The Baroque style is unusual, but St. Stephen’s is a Frederick Sauer church through and through, starting with that yellow Kittanning brick he favored. We’ll have to wait till the leaves drop to get a view of the front, but since the building is slowly crumbling, it’s good to get the details as soon as we can.
This tenement house in Hazelwood was built in 1903, making it one of Titus de Bobula’s early commissions in Pittsburgh. It is very conventional for De Bobula, but it represented him in a Pittsburgh Press roundup of local architects in 1905 (“Able Architects the Authors of City’s Architectural Beauty,” April 29, 1905), where this picture was published (we regret that we have not been able to find a better copy than this ugly microfilm scan):
From what we can see in the indistinct old photograph, the building has not changed much at all, though Gertrude Street in front of it has been regraded.
The Gertrude Street face. It is likely that many of the first residents were Hungarian millworkers: that is a bit of De Bobula’s First Hungarian Reformed Church peeking out from behind the building.
Entrance on the south end of the building. The entrances originally had some sort of triangular pediment or small projecting roof; the Press photo is too indistinct to make out any details, but we can see the shadow of a triangle over the entrances at both ends.
The Elizabeth Street end of the building.
Andrew Carnegie peppered the city with neighborhood libraries designed by his favorite architects, Alden & Harlow. They’re all little gems. This one has been abandoned for years, since a new library was built in the mostly empty business district of Hazelwood on Second Avenue. (That block of Second Avenue now seems to be the center of the Hazelwood neighborhood revival.) It is still in good shape, and—unlike an abandoned church or synagogue—it would be a relatively easy building to adapt to new uses.
A school that looks like a school, this is now a community center. Of course it has to make very Pittsburghish adaptations to the topography, so it is not possible to say how many storeys there are without specifying which side you mean. A modernist front was added to the other end, just a bit of which is visible in this picture.
Certainly unique in Pittsburgh, this Episcopal church was a design by William Halsey Wood, whose only other work here that Father Pitt knows about is the Church of the Ascension in Shadyside. The Church of the Good Shepherd was built in 1891; it is now up for sale, so anyone with some money has a chance at a signature building that looks like nothing else in the city. After decades of decline, this part of Hazelwood is moving up in the world: just a couple of blocks away is a branch of La Gourmandine, the delightful French bakery. Wouldn’t you like to live or work in a landmark building just a short stroll from a French bakery?
And then there’s Titus de Bobula.
There are few real outliers among the architects who worked in Pittsburgh before the First World War; we had brilliant architects, but we can sort most of them into groups by the styles they worked in. Titus de Bobula’s work, however, is unique here. He brought us a breath of Budapest Art Nouveau, and for a few years he was the favorite architect for East European churches of all sorts.
And then he was gone—back to Hungary, where his regular job seems to have been trying and failing to overthrow the government. Later he ended up back in the United States, but he never again had a great architectural career. Perhaps that was because he worked with Nikola Tesla, designing the structural parts of Tesla’s never-built (and possibly delusional) superweapons. It might have been a good job at the time, but no permanent structures ever came of it.
So we should try as hard as we can to preserve what remains of de Bobula’s work. Fortunately this church, built in 1903, still belongs to its original congregation and is still active.
The shape of the building is similar to the shape of your average Pittsburgh Gothic church, but the details are straight from fin-de-siècle Budapest—right down to Titus de Bobula’s trademark Art Nouveau lettering in the inscriptions.
The wildly irregular stonework around the uniquely shaped windows may remind you a bit of Gaudi.
“Welcome” in stained glass over the main entrance.
Titus de Bobula made a habit of signing his buildings. The rail of a later wheelchair ramp obstructs part of this inscription (the contractor was Bodine and Co.), but we can see enough to appreciate the Art Nouveau lettering.
In 2015, we visited the John Woods House and found it boarded up, but with some hope for a brighter future: the Urban Redevelopment Authority had bought it and was offering it for sale to anyone who would restore it.
Someone took up the offer, and the house is now beautifully restored and open as a pub called the Woods House.
John Woods and his father Col. George Woods made the street plan for downtown Pittsburgh in 1784; the Colonel came up with the design, and John did the drafting work. The town had existed for nearly thirty years before it was organized into a proper grid of streets: Woods actually gave us two grids, doing his best to fit a rational eighteenth-century square plan into a triangle. The collision of the grids along Liberty Avenue has been a source of confusion and delightfully unusual building shapes ever since.
In musical history, this is famous as the house where Stephen Foster loved to visit and bang away at the piano. Supposedly he wrote “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” and “Nellie Bly” here, the latter inspired by one of the Woods family’s servants.
As the clouds drifted by low in the sky, old Pa Pitt decided this house might make a good moody black-and-white picture.
The original Hazelwood Branch, built in 1890, was abandoned in 2004 in favor of a larger building on Second Avenue. Since then this fine building has been vacant, as far as Father Pitt knows. It is just a short stroll up Monongahela Street from the John Woods House, and an enthusiastic preservationist might be able to get a good deal on both of them at once.
Before he even went looking for the architects, Father Pitt was fairly sure that they must have been Alden & Harlow, Andrew Carnegie’s favorite architectural firm and the architects of numerous other Carnegie libraries, including the big one in Oakland. Old Pa Pitt’s instinct was correct. This is a typically tasteful and substantial Alden & Harlow design. Their branch libraries always feel welcoming: they are proud ornaments to their neighborhoods, but never overwhelmingly ostentatious. They seem to embody Andrew Carnegie’s ideal that no workman, however humble, should ever feel that the neighborhood library is too good a place for the likes of him.
An update: Old Pa Pitt is delighted to report that this house has been beautifully restored and is now serving as a pub.
The John Woods House is one of the small number of eighteenth-century buildings left in the city of Pittsburgh. (Father Pitt will not tell you exactly how many there are, because every published number he sees is demonstrably wrong, and he suspects there are more than we realize; there are quite a few in the suburbs and countryside around Pittsburgh.) It was built in 1792, and Father Pitt will go ahead and call it the most historically important house in the city: not only is it the only vernacular stone house from the 1700s left between the rivers, but John Woods was the man who drew the street plan for downtown Pittsburgh in 1784. Before that, Pittsburgh had already been built and destroyed more than once, but it was the Woods Plan that became the permanent layout of the Golden Triangle. As if that were not enough history, tradition says that Stephen Foster composed some of his most famous songs here (the piano from this house is now in the Stephen Foster Memorial), including “Nellie Bly,” inspired by a servant girl who worked for the Woods family.
And you can buy this house right now—probably for an absurdly low figure. The URA owns it, and would be happy to get rid of it to someone who wants to fix it up. As you can see, it has been stabilized, but it really needs someone who can make it a house again.
Since the collapse of the steel industry, Hazelwood has suffered some drastic decline; but it is on the way up again. Father Pitt has talked to some of the Woods House’s neighbors on Monongahela Street. They are friendly people. You would like them. Nearby, urban homesteaders are fixing up houses and growing crops. An adventurous person with a bit of money has the opportunity to be part of a neighborhood revival, and to rescue an irreplaceable piece of Pittsburgh history.
Here are some other eighteenth-century buildings in Pittsburgh whose pictures Father Pitt has published: