In the Beginning
The land on which Schenley farms is located was originally owned by William Penn, and then later owned by General James O’Hara, a Revolutionary War hero and industrialist who purchased the ‘Farms’ in 1802 for $2000. The land stayed in the O’Hara family until the 1905 death of his granddaughter Mary Croghan Schenley. The trustees of her estate, including Andrew Carnegie, sold the property which still bears her name for $2.5 million to the real estate developer F F. Nicola.
Franklin Felix Nicola was a dreamer and a visionary. He developed and promoted a civic center plan for Oakland which was miles from the city’s smoky congested downtown. He dreamed of an area devoted to culture, art and education. Allegedly the motto sign in his office stated “Air castles aren’t substantial dwellings but they are very good working drawings”. Nicola was a major force in the Pittsburgh participation of the “City Beautiful Movement”, a reform philosophy of North American architecture and urban planning that flourished in the 1890s and early 1900s. The focus was adding beautification and monumental grandeur to cities, as a way of promoting civic virtue and improved quality of life. Nicola left his imprint on many of the splendid civic buildings of Oakland. An adjacent compatible utopian residential portion was integral to his concept of a ‘model city’. This is the foundation of the Schenley Farms residential neighborhood. Nicola’s business, the Schenley Farms Company , boldly set out to create a model suburban upper middle class home development near the civic and cultural institutions of Oakland.
Through the years, the neighborhood has faced challenges, especially related to the desire for land expansion from the nearby large educational and medical institutions of Oakland. Some elegant houses were destroyed, including those along one side of lower Bigelow in the 1960’s. Fortunately most of the residences were treasured and diligently cared for by dedicated homeowners. By the 1970’s there was a wave of renewed focus on historic preservation, both nationally and locally. In 1982, the Schenley Farms neighborhood was designated as a Pittsburgh Historic District. In 1983, the Schenley Farms neighborhood was registered with the National Register as an Historic District.
Plaques erected at the neighborhood borders state succinctly state the current status:
Schenley Farms Historic District is “a museum of early twentieth century domestic architecture”