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By Lois Thomson

"If you're interested in history, if you're interested in architecture, we cover all of those."  Mark Pawelec, a volunteer at the Donora Historical Society and Smog Museum, was referring to the Cement City Home and Walking Tour, and why people would be interested in participating.

 

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Scheduled for Oct. 16 and 17, the tours begin at the museum located at 595 McKean Ave., with a presentation by museum curator and Cement City resident Brian Charlton, and is followed by a tour of two houses.  Construction began on Cement City more than 100 years ago when the demand for housing coincided with the rapid growth of the steel mills in Donora.  

Housing needed to be constructed quickly and inexpensively, and a good option seemed to be to use concrete instead of traditional wood framing.  Thomas Edison, who believed concrete houses could be built at a low cost, founded his own Portland (highly refined and finely ground) cement concrete factory in New Jersey in 1902.  A neighbor of Edison's owned the Lambie Concrete House Corporation, and was chosen for the Cement City project.

In addition to the connection with Edison, another distinctive and historic feature of these houses is that they are built in the prairie style that is most associated with Frank Lloyd Wright:  they feature low-pitched hipped roofs (roofs where all sides slope downward to the walls) with wide, overhanging eaves, simple detailing, and smooth planes.

Pawelec said this is the 11th year for the tour, and the idea began as a way to reach people.  "We were looking for a way to promote Cement City, to basically think outside the box on how we were introducing history to the public."  He said once they started, the tours "kind of took hold," and he said the architecture and building-designs component is a big draw.

"We've had people come from Youngstown, Morgantown.  A professor from West Virginia University.  We've had architectural preservationists on our tours.  We had a guy who studied at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin school and met him once.  They find out about it and they are willing to travel.  Brian is a good storyteller, and we get people on the tour whose friends have recommended it."

The 2-1/2 hour tour starts at 1 p.m. with a presentation of photos, artifacts and blueprints on Donora's National Historic District.  The photos were taken during all phases of Cement City construction in 1916 and 1917.  The home tour follows in the Historic District and points out various architectural and social details.  The tour concludes by visiting the interiors of two homes with rooms that have been restored to the period.  The cost is $15 per person.

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