Roslyn Place - Pittsburgh's Only Wooden Road
The City of Pittsburgh maintains over 1,000 miles of streets. These roadways come in many lengths and widths, and the surfaces are covered in asphalt, concrete, belgian block or paving bricks. There is one street, however, that is different from all the others. Covered in wood blocks, Rosyln Place in Shadyside is one of just a handful of wooden streets left in the country, and the only one made entirely of wood that is still in use.
Roslyn Place is located just off of Ellsworth Avenue near South Aiken Avenue. Lined with statuesque sycamore trees, it is a narrow 250 foot cul-de-sac lined with eighteen homes. The street was designed in 1913 by Thomas Rodd, Chief Engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad, who purchased the land in 1904 and then laid out the surrounding community.
Wooden streets were common in the 1800s, but by the 20th century had been replaced by more durable bricks, granite blocks and asphalt. For this particular side street, Rodd decided to go against the norm. Roslyn was to be covered in creosote-soaked oak blocks, measuring four inches wide by eight inches long and four inches thick. This road building technique was called "Nicolson Pavement" and dated back to the 1850s.
No one knows for sure why Rodd chose wood for the road surface. It was a less expensive alternative to brick and block, more humane on horses, offered better traction and dampened the sound of horseshoes and metal-wheeled carriages. But this was the 20th century, and automobiles were quickly replacing the horse and wagon as the standard mode of transportation.
Many have theorized that Rodd's intention was to give the place a quaintly anachronistic look, suggesting a more graceful approach to urban living. Roslyn Place residents would unanimously agree that he succeeded in that regard. Completed in 1914, it took a crew of five men over six months to cut and place the 26,000 wooden blocks that paved the street. The picturesque homes along the street were constructed in 1915/1916.
The original wood blocks covering Roslyn Place endured seventy-one years of vehicular traffic, seasonal weather changes and municipal salting during the winter. Much to the dismay of residents, in the early 1980s, the city proposed paving over the street in asphalt. In dire need of repair, home owners and preservationists demanded that the street be restored to its original condition, with wood blocks.
After some debate, the city agreed to repair the street rather than replace it with modern pavement. In 1985, Roslyn Place underwent a complete restoration. The city hired Augie Cardillo, a stonemason, to handle the project. Cardillo determined that the original wood had deteriorated to such a degree that it had to be completely rebuilt.
The old wood was torn out. New gas and water lines were laid and the city repoured the street's concrete foundation. Cardillo and his men then went about the back-breaking task of cutting and fitting the 26,000 oak blocks, individually with a chisel and hammer. As with the original installation, it took six months to lay the block. The cost was $75,000. Cardillo was pleased with the result, stating that "it looked beautiful when it was all completed. Nice and new looking."
Restored to its former glory, Roslyn Place quickly became a tourist attraction, bringing visitors from far and wide to get photos of the wooden street. Many of these people gaze about at the towering sycamore trees and the shoulder-to-shoulder, well-maintained homes, but most walk along looking down at the oak blocks.
Roslyn Place, despite its overall character, beauty and unique attributes, is not without its shortcomings. Wood block can become quite slippery when it rains and even more so during winter, and over time it becomes uneven. There is no off-street parking, the road is too narrow for municipal vehicles like fire-trucks, ambulances and plows, and the homes themselves are very close together.
These attributes can also be viewed as very positive, considering there are no curb breaks or driveways to interrupt the street or sidewalks, and that the small, intimate scale offers a sense of community to those who call Roslyn Place home. Many homeowners keep a small stock of wooden blocks on hand from the restoration to make spot repairs.
The City Department of Public Works also does it's part maintaining the road. Three decades after it was restored, Director Mike Gable stated that the street is "still looking pretty good. That's actually a lot better than some of the asphalt and concrete streets we have. The fact that we have at least one street like that, you certainly want to keep that."
The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation has designated Roslyn Place as a Historic Landmark, and erected a plaque at the entrance to street. Despite this honor, the designation does not guarantee the street the necessary protections from the ravages of time and a general push for the ease and convenience of asphalt.
In January 2016, the group Preservation Pittsburgh submitted documentation in hopes of gaining a permanent, protected historic status for the only usable wooden roadway left in the United States of America.
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