Cement City

In the early part of the twentieth century, the Steel Mills in Donora were being built at a rapid pace.  In 1915, with the anticipated expansion at the mills including a zinc works, new rod mill, and the construction of a series of coke ovens, the number of employees was expected to climb from six to seven thousand, resulting in a total population in Donora of twenty to twenty-five thousand.  With such rapid growth due to demand for steel for World War I, a major problem was adequate housing for such a rapidly growing work force. 
 
To combat the housing shortage, American Steel and Wire Company announced plans to build 152 units or 120 houses (some duplexes) on several tracts of land in South Donora.  The company desired housing that could be constructed quickly and inexpensively, and as their interests were in both the steel reinforcement and concrete industries, the innovative method of building houses out of concrete seemed to be a plausible alternative to traditional wood framing.  Concrete as a building material has been in existence for centuries, however it was the invention of Portland cement that made it a desirable building material with superior strength and durability.
  
The most prominent person associated with the concrete housing movement was the inventor of the light bulb:  Thomas Edison.  Edison was not the first person to advocate concrete as a superior building material for low-cost or worker housing, but he was influential in turning the housing industry toward the idea.  Edison, like many other social thinkers of the early 1900s, was disturbed by the overcrowded living conditions of working-class families.  Typical worker housing was small, had poor light, air flow and sanitation, and were fire hazards.  Edison felt concrete houses built using his own highly refined and finely ground Portland cement could be built at a low cost.  In 1902, Edison opened his own concrete factory in New Jersey.  Edison's most important contribution to this housing industry was the development of reusable interlocking cast-iron molds for casting concrete wall panels.  In the picture to the right, Thomas Edison poses with a model of one of his concrete homes.
 
The Lambie Concrete House Corporation was owned by a neighbor of Edison.  Using Edison molds, Lambie erected a number of poured-concrete houses in Montclair, New Jersey.  Lambie was chosen to do the Cement City project, their largest contract of concrete houses at that time.
 
Work began on Cement City in 1916 on a terraced and graded hillside.  The Prairie style house design. most associated with famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and whose characteristics include:  low-pitched hipped roofs with wide overhanging eaves, simple detailing and smooth planes, was chosen for the achitectural design of Cement City.
 
Although the American Steel and Wire Company, in order to avoid monotony, provided a range of houses for differing workers' needs and income levels, the houses in Cement City share some basic characteristics.  The houses were built according to eight different house plans consisting of four, five and six room units based on variations of the American Foursquare plan.  Each poured concrete house had a raised basement, two full stories, and a hipped roof.  The houses were finished in stucco.  The houses also contained waste and storm sewers.  And the sidewalks and streets were paved and lined with sycamore trees.  See the photo below for finished houses.
 
While construction equipment was making the transition from horse-drawn wagons to motorized vehicles.  Cement City used both.  The houses were completed with a continuous pour of concrete for each floor.  The concrete was hoisted by a large centralized derrick attached with cables, pulleys and booms that could service multiple houses before it was moved.  There was some sort of engine powered mixer that also pumped the concrete up the derrick to distribute it amongst the houses.
 
The interiors are traditional in their appearance.  Plaster covers the concrete walls and the ceilings.  Stained and varnished yellow pine is used for all interior trim finishes including hardwood floors that cover the concrete slabs.  All the houses were constructed with electric lighting and outlets.  Heat in the houses was originally gas-fired hot air, but then changed in the 1920's to coal, because at the time it was less expensive.

 

Once inhabited, in the spirit of continuing to entice these valued workers to stay, company-maintained flower gardens, tennis courts and playgrounds were provided.  The rooms of each house were papered every three years, interior trim was painted every four years, and the company provided grass seed and maintained fencing.

 

In May 2014, as part of a Cal U of PA English Honors class titled "Digital Storytelling" that was also sponsored by the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, four students (Corrine Dowlin, Rachael Fawley, Sydney Priester and Rachel Costantini) created this video about our Historic District.  Click on their YouTube video titled "Cement City:  A Digital Story" to view. 

 

Cement City: A Digital Story

 

Ultimately, due to unforeseen high building costs, Cement City would only contain 80 homes or 100 units after construction was halted in 1917.  According to the reports of the day, the method proved to be more expensive than anticipated, and there was a shortage of skilled labor to build the houses.

Similar concrete housing developments were built around the same time in Johnstown, Pennsylvania and another called Concrete City in Hanover Township, Pennsylvania.  Other concrete housing projects were built across the country including those in Bridgeport, Connecticut; Newark, New Jersey; Akron, Ohio; Duluth, Minnesota, and Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Cement City is significant for industry, and community planning and development as an intact example of large scale early twentieth-century Western Pennsylvania company housing.  It is also significant for architecture as an example of innovative design using poured-in-place concrete, to mass produce sturdy, fireproof houses influenced by the Prairie styles.  Cement City is a successful example of a project undertaken by a large company to provide workers with affordable, sanitary, fireproof housing.

