Cement City

In the early part of the twentieth century, the steel mill 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 A. 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 architectural 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. A combination of an engine powered mixer and hydraulics pumped the concrete up through a large, centralized derrick attached with cables, pulleys and booms that could service multiple houses before it was moved.
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 1920s 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.
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, Luzerne County, 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, 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.
Cement City today during the Centennial year - 2017:
Photo courtesy of Melissa Schmitt - October 2017 centennial tour attendee
CARNEGIE SCIENCE CENTER - Miniature Railroad & Village Project - 2018
As the saying goes, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." This occurred for our Cement City here in Donora.
In April 2018, after a Carnegie Science Center representative took one of our Cement City Homes and Walking Tours, the Donora Historical Society was approached to consider a project with them to possibly replicate a Cement City home for their Miniature Railroad & Village. Considering that we have original blueprints and photographs from when Cement City was created in 1916, we felt that the replication effort would not be an issue, and the project was launched, but we were sworn to secrecy. The photo to the left is the modeling room at the Carnegie Science Center that features our blueprints and photos. Through the summer months of 2018 we continued to answer their questions about architectural details (i.e., stucco paint, shingle colors, etc.) and provided even more photographs. We were then informed that there would not be just one home, but a grouping of six completed homes and one under construction (see the photo below) circa 1916/1917, that would make up the featured addition of the Miniature Railroad & Village in 2018, their 99th year - a huge honor for our town of Donora, our Cement City Historic District residents and the Donora Historical Society. By October 2018, the miniature Cement City homes were nearly complete when Carnegie Science Center railroad modelers, marketers and docents visited Donora for their very own private cement City tour so they could prepare to tell the Cement City story for the Miniature Railroad & Village visitors. In November 2018, a behind-the-scenes tour of the Miniature Railroad & Village and invitation to the opening day press conference were provided to members of the Donora Historical Society. The Cement City homes were then unveiled to the general public November 15, 2018.
Since the unveiling in November 2018, various news outlets have carried the Carnegie Science Center's Cement City story that also show photos and videos. Some of these stories can also be accessed through Facebook.

Please visit the Carnegie Science Center - Miniature Railroad & Village to see Cement City in miniature O-Gauge scale, then consider taking one of our Cement Home and Walking Tours to see the homes full size.
A LOVE STORY: The Miniature Railroad & Village - Since 1919, the Miniature Railroad & Village has delighted millions in its 100+ year legacy with its handcrafted replicas of regional landmarks, such as Forbes Field and Fallingwater. Its story began with a man named Charles Bowdish of Brookville, PA who originally created a holiday train display on the second floor of his house. It moved to the Buhl Planetarium in 1954 under the guidance of Director C. V. Starrett and staff physicist Carl Wapiennik. Wapiennik, a Donora native and 1945 Donora High School graduate, started at the Buhl Planetarium in 1954 and became the Executive Director in 1964 until 1982. Ultimately, the Miniature Railroad & Village found its final home at Carnegie Science Center in 1992.
Through stunning photography and compelling descriptions, the 102-page book, released in 2021, chronicles the history of a beloved museum display that is deeply tied to the community by featuring hundreds of wonderfully realistic animated scenes that illustrate how people lived, worked, and played in the Pittsburgh region during an era spanning up to 1940. As does the display itself, the book interprets Pittsburgh and the region’s diverse and wildly interesting history, architecture, cultural heritage, and great innovators with curatorial precision honed over a century by the tender care of its stewards. There are multiple references in the book to Carl Wapiennik, as well as Cement City with photographs supplied by the Donora Historical Society.
WQED Pittsburgh 360 video
During the centennial year of the building of our beloved Historic District, we were approached by PBS television station - WQED to do a mini-documentary for their Pittsburgh 360 series. In April 2017, we worked with WQED producer Dave Crawley (and KDKA storyteller) and photographer/editor Dave Forstate. The result was this eight-minute video featuring Donora, the Smog Museum, Cement City and our Home and Walking Tours. Click on the link to view the video - Pittsburgh 360: Cement City and locate "Cement City" or click the video below.
In August 2019, Four Points Brewery launched their new Cement City IPA (India Pale Ale) beer in cans that joins their ever-expanding line of beers and named after Donora's Historic District. Four Points Brewery is located in nearby Charleroi at 400 Washington Avenue. This is their second beer that recognizes Donora, the other being Donora Smog. Brewmaster Adam Boura claims Donora Smog is one of their more popular selections. Owner Dave Barbe pays homage to his family's Donora roots by featuring these two beers.
We appreciate the recognition to two of our more popular subjects at the Donora Historical Society. Click Four Points Brewing and Fourth Street BBQ to learn more about their beer and food.
Another Cement City Digital Story
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.
Historic District Designation:
In 1996, Cement City was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2017, the centennial anniversary year was recognized.
Today, for the most part, the houses in Cement City maintain much of their original appearance. NOTE: The name "Cement City" is actually a misnomer since it is neither cement nor a city; the houses are actually built of concrete and the district is a neighborhood.
Portions of the content of this page were adapted from the National Register nomination for the Cement City Historic District, which was prepared by Clinton E. Piper and Steven Chaitow of the firm of Terry A. Necciai, RA, Historic Preservation Consulting. The historic district was listed in the National Register in 1995. The National Register of Historic Places is a division of the National Park Service, Washington, D.C.

