Oops, My Historic House Has A … Swastika???

swastikahouse-aThis one is, well,  just a tad unique.  In 1976, a black couple — Donald & Thelma Smith — bought a beautiful mansion (circa 1912) in the historic Hill District of Pittsburgh.  While doing some renovations a few years later, some exterior wood was removed from the facade to reveal — surprise, surprise — a carved swastika they never knew about.  Don’t believe it?  Look for yourself (pic, above left).

So, the owners faced a real dilemma.   Being minorities themselves, they could imagine how certain Jewish neighbors (in fact, Jewish neighbors with actual concentration camp numbers tattooed on their bodies . . . *gulp*) might feel about the hateful symbol being suddenly revealed & permanently displayed.  Not to mention, how did the Smiths, themselves, feel about it?  Why was it even there?

200px-nazi_swastikasvgWell, a bit of research turned up an interesting answer:  The original builder of the house, Herman S. Davis (an engineer & an astronomer), had originally named this estate “Swastika.”  Was he a Nazi?  Nope.  The symbol doesn’t mean what you might think.  This carved swastika obviously pre-dates the fascist Nazi regime by at least a couple decades, and it is NOT tilted at an angle, like the Nazi swastika (see pic, right).

swastika_doorstep_cropIn fact, the symbol of the swastika has a long & rich history, dating back thousands of years.  It is believed to have originated in India, and it has been appropriated by various Eastern religions — including Hindus, Buddhists, and Jainists — for centuries.  Ironically (considering the swastika’s “sinister” associations with Hitler these days),  the word swastika originates from the Sanskrit word “svastika” — which means “associated with good luck or well being.”  That’s right . . . the swastika is a happy good-luck charm!

matildemoisant_detailThis good luck symbolism is still powerful in some Asian countries, and the swastika was widely considered a good luck symbol in the Western world, too, until the Nazis ruined it. (Did You Know?? The town of Swastika, Ontario almost changed their name during WWII because of Hitler!).  In fact, look at this picture (left) of Drew Barrymore, er, I mean Matilde Moisant — an early aviator wearing the swastika as a good luck symbol (as did many early daredevils who flew machines into the sky).  The date of this photo?  1912 — the exact same year Herman S. Davis built his mansion and dubbed it “Swastika.”

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Who knows where his inspiration came from, or why he carved the large (2′ x 2′) swastika in the concrete facade.  But it’s easy to imagine why.  The house was made of poured concrete — a fairly new construction method, and perhaps he was proud to eternally display the good luck charm swastika in his state-of-the-art masterpiece.  But here is something else important that I stumbled onto:  2010-07-31-remarkable-signatureHerman S. Davis loved symbolism.  Check out this webpage, where someone gushes over Davis’s own “signature” (pic, right).  His signature is complex & symbolic (read the link to figure out why), and he was proud of it.  The signature can be found on hundreds of government documents.  Davis clearly spent some time doodling — or should I say “engineering”?– to invent his own, personal “symbol”  that represents who he is — and it’s an impressive one, at that!  So, it is safe to say that Davis took symbols seriously, and felt they were powerful, and he probably put a great deal of thought into the permanent nature of the swastika carving.

Incidentally, the Smith family — despite lots of notice from neighbors, curiosity-seekers, and even one vandal — decided to keep the symbol, since they feel it is an important historical element of the home.

For a full story on the “Swastika” estate, see this article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review by Bob Bauder.  For more fascinating history of the swastika symbol, see the Wikipedia article here .  For an article about “naming” properties, check out our previous article here.

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  1. by Sharon Ferraro, on 04.03.11 @ 3:46 PM


    Back when I was in graduate school for historic preservation, I researched the early 20th century house plans publiched in LADIES HOME JOURNAL under the guidance of editor Edward Bok. His home in Merion PA was called Swastika and if you thumb through the Craftsman magazine, you will find swastikas embroidered on table linens. Here in Kalamazoo, MI, the First United Methodist Church, built in the mid 1920s has a red swastika in one of the north facing stained glass windows.
    I am glad this couiple decided to leave tis historic artifact in place to remind us of another time!

  2. by Michael, on 04.18.11 @ 11:08 PM


    Thanks for the info! I didn’t know that is was this common.

  3. by T. Ordoñez, on 05.09.13 @ 5:42 PM


    Too many blacks are indifferent to racism not specifically directed at them and look to antagonize other ethnic groups, especially those that have been more successful professionally/economically. I Hope there are plenty of confederate flags waving on that street; one insult deserves another. The swastika has come to symbolize the exclusion, degredation, and genocide of Jews, that’s its only relevant meaning in Western society post WWII. The neighbors should sue; there are laws against inciting hate.

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