Who Was Joe Hammer?

History of Joe Hammer Square

Caitlin did the research. She found a place for us to sublet in Pittsburgh, PA from a post on Craigslist. It is on a small street located not far from Pitt called Joe Hammer Square. Not having seen the place my first question was, who was this guy Joe Hammer and why would I want to live on his square anyway?

Upon arriving, it turns out that Joe Hammer Square is not a bad place to live. Being very close to the University it has many amenities nearby, including the Carnegie Library where I type these entries. One of the nice things about this little street is the neighbors – there are several families living here, in addition to the students who change every semester. One of the first people I met was Saf, a man from Greece who lives in a house diagonally across from ours. He is very nice and told us about the opening in the home next door to our summer sublet that we eventually moved into. Being retired, he sits on his front porch and is kind of the neighborhood watchman.

Yesterday when I arrived at the library, I found that the computers were down and so I could not write this blog. What is a person to do? I thought back to the question I’d had before I moved to Pittsburgh and asked the reference librarian: “Why is there a square named after Joe Hammer here in Pittsburgh?” As if this was something that she heard every day, she said, “You will need to go to the Pennsylvania Room upstairs to find the answer to that question.” They have an entire room dedicated to research on the state of Pennsylvania? What a wonderful resource this library is!

Upstairs, the librarians were very helpful and knowledgeable. Within only a few moments they were able to sort through their copious file cabinets and find a newspaper clipping that answered my question. Thank you so much for being there as a resource and helping me find these answers.

It turns out that due to the steep topology and age of the city, Pittsburgh has more streets than any other U.S. City, a total of 5888. Because the place is so hilly, it is hard to have long streets here. And it turns out that it is also hard to come up with that many names. Indeed at one time, and maybe still, the city employed a full-time staff person just to manage the names of the streets here. From a press clipping I read dated Feb 11, 1944, I discovered that this person’s name was Samuel M. Lippencot and in the article he described at length the art, and sometimes simply the preference of street name selection, although making no reference to Joe Hammer.

In another article, it described how the developers who created the subdivisions named the streets. In the area that I live, all the streets are named in reference to Shakespeare’s plays, owing to our proximity of the Point Park University Playhouse, and our proximity to the University of Pittsburgh. Within a few blocks of each other, there is Hamlet Street, Ophelia Street, Romeo Street, and Juliet Street. Was Joe Hammer someone I forgot from my Shakespeare? Actually no. Looking back at the maps of this subdivision from the early 1900s, courtesy of the librarians in the Pennsylvania Room, it turns out that the original name of my street was Ellsinore Square, Ellsinore being the name of Hamlet’s castle in Denmark. That made much more sense. So how did we get to Joe Hammer?

That map showed how in 1900, Ellsinore Square had run two blocks south all the way to the end of the plateau that this section of Oakland sits on, continued east for a block, and then had come back north for two blocks, forming the square. Looking at a map from the thirties, it shows how Ellsinore Square had been cut to make room for more houses and the square part of it had now been separated from the street that I live on. Looking at a current map, it shows only an ambiguous reference to one end of where the square used to be. Walking back on the street where Ellsinore Square continued, the story is more clear. When Route 376 was built, they needed to cut away part of the plateau that Ellsinore Square rested on, and the entire back end of the square was eliminated. All that is left is a small stub at what was the end of the square, now about the length of two parked cars, which has no street sign.

But back to the initial question. It turns out that in 1944, the Pittsburgh Press ran an article about a 23 year old Lieutenant named Joseph Hammer who was killed in combat in Southern France on September 11, 1944, the first casualty of the War to live on none other than Ellsinore Square. After he was killed, the 60 residents of Ellsinore Square petitioned the Pittsburgh City Council to change the name of their street from Ellsinore Square to Joe Hammer Square, in honor of this young man who had lived on this street since he was six months old. The Pittsburgh City Council approved the name change just a few weeks after Joe Hammer’s death.

Having done this research to find out who Joe Hammer was, and having discovered the little stub of a street that once made Ellsinore a square, I now feel a little more connected with this place. I think about how a person who walked these streets more than sixty years ago might still recognize the place if he saw it today. I was also able to learn that the Hammers did not sell their house until 1984, and I think of them continuing to live here for the next forty years on the street named after their son, staying in a house that he would never come home to. Like any war memorial, it is bittersweet. We remember the sacrifices of those who came before us, and we live in appreciation.

There were two other questions to be answered: Why does this one-block street have numbering that starts at 3200? And which house did Joe Hammer live in? I was able to find the answer to the first question by looking at a current map of the area. Joe Hammer Square runs parallel with Forbes Avenue, which is in the 3000 block at this point, and so all the parallel streets, including Joe Hammer Square, are numbered in the 3000s. Knowing this numbering convention may help me sometime in the future when I am looking for an address here in Pittsburgh. And with only a little more research, I found that the house Joe Hammer lived in was now the home of my neighbor Saf, just diagonally across the street from me. I wonder if he knows.