A view from the South Side Slopes. Below, a closer look at part of Duquesne University and Mercy Hospital on the Bluff.
Uptown is a strange neighborhood right now. A lot of development is going on, and a lot of decay is going on, and they are going on in the same blocks. This house is obviously not in perfect shape at the moment, but it was just recently declared a city historic landmark—partly for its architecture, but mostly for its associations.
Joe Tito was a bootlegger during Prohibition; when Prohibition ended, he invested the proceeds of his crimes in what was now legitimate business and bought the Latrobe Brewing Company, which had existed before Prohibition but had been closed for years. In 1939 he introduced the Rolling Rock brand, which was brewed in Latrobe until it was bought and moved to New Jersey. (Latrobe, currently owned by the City Brewing Company of Wisconsin, now brews Iron City and Stoney’s and other contract brews.)
Joe’s best friend in the world was Gus Greenlee, the Black entertainment magnate from the Hill famous in jazz legend as the owner of the Crawford Grill. Mr. Greenlee bought the equally legendary Pittsburgh Crawfords baseball team, and Mr. Tito invested in it.
The historic designation for this house came after much acrimonious debate. The owner of the property opposed it, since the house itself is not valuable but the property stands in an area that may soon be desirable. Some of the other opponents opposed on the grounds that the house was associated with organized crime, which suggests a strange view of what constitutes “history”: it is something like saying that the Marne should not be a historic battlefield because it is associated with the Kaiser. If historic buildings cannot be associated with sinners, then the only city with any historic buildings at all will be the New Jerusalem.
Now that it’s historic, what is to be done with this house? That is the interesting question. Uptown is rapidly developing as a neighborhood of urban loft apartments; is there any room for a single-family house? Is the house big enough to divide into profitable apartments? Or will it mysteriously catch fire some night?
We should note that Fifth Avenue is the dividing line between neighborhoods on city planning maps, which technically puts this house in the Crawford-Roberts section of the Hill. Ordinary Pittsburghers think of both sides of Fifth Avenue as Uptown, however, and most of the media reports about this house have mentioned Uptown as the neighborhood.
This is our only major building by the modernist icon I. M. Pei, and it was one of his earlier works. Though this picture was taken in May of 2000 (with an Argus A camera), the building had not changed much since it was put up in 1964. Since 2000 it has acquired a new name, City View Apartments, and a coat of brownish-grey paint (we have a more recent picture of the building here).
St. Francis Central Hospital, at the right of the picture, has been replaced by a hotel.
Here is the Crawford Grill three years before it closed, from a picture Father Pitt took in 2000 with a cheap but capable Russian camera called a Lomo Smena 8M. This was the second Crawford Grill, which opened in 1943; the first, which stayed open for a few years after the second opened, had been in the long-since-demolished part of Wylie Avenue on the Lower Hill.
The Crawford Grill was legendary in its time, and it is still a legend among jazz lovers today. It was the last holdout from a whole street of jazz clubs that flourished in the first half of the twentieth century.
Note, by the way, the name at the top of the façade—“Sochatoff Building.” The Hill was a glorious mix of ethnic groups, a place where all races and languages came together and had a good time—Greek and African and Lebanese and Russian and Jewish and German and Chinese.
Of course, the word used by the Powers That Be for that kind of neighborhood was “slum,” and it was the mission of good government to eliminate slums.
It would be oversimplifying things to say that the Hill collapsed because the authorities hated the idea of a place where different races came together in harmony. But it would not be false. There were other forces involved, but that was the biggest one. The destruction of the Hill was deliberate policy, proudly announced and boastfully acknowledged. Slums must be cleared. And the residents? Well, they’d just better not go off and make another slum somewhere else, because we’ll be watching. How can you tell whether a good neighborhood is turning into a slum? Well, if you see races mixing, that’s an infallible sign. Much public policy in the middle twentieth century was determined by the desirability of keeping races separate.
The Crawford Grill thumbed its nose at that segregation. People of all races and classes gathered there because the music was first-rate, and the food wasn’t bad either. The entire Lower Hill, including the original Crawford Grill, was destroyed to create an arid modernist wasteland, but the new Crawford Grill stayed open. Cut off from downtown and with much of its original heart ripped out, the Hill withered and the other jazz clubs faded, but the Crawford Grill stayed open. The 1968 riots after Martin Luther King was assassinated destroyed much of what was left of the business district, but the Crawford Grill stayed open. Even after the rest of the Hill had reached its lowest point, the Crawford Grill remained.
