Afoot in a place of consequence

Written by Diana Nelson Jones on .


At the top of Buena Vista Street, where it dead-ends onto Perrysville Avenue in Perry Hilltop, a gaggle of little kids ran through weeds, broken glass and garbage surrounding the home and factory of the late telescope pioneer John Brashear yesterday afternoon.

It's bad enough that these conditions are the only ones many little kids know. They add insult to a place where something of consequence happened.

Lisa Miles, a teacher, musician and writer, is working with the Perry Hilltop Citizens Council to raise money to save the two properties. The council is raising money in the Brashear Property Fund. (Checks can be made out to the Perry Hilltop Citizens Council, specified for the "Brashear Property Fund," and sent to 2344 Perrysville Ave., Pittsburgh, Pa. 15214.

The group's highest aspiration is to buy the home and factory and restore them. Janet Gunter, a member of the citizens council, said the plan is "to make the factory into a telescope museum." The house, 1954 Perrysville Ave., was foreclosed upon last year and is on the market now. Realtors are Craig & Craig (

The fund will first pay architect Terry Necciai to complete an historic nomination. Terry, who now works for the Philadelphia office of John Milner Associates, Inc., started the research eight years ago for a Perry Hilltop group that ran out of money and no longer exists.

Last fall, Lisa staged a community day in the house to introduce the Brashear legacy to Northview Heights children whom she had been teaching about North Side history. Since then, she has gotten some pledges of support and been in correspondence with people at organizations and institutions that include the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Antique Telescope Society.

The group has raised $165 toward about $785 it will need to pay for historic designation research and a report. Another $5,000 would clear liens.

Lisa is committing 20 percent of the proceeds from her book, "Resurrecting Allegheny City," when it is sold at community events or on-line ( to the Brashear Building Fund. The book is a history of Allegheny, the city Pittsburgh annexed in 1907 and renamed North Side.


John Brashear looked at the moon through a telescope when he was a 9-year-old in Brownsville in the Mon Valley. That experience influenced him for life. Some of these kids running in the weeds and over glass are about that age.

An astronomy hobbyist while working as a millwright, John Brashear was well past middle-age when he began building optic and telescopic equipment. He developed a silvering method for coating mirrors that became the industry standard until vacuum metaling came along in the 1930s.

Brashear was an acting chancellor of the Western University of Pennsylvania, the predecessor of the University of Pittsburgh, when the university sat atop the hill where the house and factory remain today.

When Brashear died in 1920 from lung congestion following ptomaine poisoning, condolences poured in from all over the world. The house has been remodeled over the years, but much original detail remains. The porch sags but its columns are original, as are the window moldings and soffit and fascia. Behind the three-story home sits the factory where telescope lenses were manufactured.

Lisa, Janet, Terry and I walked gingerly through the weeds and garbage and broken glass to peer through the factory windows. A pile of trash and old tires sits across from the factory on Honduras Street. Janet said she has called the city several times to report it.

Realtor Gary Craig let us walk through the house where Brashear's visitors included scientists and technicians from all over the country. It has been stripped of its plumbing by invaders.

When we came back around to the front of the house, four chunks of concrete sat on the porch.

Lisa climbed the porch steps and looked puzzled. "Were these here before?" she asked, picking up a chunk.

They had not been. I had earlier walked the length of the porch to gauge its strength and would have to have stepped over them.

Our guess was that the little kids, some of them of that impressionable age, put them there.

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