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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Round houses were the work of an architractor

A round house built by Walter Rockwell Sr. after World War II on Seventh Street in North Charleroi, Pa.

By Scott Beveridge

CHARLEROI, Pa. – Walter Rockwell Sr. had a fascination with 19th century carnivals that could explain his fondness for building whimsical, round houses in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The builder who honed his skills while creating amusement rides went on to construct 35 unusual houses in the Charleroi area, including two round ones that could have doubled for World War II-era pillboxes.

"He had a bug for round things," said Walter Rockwell Jr. of nearby Carroll Township, who for a time followed in his father's footsteps.

In the years since the elder Rockwell died in 1974 at age 88, his legacy has been largely overlooked in the Mon Valley, said Nikki Sheppick, chairman of the Charleroi Area Historical Society, which is now building a Rockwell archive.

But in his time, he served on North Charleroi council and as president of its volunteer fire department while earning a "reliable and trustworthy" career as a self-taught architect. He "worked along legitimate lines and high ideals," Earle Forrest wrote in 1926 about Rockwell in the "History of Washington County, Pa."

After apprenticing in carpentry as a young man, Rockwell went to work as a traveling showman in a territory that included every state east of the Mississippi.

He left that business after seven years, settled in North Charleroi and befriend a well-known local showman, Robert Coyle, who established the Coyle Theater in Charleroi.

Coyle hired Rockwell in the early 1900s to convert a vaudeville house on McKean Avenue into a movie palace. Rockwell gutted the interior, built a 22-foot addition and erected a 66-ton steel beam to support the balcony, his son said. The theater, which has been closed for nearly two decades, is being restored by a local nonprofit cultural trust.

The Coyle-Rockwell partnership also developed Shady Grove Park near Uniontown, where the elder Rockwell was born April 26, 1886.

He went on to construct a number of buildings in downtown Charleroi, making a show of his building skills while they went up. For example, he raised the first floor of a building at Sixth Street and Fallowfield Avenue and set it atop two new floors to expand a furniture store, his son said.

Then father and son turned to building in the round, beginning with a garage behind a mansion at the end of Prospect Street that some locals have nicknamed the "Hobbit garage." His round roofs can also be found on two service stations in the downtown that were constructed in the early auto era.

When the private garage was new, its floor rotated with the help of a crank and ball bearings and chains to turn a car around to face the front door after it pulled into the building.

Next up, the Rockwells built their first round house in 1947 on Seventh Street hill in North Charleroi with white-faced concrete blocks. Then Walter Rockwell Sr. built the second in Carroll Township for his family, not far from the mansion he built for the Coyle family on Coyle-Curtain Road.

Many of his houses have scaled-down English Tudor-inspired designs, and some include over-sized chimneys or small turrets at their facades.

The two round houses have a central rectangular hall with the rooms shaped like wedges of a pie without points, said Walter Rockwell Jr., 80, who spent his career in the remodeling business and restores and builds furniture in his spare time.

"The rooms meet in the middle," he said. "He liked to do things differently."

Because the elder Rockwell wasn't exactly an architect, he called himself an "architractor," his son said.

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