There several streets in Oakland named after 19th-century British writers -- Ruskin, Tennyson, Lytton. Who decided to do this? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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There several streets in Oakland named after 19th-century British writers -- Ruskin, Tennyson, Lytton. Who decided to do this?

Question submitted by: Mathew M. Wrenshall





As at least one or two students in Oakland should be able to tell you, you could easily add nearby Thackeray Street to your list, after the 19th-century author of Vanity Fair.



But as your question rightly presumes, the decision to name these streets after writers was authored by a single man: developer Franklin Nicola. In fact, all the streets you asked about were named on the same day -- as part of the Schenley Farms land plan submitted to the city in April 1910.


Nicola was "an inspired real estate operator" who longed to create a "new 'cultural' quarter" in Oakland, wrote the late architectural historian James van Trump. And his efforts are still evident today. Among other things, Nicola built: the Schenley Hotel, which now serves as Pitt's student union; the Schenley Apartments, which now serve as Pitt dorms; and other structures along Fifth Avenue, which now serves as an obstacle course for traffic-dodging Pitt students.


Nicola was a disciple of the "City Beautiful" movement, which espoused the virtues of urban planning and architectural excellence. These sound like obvious virtues now, but in turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh, they were hard to find.


When Nicola began developing a residential project near these other structures in the early 1900s, he carefully planned every aspect of the 96-home community. As Walter Kidney writes in Pittsburgh's Landmark Architecture, "Nicola was determined that his residential development would be of high quality from the start, with all utilities buried, a special police force, and the best equipment." Homes were given unique designs, streets were lined with shade trees, and vegetation was used to shore up the soil of the hillside above.


These, too, sound like obvious innovations -- the kind of thing practiced by any McMansion builder today. But Nicola was ahead of his time in many ways: Even today, there are very few places in Pittsburgh where the power lines are buried.


Even Nicola's name for the development -- Schenley Farms -- anticipated a practice used by today's suburban developers: Name your project after whatever you destroyed to get it built. (Oakland had once been farmland belonging to the family of Mary Schenley.)


I'm happy to report that Nicola did not run over a slew of 19th-century British writers before naming his streets after them. (Though I have no doubt that at least one or two students in Oakland would be happy if he had.) Rather, Nicola had a genius for marketing and promotion, and no doubt realized that some literary names would give his high-end residential development a little added class -- especially given that it was located near so many other cultural and educational institutions. And in the early 1900s, there was no better way to play on cultural pretension than to borrow the names of British writers from the previous century.


Schenley Farms was wildly successful and remains so to this day. Sadly, not all the literary figures Nicola chose have withstood the test of time


Ruskin was an astute and justly famed art critic, and Tennyson wrote such famous poems as "The Charge of the Light Brigade," about the courage of troops obeying incompetent leaders. (No doubt Karl Rove is trying to consult with Tennyson by ouija board for the next State of the Union address.) But Lytton refers to Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who is often renowned as the worst writer in the history of the English language.


Bulwer-Lytton is the source of the old chestnut "the pen is mightier than the sword," and certainly he used language as a weapon -- a sledgehammer to beat his readers into unconsciousness. His novel Paul Clifford gave us the immortal phrase, "It was a dark and stormy night." But his most lasting contribution may be the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which aspirants seek to write the world's worst prose. 


In fairness, Nicola was not alone in selecting Bulwer-Lytton as a shining light of English letters. Bulwer-Lytton is buried alongside much more deserving writers in London's Westminster Abbey. His tombstone lauds his reputation as "laborious and distinguished." Most people would agree with at least half of that.


Nicola himself, meanwhile, died penniless during the Great Depression. But arguably he authored a more successful work than Bulwer-Lytton ever did.

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