Is there any significance to the street names in the Oakland/hospital area (McKee, Meyran, etc.)? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Is there any significance to the street names in the Oakland/hospital area (McKee, Meyran, etc.)?

Question submitted by: Brian Vogel, Baldwin

Much like the "nonprofit" hospitals and universities that dominate its landscape, Oakland's street names reflect a mix of high-minded idealism and run-of-the-mill money-grubbing.

Several of Oakland's streets, after all, bear the names of literary giants. Streets in the Schenley Farms area, which adjoins Oakland, have the names of 19th-century British writers: Thackeray, Tennyson, Ruskin. On the western edge of the neighborhood, the streets are named after characters from Shakespeare (Ophelia and Hamlet).

Other streets honor historic figures, notes Annie Clark Miller in her 1924 Early Landmarks and Names of Old Pittsburgh. Halket Street, for example, is named for Peter Halkett, a Scotsman who died fighting for the British in the French and Indian War. A few blocks away, Darragh Street honors Pittsburgh's second mayor … who at this point could probably use all the honor he can get. Bates Street was named for Tarleton Bates, a county politician who died in a duel stemming from a dispute over a newspaper story. (Back in those dates, libel suits were for sissies.)

But many of Oakland's other streets are testament to nothing more than the people who either owned the land, or sought to sell it for a profit. Coltart Street, for example, is named for the family of one Joseph Coltart, whose Oakland home was built along Forbes Avenue in 1843, but somehow managed to survive both drunken frat parties and redevelopment plans until the 1960s. McKee Place, meanwhile, bears the name of the "McKee Place Plan," an 1893 real-estate development conjured up by — you guessed it — the heirs of one Samuel McKee.

Some of these developers were more notable, or at least more noted, than others. Take Meyran Avenue: It was named by Charles Meyran, who in 1872 submitted a plan for subdividing the street and the surrounding area. Meyran was the German-born president of the Germania Savings Bank, and was instrumental in piping natural gas into Pittsburgh factories. As the History of Allegheny County tells us, Meyran had "many houses and stores in Pittsburgh, and has made extensive purchases in the suburbs of the city, which he has improved and disposed of as occasion offered at good advantage." (That's how they used to say "he was a real-estate developer and speculator" back in 1889, when the History was published by the A. Warner Company.)

Meyran was a distinguished figure, active in numerous local businesses and civic efforts, including something called the "German-Franco Peace jubilee." I can't say what this group was about, except to note that its celebrations were somewhat premature. The History does note, however, that Meyran's name was a condensed form of his ancestor: John Carhles Meyer-Arend. And the German pronunciation would have been closer to "Myron" — as in Cope — than to "May-ran" or however else you hear the college kids pronounce it.

According to development records on file with the city, Meyran's development included a "subdivision of the Semple property" — the name of the street just a block away. Who was Semple? It's not entirely clear; the name crops up repeatedly in the city's history. But my guess is that the Semple in question was one John Bonner Semple, who city directories list as living in Oakland at the time. And he certainly would have had enough land to subdivide. The Generational and Personal History of Western Pennsylvania notes that Semple was "for many years one of the leading representatives of the financial interests and prestige of the Iron City."

In fact, Semple's banking firm, Semple & Jones, was the "third oldest private banking house in Pittsburgh," the history notes — even older than T. Mellon & Sons, the forerunner of Mellon Bank. In those days, the Generational History notes, "His face and manner both showed him to be a man of refined tastes and benevolent disposition."

So he may have moved out of the neighborhood just in time.

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