'Cement City' Exhibit At Science Center Depicts Historic Engineering Experiment

Nov 15, 2018

Six and a half tiny homes with a tie to inventor Thomas Edison are the latest addition to the Carnegie Science Center’s Miniature Railroad and Village exhibit. The model of Cement City, a historic district in Donora, Pa., represents an engineering experiment that challenged conventional homebuilding.

The six miniature homes are positioned along a cobblestone road, where families walk down to a block party scene at the bottom of a hill. Lights inside the homes flicker, while a cement boom swivels around a home “under construction” across the street. This animation is designed to portray the engineering process at the real-life homes’ construction from 1916-17.

In the early 20th century when manufacturing dominated life in western Pennsylvania, workers had trouble finding safe and sustainable housing. Most homes were small, flimsy and prone to fire. So Edison designed units made from poured concrete. The buildings would have steel frames and, ideally, be safer and more attractive to workers and their families, said Patty Everly, Curator of Historic Exhibits at Carnegie Science Center. The American Steel and Wire Company in Donora asked Edison to construct 120 units in the city. From the color of the exterior to the cut of the windows, each home would be slightly different.

“He meant for all of these houses to look really pretty and not be cookie-cutter duplicates of themselves,” Everly said. “And the reason for that was to give workers dignity and pride.”

The homes cost a bit more than Edison expected, Everly said, coming in at about $3,800 (the average house cost about $2,700 at the time). He ended up building 80 units altogether.

The models were created with a liquid resin 3D printer using the actual floor plan blueprints from some of the homes, Everly said. The Donora Historical Society and Smog Museum donated those plans. Some have trellises with rose bushes and all have hip roofs. In the exhibit, they’re located in front of the Buhl Planetarium and down the street from Forbes Field.