In December 2014, as part of a Cal U of PA English Honors class titled "Digital Storytelling" that was also sponsored by the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, two students (Alex Dawes and Priya Sobti) created this video about our Historic District. Click on their YouTube video titled "Cement City: The Initial Proposal" to view.

Cement City: The Initial Proposal

In 1996, Cement City was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

 
Today, for the most part, the houses in Cement City maintain much of their original appearance.
 
The name "Cement City" is actually a misnomer since it is neither cement or a city;  the houses are actually build of concrete.
 
The fall 2013 edition of the Western Pennsylvania History magazine published by the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh features an article on Donora's National Historic District:  Cement City, written by Smog Museum curator and Cement City resident Brian Charlton.  The article is titled "Cement City:  Thomas Edison's Experiment with Worker's Housing In Donora."  A limited number of copies of the fall 2013 magazine are for sale at the museum.  Stop by the museum, or click on our site's Merchandise tab and then call or email to get your copy today!! 
 
The Donora Historical Society has done numerous presentations on our National Historic District - Cement City. In the spring and fall of each year, we schedule Cement City Home and Walking Tours on Sunday afternoons.  The afternoon starts at the Smog Museum with a photo, blueprint and artifact presentation.  The photos were taken during construction by Donora's original photographer: Bruce Dreisbach.   From there, we carpool up to the Historic District for a walking tour pointing out the various architectural details.   After, we go into two actual homes, portions of which have been restored to the period.   Finally, the group is encouraged to venture back into town for dinner at one of our local restaurants to further the discussion. The home and walking tour is $10/person.  
 
Our spring 2015 Home and Walking Tour (fifth annual) will be scheduled for Sunday, May 3rd at 1:00 p.m.  The fall 2015 Home and Walking Tour will be scheduled for Sunday, October xx  (waiting on 2015 Steelers schedule) at 1:00 p.m.   There is NO Steelers game this day.   Allow at least 2.5 to 3 hours.  Space is limited to 35 people.   Please RSVP by calling or emailing the Society. You can find that information on our Contact Us page.  You can read the newspaper articles written about our past tours on our News and TV page.
 
Here is what people said about our past tours:
 
“The presentation on Cement City was outstanding, informative, and eye opening.  Then to follow it up with a walking tour was tremendous because it covered not only the houses, but the issues and benefits for the houses.  Then being able to tour a duplex where one side had been modified and the other side remained original was above and beyond.  This was an outstanding adventure for anyone who is interested and cares about the history of our region.”  Larry, Castle Shannon 

 

“The presentation and walking tour of Cement City was very well done.  I particularly liked the photographs of the construction of the homes."  Ellen, Fox Chapel

 

“Great program.  Very enlightening and an enjoyable day's outing.”  Stan, Pleasant Hills

 

“The visit to Donora was educational and fun.  To think that Thomas Edison built cement homes in our region is incredible.  I would encourage anyone who is interested in local history to visit Donora and its history center.  It was a wonderful day.”  Barb, Shadyside

 

“The outing to Donora was fantastic.  Mr. Charlton’s talk was fascinating; he was passionate and funny, and I really appreciated his insights.  I loved the combination of broader historical themes and historical figures with our local area, as well as getting to walk around in order to wonder how it was 100 years ago.  I love learning about history and exploring different areas to ultimately find out that gems like Cement City are practically in my backyard.   Prior to my visit I had no idea that it (Cement City) was there.  I will take my relatives (to Donora) the next time they visit.”  William, California Pa

 

“We very much enjoyed and appreciated our visit to Donora.  Cement City surprised us relative to the history of the dwellings and their number.  And it was particularly gracious of the presenter to open his home so that we could have a firsthand look at the room sizes and inspect construction details in, for example, the cellar.  An excellent visit.”  Clive and Judy, Thornburg Pa

 

“Everything was great.  I particularly enjoyed walking around Cement City and seeing all the original concrete, windows, and even some of the zinc-coated fencing.  The number and quality of the photographs were amazing.  It was most generous of the presenters to open up their home to all of us.”  Wes, McKees Rocks

 

“Our visit to Donora was a truly worthwhile experience.  Although I have spent most of my adult life in Pittsburgh, I had never been to Donora and knew nothing about Cement City.  Reading about Donora and Cement City prior to my visit certainly piqued my interest.  The presentation at the museum, followed by the walking tour and house tour, was a perfect way to bring it all to life.  I will also be looking for details of the next Cement City House Tour - I have talked about it so much since our visit that I have several friends who would also be interested.”  Ellen, East Liberty