Pittsburghers love to show out-of-town visitors the inclines, the dinosaurs at the Carnegie, the view from Mount Washington, the sandwiches with cole slaw and French fries piled inside, and other attractions of the big city. But often what the visitors talk about most is that they can’t believe how those houses cling to the side of a cliff. Here are some views of the South Side Slopes from the Bluff across the river, so that you can show out-of-town friends who have not yet visited that houses do indeed grow that way in Pittsburgh.
The Schenley, Newly Built
From Our Cities, Picturesque and Commercial, a souvenir book of Pittsburgh and Allegheny published in 1898, the year the Hotel Schenley was built. Except for the sensitively matched addition in the front and the loss of the cornice, the building looks much the same today.
Note the big expanse of nothing on the hill to the right. That was still open land belonging to Mary Schenley when the hotel was built.
Pair of Queen Anne Rowhouses, South Side
Obviously built together, these two houses on Sarah Street have had their separate adventures. The one on the right has had its third-floor false balcony filled in to give an upstairs bedroom a little more space; the one on the left has grown an aluminum awning (because it is the South Side, after all). But both retain most of their original details, which are fairly unusual, a sort of Queen Anne interpretation of French Second Empire.
Cathedral Mansions and Haddon Hall in 1929
Thanks to a kind correspondent, old Pa Pitt has an opportunity to prove himself right about one thing and wrong about something else. Being wrong is almost as good as being right, because it means learning something new.
Our correspondent sent two pictures that appeared in an advertisement that ran in the Post-Gazette in 1929. The ad was for Frigidaire refrigerating systems, as used in prominent buildings in the city.
First, the Cathedral Mansions apartments on Ellsworth Avenue.
Here Father Pitt was right. A little while ago, we ran this picture of Cathedral Mansions as it looks today:
At that time we mentioned that we suspected it had lost a cornice. Father Pitt was right about that, as you can see from the 1929 picture.
Now, here’s the one we were wrong about:
This building is now an apartment building called Hampshire Hall. As “Haddon Hall” it was a hotel with apartments. Here is what it looks like today:
The obvious change is that modernist growth on the front. When he published these pictures, Father Pitt wrote, “It appears to be a glass enclosure for what was once an elegant verandah.” That is wrong. It seems to have been a replacement for the original dining room or lounge of the hotel. It was probably put there in about 1961: a newspaper ad from December 22, 1961, promotes the Walt Harper Quintet’s appearance at the “newly remodeled Haddon Hall Lounge.”
Many thanks to our correspondent for the pictures, which give us new information about these two notable buildings. If anyone knows the architect of either one, but especially Haddon Hall/Hampshire Hall (which is in a distinctive modernist-Renaissance style), Father Pitt would be grateful for the information.
College Hall, Duquesne University
College Hall was built in 1970, two years after Mellon Hall across the way, and we notice that the architect (whose name old Pa Pitt was not immediately able to find) took the idea of stilts from Mies Van der Rohe and applied it to an otherwise very different style of modernism. Although every element is indubitably twentieth-century, the whole effect gives us the impression of a classical temple. The interior is drab and utilitarian, but the exterior has a restrained dignity that is very attractive.
Hotel Schenley Advertisement from 1929
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 29, 1929, page 10. Note the exaggerated height; compare it to the proportions in old Pa Pitt’s pictures.
Hotel Schenley, Oakland
Designed by Rutan & Russell, this was our first skyscraper hotel, and the most luxurious hotel in the city when it went up in 1898—at a time when it was actually at the edge of the urbanized area. It remained the Pittsburgh base of the rich and famous for half a century, but it declined after the Second World War, and in 1956 was sold to Pitt. It is now the William Pitt Union, with many of the exterior and interior details scrupulously preserved.
Addendum: See a picture of the Hotel Schenley in 1898, the year it was built.
Victorian Houses on Penn Avenue, Garfield
A row of fine Victorian houses on Penn Avenue in Garfield (Bloomfield according to city planning maps, because Penn Avenue is the neighborhood line, but Pittsburghers have always called both sides of Penn “Garfield”). Note the splendid tall parlor windows on the one above, which also has some particularly good gingerbreading.
America by Charles Keck
Charles Keck was a very successful sculptor who had a fruitful relationship with the architect Henry Hornbostel. He decorated the City-County Building, Pennsylvania Hall at Pitt, the Education Building in Albany, and the City Hall in that other Oakland, the one in California, all of them buildings by Hornbostel. He was a natural choice for this allegorical sculpture over the entrance to Soldiers and Sailors Hall, whose message seems to be that America is always ready, so don’t mess with her.
Note the large eyes. They may be inspired by late-antique sculpture, in which the eyes are usually disproportionately big. In a sculpture meant to be seen from a distance, the disproportion is not obvious at normal viewing range, but the large eyes give expression to the face that it would not have if they were natural size.
Variously called Mediterranean Bells, Sicilian Honey Garlic, and several other names, this is a member of the onion genus valued more for its showy and interesting tricolored flowers than for its flavor.