Why Is Regent Square called Regent Square? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Why Is Regent Square called Regent Square?

Question submitted by: Eric Rickin, Oakland



The short answer is: because somebody thought there was money in it.



A lot of communities take their names from historic people or natural features: Squirrel Hill, Upper St. Clair, Beltzhoover. But in many suburban subdivisions and the like, the names are chosen by developers looking to make a buck. Often, the names refer to whatever existed in that location before the bulldozers replaced it with McMansions; hence the profusion of names like "Open Meadows" or "Tall Trees" in suburban areas. But sometimes the names have no connection to anything. They're just supposed to evoke an image of prosperous isolation from everything else. You know, like "Claremont" or "Cranberry Township." Their names don't mean anything, anymore than the names of new car models or pharmaceuticals do. (Is "Aventil" a car and "Elantra" a medicine ... or is it the other way around?)


Regent Square is such a case.


Historically, the neighborhood has carried almost as many names as Jennifer Lopez or Elizabeth Taylor. According to records on file at the Carnegie Library, early settlers first referred to the area as Gunn Hill. Later, Regent Square was known variously as the Devon Plan and the Wilkins Plan.


In the early 1900s, the area attracted the interest of George Westinghouse, who had a small farm there. In later years, he encouraged his managers to build homes nearby, since the location was convenient to Westinghouse's factories east of Pittsburgh. But the neighborhood wasn't called Regent Place -- and later Regent Square -- until just before the First World War.


Between 1912 and 1914, a developer named William Harmony re-planned the neighborhood's lots. As explained in the neighborhood history Around the Square and other accounts, Harmony tried to sell the area as premier housing for nearby residents, and he thought the word "Regent" gave some extra class. The peasantry might be content living in Edgewood or Swissvale, but the elite could flatter themselves by saying they lived in "Regent Square." It sounded suburban -- princely, even -- while still being convenient to the city.


It appears Harmony was no slouch in the promotion department. According to a 1978 account by longtime resident Margaret Funcke on file at the Carnegie, Harmony "offered a $500 prize to the owner who completed the first house" in his newly laid-out plan. The winner was a Mrs. Donaldson, whose house was built for "her horse and buggy."


Mrs. Donaldson may have gotten one over on Harmony, but he appears to have been a shrewd businessman. Regent Square did well for itself, thanks in part to the presence of Frick Park on its doorstep.


Yet if it's gone through more names than J-Lo, it's sometimes presented similar challenges to those who sought to be its partners. Regent Square sits at the seam separating Pittsburgh from the East End communities of Wilkinsburg, Edgewood and Swissvale. And while it has a foot in each of those communities, it seems independent of them all.


The resulting confusion is suggested by a 1930s history of Swissvale cited by the Regent Square Business District. "We have one section which seems at times isolated from the rest of the Borough," the history notes. "This section, known as Regent Square has for some time been dissatisfied and anxious to be taken out of Swissvale and annexed either to Edgewood or the City of Pittsburgh." In 1918, for example, residents were upset at a Swissvale "personal tax which seemed to the people of Regent Square very high, and [a] petition was filed to be annexed to the City of Pittsburgh." This may mark the first -- and last time -- anyone tried to join the city as a way of escaping higher taxes.


The measure failed by a three-to-one margin in a referendum, and in the decades since, Regent Square has managed to retain its own distinct identity. If the point of naming a new development is to create an image of prosperous isolation, a lot of suburban communities could learn something from Regent Square.


It wouldn't hurt if they copied D's, its justly famous carryout beer place, too. Having a bland name doesn't mean you can't have some character.

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