Surviving On Charm: Pittsburgh’s Last Wooden Street

May 29, 2015

A joke made its way around the Internet this winter that time-travel is possible in Pittsburgh — if you look into a pothole, where layers of cobblestone and brick snuggle under asphalt blankets. But on Roslyn Place in Shadyside, the past doesn’t hide.

Mary Rafferty has lived on the small residential street, located just off Ellsworth Avenue, for 65 years. From her dining room windows she often sees people wandering along, gazing up at the towering sycamore trees or the shoulder-to-shoulder brick houses. But most often, they walk with their heads down.

“You’ll see them with their cameras and taking pictures. Tourists,” she posited. “Not used to the neighborhood or maybe Shadyside.”

Tourist or no, Roslyn Place merits a second look. It’s made of wood. Not the street’s 18 homes, but the street itself. It’s paved with wooden blocks, and has been since this cul-de-sac neighborhood was built. It is the city’s last wooden street, one of only a half dozen remaining in the United States.

At one time wood was regularly used to dampen the sound of horse traffic and metal-wheeled wagons. But not in 1914 when Thomas Rodd built Roslyn Place. It’s unclear why Rodd chose wood for the street. But he did.

In the street’s long history, Roslyn Place’s residents have been its champions. When the city proposed paving over the street, the neighbors banded together to protect it, and even got a full-scale restoration in 1985.

Augie Cardillo, a stonemason, was hired to repair the street. He said it was in rough shape.

“The wood was deteriorating cause it was there for a lot of years," Cardillo said. "We tore it out.”

They re-poured the street’s concrete foundation. New gas and water lines were laid. Cardillo pulled out a yellowed article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, dated Aug. 2, 1985. In the picture Cardillo sits back on his heels, preparing to split a wood block in half.

“That’s the work you have to do," he said. "You have to cut it like with a chisel and a hammer, on your knees all day.”

Cardillo and five or six other men — he’s not exactly sure — cut and fit 26,000 blocks into the 250-foot long street. The repair took more than six months and $70,000.

“It looked beautiful when it was all completed. Nice and new-looking,” he said, then pointed to the yard. “I got a piece laying out here, yet, old scrap piece.”

Cardillo brought the block inside and put it on top of a trash can. It’s four inches wide, eight inches long and four inches deep. It’s a weathered green-black, flaking apart. It’s slippery from the rain.

Mike Gable, director for the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works, said Roslyn Place is well-known in the department, even though no significant repairs have been made since 1985.  

“We have about 1,060 miles of streets," he said. "And in conjunction with some roads and streets we take care of for the state, we’re up around 1,200 miles. [Roslyn Place was repaired] 30 years ago. And it’s still looking pretty good. That’s actually a lot better than some of the asphalt and concrete streets we have.”

It’s not unassailable, however. If the first 71 years were rough on Roslyn Place, the last 30 have been no cakewalk. But Gable said it’s a “character street.”

“The fact that we have at least one street like that, you certainly want to keep that.”

Despite the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation plaque at the entrance to Roslyn Place, the street isn’t protected by a historic designation. It remains vulnerable: to ease, convenience and asphalt.

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