History in the News
Wednesday, May 16, 2012 --
Channel 4 on the 6 pm TV News aired an interview with our chairperson, Michael Ehrmann,talking about the Squirrel Hill Historical Society. This is part of a "Pittsburgh Now and Then" series looking at Pittsburgh neighborhoods.
look at WTAE "Pittsburgh: Then & Now"
"Savoring Local History - The work of the Squirrel Hill Historical Society"
by Abigail Sadowsky
Article copied at the bottom of this page
Can be purchased at Squirrel Hill News on Forbes Avenue
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SHADY AVE Fall 2006 Article:
Savoring Local History
The Work of the Squirrel Hill Historical Society
By Abigail Sadowsky
As we go about our daily routines, it's easy to take for granted the majestic old homes and beautiful tree-lined streets of Squirrel Hill and the diverse array of shops and restaurants "Upstreet" on Forbes and Murray avenues. But if you stop and look around, it's also easy to wonder how these homes came to be, what was there before, and how this neighborhood's simultaneously a center for American and Jewish life, as well as home to a foreign-born population hailing from more than 60 countries' has evolved into the friendly, diverse area it is today.
That's where the Squirrel Hill Historical Society (SHHS) comes in. It provides a forum for interested Pittsburgh residents to learn and discuss the compelling facts of the neighborhood's history. Unlike many historical societies, the impetus to start the SHHS wasn't a neighborhood crisis or a threat to the area's historic integrity, but simply the residents' desire to appreciate their culturally rich environment and to learn about its history.
Architect Terry Necciai and landscape designer Sharyn Necciai founded the SHHS in 2000. When they left the area in 2002, Michael Ehrmann stepped up as the organization's chairman. As a real estate appraiser working primarily on historic homes, his interest was both personal and professional. Somewhat surprisingly, Ehrmann and his family moved to Pittsburgh only six years ago.
"We have lived in a lot of places and came to Pittsburgh very explicitly because people are so nice," says Ehrmann. "The neighborhoods also have a unique amount of stability. You get the yard, which is a more suburban luxury, along with the urban advantages of a beautiful old-style house and this thriving commercial district. It’s a mix that you won’t find in any other city." Not to mention the precious, rolling green spaces and winding trails of Frick and Schenley parks.
Serving its 100 members and other interested individuals, the organization runs monthly events that feature a variety of compelling speakers on topics from the history of particular local businesses; to architectural marvels; to various synagogues, churches and cemeteries; to November's meeting on Squirrel Hill’s "Welsh Connection."
"When you’re looking at history, you're celebrating the institutions that made a difference. However, history never stops, so we also report on things that are happening now and how they began," explains Ehrmann. "We provide a place for people to enjoy the community. We give them a focus with our speakers, but what we really do is stimulate a bunch of cross talk, memories that people have including a lot of shared memories, which are traded back and forth across the audience." The organization also recently added a series of walking tours to its programming.
Two to three times a year, the SHHS holds meetings about places of interest outside of Squirrel Hill that are important to and frequented by Squirrel Hill residents, such as Phipps Conservatory or the Nationality Rooms at the Cathedral of Learning. The organization recently hosted a joint event with the Lawrenceville Historical Society and plans to partner with a different neighborhood historical organization each year.
"The problem with growing up in Pittsburgh is that you don't pay as much attention to the history because you’re immersed in it," says Patti Hughes, who maintains the SHHS website. "I love to hear how Squirrel Hill fits into some of the 'big picture' things that have happened in the city." Hughes also enjoys discovering the small nuggets of information that she learns through her research, like the fact that, as recently as the 1920s, Murray Avenue was still a dirt road.
As part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, the SHHS pulled together such nuggets and compiled a historic narrative titled Squirrel Hill that was published last year. "The book project became more than a book project because, for the first time, it pulled together the bunch of different strands of available information into a cohesive history for the neighborhood," says Ehrmann.
The collection of neighborhood photographs and historical text mainly centers on the mid-19th century through the 1930s, the decade in which the Boulevard of the Allies provided trolley access to the community and the commercial district really began to develop. Before that time, the area was a mixture of farms and large estates, which makes the Squirrel Hill we know today a relatively young neighborhood.
The book has sold over 2,000 copies and is just the first manifestation of the ongoing archive the organization is maintaining and continually seeking to expand. Betty Connelly, originally of Troy Hill and a Squirrel Hill resident of 27 years, is the main archivist and an editor of the book. "There is nothing more fascinating than hearing history 'straight from the horse’s mouth,'" she says. "We have a group of people, many in their mid-80s and 90s, who make a point of coming to the meetings to share their stories, which include details of the area history that we might otherwise never know about."
Connelly marvels at things like the fact that Frick Park used to have a carousel in it, that Squirrel Hill and Greenfield used to be connected by a wooden bridge before the Parkway was built, and that around 1890, a one-room, red brick schoolhouse used to sit in the middle of Forbes Avenue between Murray and Shady avenues. She also appreciates the authenticity that comes from the city of Pittsburgh’s 250-year legacy.
"When neighborhoods wrap their heads around their individual histories, that history is alive for the people who live there," she says. "Then those people communicate that authenticity to the world, which is a great thing!"