Directions Cement City can be found on the south end of Donora. From McKean Avenue, there are two streets on either side of the Donora Veterans Memorial: Chestnut and Walnut. If you go up the hill on either, you will run into Cement City after the intersection of Modisette Avenue. Click on our site's Directions tab and gather your bearings on the map.

Photo courtesy of Melissa Schmitt - October 2017 centennial tour attendee
Cement City at the University of Pittsburgh through Osher
In 2017, the Donora Historical Society was one of ten Heinz History Center (HHC) Affiliate historical sites chosen out of over 400 to help teach the inaugural HHC sponsored Osher Lifelong Learning Institute's (OLLI) program at the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU.) OLLI aspires to create a dedicated intellectual environment for older adult students, nurturing a lifelong passion for learning by attending university classes. OLLI fosters lifelong learning through courses and programs that engage the learner, provide social interaction, and enrich lives. OLLI's faculty, which includes Pitt and CMU professors and retired faculty, challenge participants to understand the cultural forces of today, to interact socially and intellectually with one another, and live empowered lives. Establish in 2005, OLLI is supported by the Bernard Osher Foundation. Pitt and CMU are two of 118 OLLIs located on college campuses throughout the United States.
The sold out five-week HHC-Osher class offered at both Pitt and CMU was titled History 412: Discover the Sites and Stories That Make Our Region Unique. Each week a new HHC Affiliate historic site taught that evening's class as either Pitt or CMU. The Donora Historical Society taught the final Pitt-Osher session class on April 11, 2018, on the Pitt campus in Oakland and that evening's session was titled, Thomas Edison's Concrete Vision: Building Cement City, Donora, Pennsylvania, 1916-17, a subject near and dear to our hearts about Donora's National Historic District.
Magazine, Newspaper and Blog Features:
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." Click on the link to read the article - Cement City: Thomas Edison's Experiment with Worker's Housing In Donora.
In April 2016, the Herald Standard published an article about the Donora Historical Society doing a Parlor Talk at West Overton Village and Museum in Scottdale on Cement City. Click on the link to read the article - Herald Standard - Cement City at West Overton article.
In April 2016, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an article about the Donora Historical Society, Smog Museum and Cement City Home and Walking Tours. Click on the link to read the article - Post-Gazette - Smog Museum and Cement City.
In September 2017, the Washington Observer-Reporter published an article about the Cement City Home and Walking Tours. Click on the link to read the article - Observer-Reporter - Cement City.
In May 2018, the Pittsburgh PBS - WQED created an eight-minute video during one of our Cement City Home and Walking Tours. Click on the link to view the video - Pittsburgh 360: Cement City.
In May 2018, Cement City was recognized on Pittsburgh Orbit - Cement City with an article titled Heavy Living: Cement City, Donora. Pittsburgh Orbit writer Will Simmons attended one of our April 2018 Cement City Home and Walking Tours to do research on our Historic District.
In February 2019, The Guardian, a longtime-established newspaper from New York, New York, that now has a far-reaching online global presence, mentioned Donora's Cement City in the online article: The Guardian: A brief history of concrete from 10,000BC to 3D printed houses.

100 Years ago
In January 1918, Building Age magazine mentioned Donora's Cement City in an article: Building One Hundred Concrete Houses for Workingmen.
Cement City Home and Walking Tours:
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 Saturday and/or 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 $15/person.
Allow at least 2.5 to 3 hours.
Our fall 2022 Cement City Home and Walking Tours (twelfth annual) are scheduled for Saturday, October 22nd at noon and Sunday, October 23rd at 1:00 p.m.
The fall 2023 Home and Walking Tours will be scheduled for September and/or October. The weekends will be scheduled once the Steelers' schedule is released. Space is limited to around 30 to 35 people.
Please RSVP by calling or emailing the Donora Historical 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
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