Chatham Village

Designers: Clarence S. Stein and Henry Wright | City: Pittsburgh, PA | Project Type: garden city, community planning, neighborhood
Date Visited: 09.14.12
Location: 412 Bigham Street Pittsburgh, PA 15211
Size: 46-acre site, 197 townhouses, 19 apartments
Official Opening Date: 1932

A pioneering and hugely influential community planning project, Chatham Village is a Garden City-esque cooperative resident community located within a stone’s throw of downtown Pittsburgh. A beautiful and quiet oasis that walks a fine line between city and suburb, Chatham Village is so peaceful and lush that you don’t feel like you’re anywhere near city limits. Unlike the typical American suburb, Chatham Village features high housing density, communal green space and without any of the “Great American” lawns.

Founded in 1932, Chatham Village was designed as a housing experiment for blue-collar workers to prove that communities could be both affordable and beautiful. The final design espoused the best of urban and suburban living as described in the principles of the Garden City movement; one that values pedestrian circulation over automotive. This successful result that melds Georgian colonial revival architecture with centuries-old trees and expansive, idyllic green space has been an internationally acclaimed model of community design for 80 years. The American Planning Association has even included Chatham Village on its list of 10 Greatest Neighborhoods in America. Though surprisingly, many Pittsburgh locals have never heard of this hidden gem.

It’s an uphill hike to get to Chatham Village from the Monongahela Incline. Since the community was built into the existing landscape, it can be a bit hard to find since it isn’t sited on a hilltop like many other residential developments. Feeling lost, I asked the first stranger that came by for directions; I was lucky, not only was I actually standing at the entrance of Chatham Village, but the woman who helped me, Julia, was actually a Chatham resident who enthusiastically offered to take me on a half-hour tour of her neighborhood.

As she pushed a two-seater stroller, Julia explained that Chatham Village was the perfect place to raise kids. Streets were small and the fronts of houses all faced towards a common green space, making the area very safe to play in. As an avid walker, she’d already explored the best parts of the area, and took me through Chatham Village’s three shared courtyards, the multiple sand pits for children, playgrounds, forest trails, the Chatham Mansion–a popular site for galas events and where she had her baby shower–, and down the curving, sycamore-lined roads. She loved living here, but despite the area’s kid-friendly amenities, she said that not many children lived in the area. Nowadays, Chatham Village is almost like an idyllic retirement community. Many of the couples who raised kids in the area loved the neighborhood so much that they decided to stay even after their kids moved out.

Exploring Chatham Village feels like stepping through a picture-perfect postcard. It was a  beautiful afternoon and Chatham Village was awash in lovely, dream-like details: gold and green sun-dappled hues; green ivy creeping over red brick; large American flags waving outside doorways; the only sounds came from the rustling leaves and crackling noises of sycamore fruit beneath our feet. The peace and quiet is partly due to the noise dampening effects of the dense vegetation and older populace of Chatham Village; another reason is because of the area’s law against dog ownership.

Julia continued on to tell me about the history of her community. From the double-hung-sash windows to the decorative brickwork, the architectural details were carefully designed out to create a sense of symmetry and unity throughout the 46-acre community. Unlike many single family houses on the American market at that time, and even today, the Chatham Village houses were built very close together, with minimal side or front yards. In exchange for big private lawns, community members have access to large common greens, garden courts, continuous hedgerows, and 25 acres of “Chatham Woods,” a virtual nature preserve. To maximize access to the common green, houses had “reverse-fronts” oriented to face the landscaped parks that were built in the center of each housing cluster. Front doors opened onto garden courts; living rooms overlooked green space; the roads were set in the back of the house near the service alley and kitchen access. Departing from the usual American street grid, roads in Chatham Village are curvilinear, cut to follow the natural contours of the hillside.

The separation of pedestrians from vehicular traffic coupled with the lush, communal landscaping makes Chatham Village a timeless and classic example of successful community design. Since the communal set up encourages social interaction, all the neighbors know one another and often throw galas and happy hours at the Chatham Mansion.

When I visit Pittsburgh in the future, I’ll aim to revisit Chatham Village in the springtime. Several times on our walk, Julia urged that I come back in spring so I could see the hedges burst with blooming azaleas and rhododendrons. “The place really comes alive in the spring.”

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