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What did the Fricks hear from their home in 1890?
By Lizzie Averell

Before moving to the Clayton House, the Fricks lived downtown in an apartment called Monongahela House, located on the corner of First Avenue and Fort Pitt Boulevard. Historical maps show that it was near a foundry, a freight depot, and Pittsburgh Steel Works. The Fricks moved to Clayton not only to get away from the busy factories and polluted air, but also the excessive noise. But how quiet was it in the suburbs? Along with the sounds of nature, they would hear carriages stopping by their house. In addition, the Fricks lived about a half a mile from Homewood Station—Pittsburgh Division Main Line which conveniently provided Mr. Frick with daily transportation to his Fifth Avenue office.


In the following sound clip, I have aimed to reconstruct the soundscape of the Clayton House from the Great Lawn as it would have sounded in 1890. Notice the juxtaposition between natural sounds and mechanical sounds. Also, you can hear birds indigenous to Pittsburgh, like the gray catbird, the common yellowthroat, and the Carolina wren.

Using a calculation tool designed by Clem Tillier, I was able to estimate that train noise, which would have been 95 dB at the source, would have been heard at 70 dB from the Great Lawn at Clayton. The steam whistle, which sounds like a low-pitched flute, would have been characteristic of this time. This calculation even takes into account how many rows of buildings may have absorbed the sound. Historic maps from 1890, however, show very few buildings between Clayton House and Homewood Station. While these sounds traveled to Clayton with relatively few sonic obstacles, today’s more densely settled landscape would probably muffle the train’s sound.

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Sound clip created by Lizzie Averell

The steam engine trains had been around while Henry was growing up near Pittsburgh, so he would not have heard this as a nuisance. In fact, he likely viewed the train as an essential convenience. He, like many of his workers, took the train to work each day. Later in his life, he purchased a private luxury rail car for himself in 1911 called “The Westmoreland” and began to detach himself from his workers. The Gilded Age was a time when business culture was shifting and company heads segregated themselves from their employees in work, housing, and transportation. In many ways, this division still exists today, with corporate moguls flying in private jets and shunning public transportation. How do you perceive the sounds of public (and private) transportation today? Has it become such an integral part of the soundscape that it is no longer a nuisance?

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“Monongahela House.” Historic Pittsburgh,

Brignano, Mary. The Frick Art & Historical Center: The Art and Life of a Pittsburgh Family. The Center, 1993.

“Pittsburgh Historic Maps.”, Accessed 4/21/2023.

“How the Fricks Traveled: The Westmoreland.” The Frick Pittsburgh. 9 January 2020.

Tillier, Clem. Train Noise Calculator.

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