlow went into mass production over the next several decades, executing scads of buildings including 12 neighborhood Carnegie Library branch locations.

Alden and Harlow both lived out their lives in Pittsburgh; Alden dying in 1908 and Harlow practicing with various partners until his own death in 1927.

Longfellow, who attended Harvard, MIT and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, stayed in Boston and practiced with his cousin, William Pitt Preble Longfellow, until his death in 1901.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

The two older McClelland daughters, Sarah Collins (1885-1979) and Rachel Pears (1887-1982) lived their entire lives at Sunnyledge, save a short break for Rachel, who married William Sutton, only to have to institutionalize him and move back home about a year into their marriage. A third daughter, Elizabeth Black (1888-1889) died of meningitis as an infant.

 Dr. J.H. McClelland & Family

 Courtesy of Sunnyledge

The McClelland family (l-r) Dr. J.H. McClelland, Sarah, Rachel, and Mrs. Rachel Pears McClelland.

 Rachel & Sarah McClelland
A photograph of the sisters’ debutante portraits originally hung in the parlor: Rachel Pears McClelland (left) and Sarah Collins McClelland.

Sarah McClelland, who never married, was active in politics, served as a city-county committeewoman of the Republican party from 1926 until 1958, and ran unsuccessfully for the Pennsylvania state legislature several times.

Her sister, Rachel, attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon) and became a prominent local artist, her work showcased later in her life as it came to serve as a visual chronicle of life in Pittsburgh over the decades.

And here’s the part where I come in…

Stemming from an introduction to Rachel by his high school art teacher, a young man named Rob began a relationship with the McClelland sisters in the 1970s by doing chores and landscaping for them. After Sarah died, Rob moved into Sunnyledge so that elderly Rachel wouldn’t be alone in the house. Rob took care of Rachel and when she died she left him the house, a Jaguar that barely ran, and a trust fund intended to provide for upkeep.

The McClelland sisters were packrats, not of the “Hoarders” variety—they were relatively neat—but when they died, the house, never having changed much, at 100 years old served as a time capsule of the family’s life through the late 19th and 20th centuries.

My friend, Michael, lived at Sunnyledge with Rob, and about 25 years ago I had the opportunity to visit the house on several occasions. I was able to explore many pieces of history in their original locations, and photograph everything. Opening any drawer instantly enveloped me in life as it once was. 

 Aunt Mamie's dresser

 Pamela Simmons

Aunt Mamie’s dresser appeared to be untouched since her death; her hat pin cushion still sat on top, personal photos were exhibited, and one of Rachel’s childhood drawings of a collie was tucked into the mirror.

 Sunnyledge library

 Pamela Simmons

 Sunnyledge library

 Sunnyledge parlor

 Pamela Simmons

 Sunnyledge parlor looking through foyer into library.

The household ledger was there with handwritten grocery entries in pencil, coal among the items listed, and most of the action taking place to the right of the decimal point. Dr. McClelland’s office medicine cabinet was filled with original medication bottles still on display, and the small, leather-bound social register listed the original telephone numbers of Pittsburgh’s elite.

 Sunnyledge curios

 Pamela Simmons

Various curio cabinets, heavy on the silver, and including the embroidered satin birth announcement of George Westinghouse.  Locks of deceased baby Elizabeth’s hair were in these cabinets and in many picture frames throughout the house.

Read Part 2 of this story here.

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Tagged categories: Architects; Architectural history; Architecture; Building design; Design; Historic Preservation; Historic Structures; Hotels; Renovation; Restoration

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