Calliope House History by George Balderose - Calliope

Calliope House History by George Balderose

The house was built in 1876 by a local contractor named Fraser. He built it for himself and his young wife. She died six months after they moved in of “consumption”. He lived with a male servant in the house until his death in 1899. The observation tower used to be elevated to another story, but it was abbreviated when lightning struck it some time ago. At that height and before that time, the river could easily be seen. Perhaps Mr. Fraser, who owned a lumber yard nearby, wanted to keep his eye on the river shipments of lumber frequently arriving in Pittsburgh and Allegheny City in those days.

In 1899 Fraser died and the Lee family moved into the house. They were part owners of the Lee-Hamilton Coal Company, delivering house coal to Allegheny City homes. The last surviving member, Mrs. Josephine Lee Wright, passed away at the age of 93 in 1975, and I purchased the house in November of 1975. The house had been willed to the Women’s Christian Home of Pittsburgh and Allegheny, which is directly behind and adjacent to this property. That building originally housed Col. Anderson’s library, where young Andrew Carnegie developed his love for libraries. The Board of Directors of the Women’s Christian Home consisted of about a dozen very elderly ladies with names that began with “Mac” or “Mc”, such as McClintock, McIntyre, MacAdam, etc. They had turned down a number of offers to buy the house, out of a concern they had for whether the new owner would respect the house’s architectural integrity while guiding it through improvements, and be a good neighbor besides. They decided I was the right person for the house, and the clincher seemed to be that I played the bagpipes!

After I moved into this 10 room house, my friend David Liden suggested that it would be a good house for house concerts. David was a graduate of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which is where a house concert venue called “The Ark” is located. At the time there were no small venues in Pittsburgh for quiet listening of traditional performers.

During 1975-77, David was booking a folk music coffeehouse series at Bethany College, just an hour or so away from Pittsburgh. Traditional folk music performers from all over the US and Scotland, England, and Ireland would, as they passed through this region, be booked in Bethany, WV for Friday and Saturday nights. A house concert on Sunday in Pittsburgh fit in well with the performers’ travel plans. It was the time of the US Bicentennial, and traditional music was much in demand across the country. So we hooked on to a revival of interest in traditional music, and hosted Sunday night house concerts, beginning with a mailing list of 100 or so friends. Over a ten year period we hosted 135 house concerts.

However, to have an event the place needed a name. David had mentioned something about a Calliope in a conversation, and I discovered that the name referred not only to the steam organ found on steamboats, but also the Greek muse of instrument making and epic poetry. Since at the time I was employed as an instructor of folk instrument-making under a grant engineered by Bill Strickland and the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild, the name fit its purpose as far as I was concerned. The community seemed to like it too. In a river town like Pittsburgh the name “Calliope” does have a resonance.

Years later I discovered a ditty in Carl Sandburg’s book, An American Songbag, which was entitled “Calliope” and the ditty went like this:

This house is haunted,
This house is haunted,
And it’ll make your
Blood run cold.

So there must have been another Calliope House somewhere, sometime, perhaps in the heyday of steamboats and the steam calliopes they carried with them. Perhaps on the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers, I don’t know.

Unfortunately I have not been able to find a connection between a “riverboat captain” and this house. I think it is an urban legend.

In 1984 Dave Richardson of the Boys of the Lough composed a jig in E-Major which he named “Calliope House” in honor of this house and the good times he had here while performing in Pittsburgh with the Boys of the Lough. The house reminded him of a house of musicians in Newcastle, England. The tune has caught on all over the traditional music world. It was recorded by Riverdance, Alasdair Fraser, Kevin Burke, Hamish Moore, Alasdair Gillies, the Waterboys, and many others. It is now a session tune in both Scotland and Ireland. During June of 2006 my family and I traveled to Doolin, in County Clare, Ireland. We entered a bar, didn’t know a soul, and the second tune the house fiddle band played was “Calliope House.”

So that’s the story behind the name “Calliope House” and 1414 Pennsylvania Avenue, as far as I know.

By George Balderose

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