Now apartments, this grand old house, right at the edge of Oakland on the border of Shadyside, is a remnant of the time when what is now the apartment district was a suburban retreat for the well-to-do.
With the Lower Hill demolished and replaced with a modernist wasteland, this church became the gateway to the Hill District. There may be no more effective religious statue in all of Pittsburgh than the statue of St. Benedict the Moor (by Frederick Charles Shrady) on top of the tower, his arms spread wide to welcome us to his neighborhood. The Gothic church, built in 1894, was designed by Moeser & Bippus. They had their offices downtown on Liberty Avenue, so there must be other buildings by them in the area, but old Pa Pitt does not know of any; he would be delighted if someone could name a few, or even one. It originally belonged to Holy Trinity, a German Catholic parish.
And now let us say something for a moment about the ethnic diversity of the Hill a hundred years ago. If you stayed within six blocks of this German church, you could have visited two African Methodist Episcopal churches and one “colored” Presbyterian church, an Irish Catholic church, a Greek Catholic (that is, Byzantine Catholic) church, a Black Baptist church, and every kind of synagogue:
Congregation Machsike Hadas
Beth Jacob Congregation
B’nai Israel Congregation
Gates of Wisdom Synagogue
Congregation Tent of Jacob
Tiphereth Israel Congregation
Paolo Zaoec Synagogue (Austro-Hungarian)
Congregation Shaare Tefilla
Congregation Kanascis Israel
And doubtless some others; we have just been glancing at the 1923 maps at the Pittsburgh Historic Maps site and have not made any scientific survey. This was not the whole Hill, of course; we have kept within a short walk of today’s St. Benedict the Moor. People of all sorts lived side by side in a crowded but lively neighborhood. Over at Pittsburgh Cemeteries, Father Pitt has noticed the ethnic diversity of the Hill reflected in the Minersville Cemetery on the Upper Hill, a German Lutheran cemetery that nevertheless found space for people whose tombstones are written in Slovak, Greek, and Arabic.
That the Hill became an almost exclusively Black neighborhood was the result of deliberate public policy. A neighborhood where races mixed was defined as a slum, and slums had to be cleared. Of the streets we were just walking in our imagination, half were simply demolished. The rest was marked out as a Black neighborhood; other residents had every incentive to move to areas from which Blacks were excluded by invisible red lines, though many businesses continued to be owned by former residents who had moved away, until the 1968 riots discouraged them.
The human spirit triumphs over inhumanity, however, and today’s Hill is a neighborly neighborhood. It is not prosperous; it has lost far too many buildings and gained too many vacant lots. But it is a place where people practice the neighborly virtues, and we hope that from that precious resource will come a revival of the lesser assets as well.
A block away from the magnificent Calvary Methodist Church was another Methodist church, almost as magnificent—but Methodist Protestant, whereas Calvary was Methodist Episcopal. Calvary is exuberantly Gothic; this is a heavier Romanesque style. For some reason it has never made anyone’s landmarks list, but in Father Pitt’s opinion it deserves recognition and preservation as a fine example of the Richardsonian Romanesque style.
The building later became home to the Carter Chapel C.M.E. Church, a historic Black congregation that had previously been on the Hill in the former Congregation Kaiser Torah synagogue.
Now it is abandoned, and under sentence of condemnation since it started shedding bits of stone. According to a passing neighbor who struck up a conversation with the man with the camera, it was bought for $300,000 some time ago, but the owner seems not to have been able to do anything with it. It is just on the edge of Allegheny West, a very desirable neighborhood, but neighborhood boundaries are everything in real estate, and this church is technically in Manchester.
Since the building may vanish soon, old Pa Pitt spent some time documenting the exterior. To avoid weighing down the front page for the next week and a half, the rest of the pictures are below the metaphorical fold.(more…)
Another magnificent clubhouse by Benno Janssen; it is now Alumni Hall of the University of Pittsburgh.
Several old synagogues remain on the Hill, though their numbers are dwindling and none are still synagogues. This building appears not to be in use right now, though it is still marked on Google Maps as Zion Full Gospel Baptist Church (its one review gives it four stars, and the entire text of the review is “Can’t remember this place either sorry”). The Star of David on the side identifies it as a synagogue, even if we did not have our Pittsburgh Historic Maps to look at. In 1922, the Congregation Kaiser Torah changed its name (for some reason) to Congregation Kether Torah. In the early 1950s the congregation moved to Squirrel Hill and sold the building to the “Carter Chapel Colored Methodist Church,” or C. M. E. Church, as we can still see in one of the layers of lettering on the cornerstone.
Some addenda: In later sources, the earlier name of the synagogue (are you confused yet?) is spelled Keser Torah or Kesser Torah. The congregation was still meeting at the Hillel Academy a few years ago. It has been small for decades; even in 1958 there were only 50 members, according to “The Story of Kether Torah Congregation,” a clipping from the Jewish Criterion preserved at the Heinz History Center.
A correction: In an earlier version of this article, Father Pitt mistakenly read the cornerstone as “Carter Chapel A.M.E. Church.” It was a C.M.E. Church, not A.M.E.; it later moved to the former Trinity Methodist Protestant Church on the North Side, but is no longer there.
Groundhogs from old Pa Pitt’s collection.
One of the streets named for great writers in the Schenley Farms section of Oakland; this writer happens to be the most famous of the lot because of his association with a well-known contest. Above, bronze letters in the sidewalk still mark where Lord Lytton meets Mr. Parkman. Below, the street, lined with beautiful turn-of-the-twentieth-century houses and mature sycamores, points straight toward the Cathedral of Learning.
One of Benno Janssen’s masterpieces; here we see it from the Cathedral of Learning grounds.