“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost in his poem Mending Wall.
The 1914 poem describes two New England farmers standing on opposite sides of a stone wall while repairing it. Frost intended the famous line, “Good fences make good neighbors,” to be ironic and for the stone wall to represent a barrier to friendship.
While Frost may not love a stone wall, I genuinely do. I love stone walls, stone arches, stone houses, stone fireplaces and stone structures of all kinds for their architectural beauty and rustic charm. Part of Mt. Lebanon’s attraction for me is its profusion of stately stone architecture dispersed throughout the neighborhood.
One of the most magnificent—and mysterious—stone walls I have seen here is 200 yards long and ten feet high, taking up an entire block on Flintridge Road and curving around the corner to Ruth Street across from the athletic fields for Jefferson middle and elementary schools. For me, this imposing wall with its creamy gray stones the color of dark honey resembles a medieval French castle’s rampart, without the cannons.
The first time I saw it decades ago, I thought a library or museum or other significant landmark rested on the grounds behind it. Who built it? When was it built? Why was it built? How this fortress parapet wound up next to a baseball field is a mystery to me.
I discovered another picturesque stone wall on a quiet, hidden lane just beyond Mt. Lebanon Park. Walk to the top of the hill behind the swimming pool and picnic groves, turn right, and you will find a pathway abutted by trees on the park side and a wall constructed of stones on the other side, separating backyards of houses from the path.
Ambling along this pathway which leads to Parkridge Lane, I easily imagine I am traipsing down an English country lane where I will be greeted by a novelist like Jane Austen or Emily Brontë in a cottage at the far end. But I wouldn’t feel this way if it weren’t for the old-fashioned stone wall in the midst of the bucolic setting.
On Bower Hill Road, across from St. Clair Hospital, rose and gray-tinted stone arches stand like sentries guarding a castle at the entrance to Cedarhurst Manor. I always thought these arches were grand and somewhat enigmatic. They pique my imagination. Are they inviting passersby into a secret enclave? Are they relics from a regal past? Was there once a “Gilded Age” on Bower Hill Road?
Moving beyond Mt. Lebanon, at the corner of Corrigan Drive and 100 Acres Drive in South Park sits an archaic structure from another era—a large, gloomy and incongruent circular stone pit, more like something out of an Edgar Allan Poe tale of horror than an ingenuous Robert Frost poem or village scene from Jane Eyre. The stygian stones and winding steps evoke images of torture as depicted in Poe’s short story, The Pit and the Pendulum.
Probably built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration, the 30-foot-wide, 20-foot-deep pit was formerly a cooling well. An underground spring runs beneath it, and on hot summer days, people could walk down the steps, sit on a bench, and cool themselves. But in the past when I took my young son bike riding at South Park and showed him the pit, he thought it was a dungeon from the Middle Ages.
Speaking of dungeons, 50 years ago when I commuted to college in downtown Pittsburgh, my bus stop stood right next to the historic Allegheny County Jail, designed by Henry Hobson Richardson and built in 1886. The gigantic, rough-hewn stones of that ominous edifice constantly intimidated me, reminding me the inside of those walls held prisoners awaiting their fates, not unlike the infamous Bastille in Paris.
The jail’s massive stone walls would be difficult to escape, I often mused, since stone is such a sturdy, impenetrable material that endures for ages. After all, the ruined walls of the Roman Colosseum, consisting of natural stone, withstood wars and earthquakes for more than 2,000 years.
Small wonder then that Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson acquired his nickname when he stood sternly and quietly with his brigade in the middle of fighting on the battlefield at First Bull Run in 1861 while soldiers from other brigades fled in fear. Upon seeing his implacable, immovable figure, another general, Barnard Bee, observed, “Look! There stands Jackson like a stone wall,” signifying his stubbornness and iron will in the face of battle.
I doubt my stone Tudor house on Arden Road will last as long as the Colosseum, yet I’m sure it will outlive me and won’t crumble for another hundred years, being stable and unyielding like Stonewall Jackson. Constructed in 1936, it was erected before vinyl and red-brick materials became the norm for suburban homes.
I found the original building permit for my house at the Historical Society of Mount Lebanon on Washington Road where my curiosity about stone walls led me to conduct some research. I learned that contractor A. Petrelli & Sons Inc built many of the stone walls around Mt. Lebanon, but was unable to uncover more specifics.
I had no idea the society contained so many files and such abundant resources about Mt. Lebanon’s history. Society members John Conti and Jon Delano competently and congenially answered all my questions and whet my appetite to dig deeper into Mt. Lebanon’s past.
Who knows? Someday I may even unlock the mystery of the awe-inspiring stone wall on Flintridge Road.