Remembering Carol Peterson: friends celebrate life of local historian, rabble-rouser, underdog champion

Story by Kitty Julian, Bulletin contributor

Lawrenceville – On Dec. 17, Carol Peterson, a Pittsburgh icon who dedicated her life to preserving the city’s architectural history, died at age 58 after a seven-year struggle with cancer.

A fierce advocate for social justice and animal rights, Peterson is remembered for her lasting contributions to local understandings of “place” and history. Some readers may also recognize her as the co-author of “Allegheny City,” the book she wrote with Dan Rooney about his old stomping grounds.

An active member of the City’s Historic Review Commission, Peterson deployed her encyclopedic knowledge of zoning law to argue against the potential demolition of, or any character-changing renovations to, historic properties all across the city. Some folks know her as an audience member at local shows; right where illness would have knocked down a less stubborn individual, she stood in the mosh pit.

As the Internet came into being, Peterson adapted to the changing communicative environment with aplomb. She navigated the message board – a local, punk-rock hub for wisecracks and “constructive dissent” – to connect new residents with hidden histories.

No matter how one might have known the local historian, they would always recognize her as a champion of the underdog. Peterson organized protests to halt the demolition of historic smokestacks at the Iron City Brew Works on Liberty Ave. Writing for the  Pittsburgh City Paper, she rallied awareness about the unhelpful practices of the Susan B. Komen Foundation.

The woman had real vision; she thought the homes of ordinary working people were worth saving, too, and that local preservation acts could be applied beyond the borders of the city’s “mansion-scapes.” Appreciation of the city’s rich architectural history was not, she believed, a practice reserved for the Mellons and the Fricks of the world.

Peterson purchased, rehabilitated, and sold at least twelve houses that others might have demolished. She turned each into cozy, welcoming homes – with their historic character intact [see image above].

Many others know her as the person who wrote a “Pittsburgh House History” for their properties. Peterson wrote an incredible 1,940 property histories during her lifetime; each document’s origins involved painstaking research to track down the properties’ purchase history through the County Recorder of Deeds office.

The historian added color and life to each home’s biography with maps, newspaper articles about the original owners, and historic photos she discovered on microfilm at various Carnegie Library branches.

Fueled by her incredible devotion to preservation and grassroots activism, Peterson helped found Lawrenceville Stakeholders in the early 2000s. The organization continues to advocate for reasonable development while working to stem the tide of “house flipping,” a familiar scourge that destroys neighborhood character by exploiting low-income and older residents.

Despite her wide-ranging interests, Peterson always saved her deepest care and concern for the friends she loved. This wide-ranging, colorful circle of people loved her back and rallied around her, taking care of her with increasing urgency and devotion over the final few years of her life.

When she died at home on Dec. 17, Peterson was surrounded by friends who had prepared her meals; brought her the IPA beers she loved; helped her complete house history research; cared for her beloved orange tabby cat, Wee-Bey; and took her on “bucket list” trips.

On Jan. 26, that circle and dozens more gathered in Lawrenceville to celebrate her life at Spirit (242 51st St.) – a venue where Peterson had enjoyed performances by musicians like queer icon Big Freedia, the veritable “queen of bounce.” Many toasts were raised to the local rabble-rouser who defied the odds, and outlasted her cancer years longer than expected, to leave an indelible mark on the city she loved.

Donations are being directed to two organizations that Peterson loved: “Lawrenceville Stakeholders, c/o 187 43rd St., PGH, PA 15201” and “Preservation Pittsburgh, 1501 Reedsdale St., Suite 5003, PGH, PA 15233.”

Read more stories from the February 2018 Bulletin (Vol. 43, No. 2) here!