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Cement City


Cement City


Location Details

ADDRESS: Chestnut & Modisette Ave & vicinity
Donora, PA 15033


They say people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, but what about folks living in “cement houses”? Do the same rules apply? It seems doubtful that the builders of Cement City pondered such questions when they set out to create a community of cement homes in 1916. Their concerns were more immediate and practical.

Years earlier, the Cleveland-based Union Steel Company sent William Donner to southwestern Pennsyl-vania. Charged with brokering a deal that would net the corporation 300 acres of land along the Monongahela River’s horseshoe bend, he worked with Thomas Mellon to secure financing. The plan became a reality in Donora, the town that developed in the steel mill’s wake, and is forever linked to the two men.

Once the mill was up and running, housing — or rather the lack of housing — was a problem. Cement City was the solution.

The notion of building a house out of cement was the brainchild, albeit one of the least successful offspring, of Thomas Edison. The inventor proclaimed that, in addition to being fireproof and termite proof, cement homes would provide affordable housing to the poor. (In reality, they proved to be more expensive to build than traditional wood frames, and presented more than their share of challenges for occupants trying to repair or update wires and pipes encased in cement walls.)

But Union Steel embraced the concept and began constructing Prairie-style cement houses specifically for the Donora mill’s middle managers and foremen. By 1917, a total of 80 homes — 60 single-family dwellings and 20 duplexes — were completed on a hill overlooking the mill. The demand was immediate, but because the supply was limited, a waiting list quickly developed. Rent ranging from $22.50 to $40, depending on square footage, was paid directly to Union Steel in real money, not scrip. In return, the company handled all home maintenance.

According to self-professed historian and current Cement City resident Brian Charlton, it took about 10,000 yards of cement to build the homes. The process involved putting the steel forms in place (which took a crew of 10 men an entire day to accomplish) and then pouring each floor of each house separately.

Far from looking like bunkers, the houses are warm and charming. Nowhere is that more evident than at the Charltons’. Brian and Nancy Charlton bought their duplex in 1984. (Union Steel sold its Donora Works and Cement City in the 1940s.) After purchas- ing the adjoining side four years ago, the Charltons broke through the wall, creating one big, happy house.

Despite that renovation, Brian, Nancy, and their 17-year-old daughter Kate are committed to preserving their home’s vibrant past. Visitors will find a plaque affirming Cement City’s status as a site on the Register of National Historic Places on the Charltons’ front porch.

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