It finally closed in 2003, not from lack of business, but because the building required major repairs that were beyond what seemed reasonable to spend. In fact the club was successful enough that it moved to Station Square—but it lasted only three years there. The Freighthouse Shops part of Station Square was also in decline, though perhaps no one recognized it yet, and the traffic could not support the new club’s considerably higher expenses.
The building still stands today, isolated and forlorn. That splendid Victorian house to its left is gone now, replaced by a vacant lot. A group of neighborhood preservationists bought the building years ago, but no one has been able to do anything with it. It just sits there, with a state historical marker in front of it to remind us that it was something great once upon a time.
If old Pa Pitt were writing a short story for a literary magazine, he would end it by telling you that, late at night, neighbors still hear the wail of a saxophone from somewhere in the heart of the building. That would be the proper ending for the story. As it is, he has only the optimistic hope to offer that some day the neighborhood will come together and the doors will open and the jazz will flow again.
Father Pitt wrote this article for the Pittsburgh Cemeteries site, but he thought his readers here might be interested as well.
For literally decades it has been a small local scandal: the once-beautiful Minersville Cemetery, a German Lutheran burying ground in the Hill District, was overgrown with weeds and vandalized, and no one would step forward to take care of it.
Now, at last, a group of Lutheran volunteers has taken on the cemetery. With the help of a bit of money from the cemetery’s upkeep fund and some more from Pittsburgh Area Lutheran Ministries, they have cleared the weeds, righted as many of the monuments as possible, and built a fine new iron gate to keep contractors with pickups from driving in to dump their garbage. (Pedestrians without garbage are still welcome.) The cemetery is beautiful again, an oasis of quiet repose in the middle of Herron Hill.
Some work still to be done: toppled and broken monuments gathered on one of the cemetery drives.
In 1941, this addition with interesting Art Deco panels was grafted on the otherwise classical Letsche Elementary School in the Hill District. The school is now the Pittsburgh Student Achievement Center, a school for students who do not thrive in more traditional schools.
This old church seems to be vacant right now. It has been home to other congregations over the past decades; but a hundred years ago, when the Hill was a lively melting-pot of every race and creed, it was a Greek Orthodox church. The architecture is interesting: Father Pitt is not enough of an expert on Greek churches to make a definitive pronouncement, but it looks as though the church was built by local builders familiar with generic Protestant churches. The details—round arches, onion dome, and perhaps the stepped façade—are Eastern, but the shape, with its peaked roof and entrance through a central tower, is the shape of small Protestant churches everywhere.
Now the home of the Energy Innovation Center, this grand old school on the brow of the Hill taught useful skills to generations of students. The architect was Edward B. Lee, who was a favorite school designer around here.
This massive slab on the Lower Hill, built in 1964, was designed by I. M. Pei—one of his earlier large works. It was meant as a typically idealistic International-style city-in-a-tower, with shops on the ground floor, recreational opportunities for the residents, and basically no reason ever to leave the premises. Pei might not be too happy about the recent renovations: the interior has been redesigned, and the stark white color has been changed to greyish industrial brown, which is all right if you like that sort of thing.
The building was called “Washington Plaza” for most of its life, but was renamed “City View” last year. Right now, however, it still carries the words “Washington Plaza” and the big trademark W on the west end of the building.
Old Pa Pitt must admit that he has never been a great fan of Pei’s work, but the architectural world at large loves him: his firm designed the John Hancock Tower in Boston, a building most famous for the multiple ways it has attempted to kill innocent Bostonians, but also one given multiple awards by the architecture industry. “Form follows function” is apparently not what architects really believe.
Camera: Kodak EasyShare 1485 IS.
After the long dark age of “urban renewal,” which always meant either warehousing the poor in ugly towers or replacing city neighborhoods with suburban ranch houses, Crawford Square, begun in 1993, was the first attempt to build a new urban neighborhood in Pittsburgh. It was not as adventurous as it might have been: it was purely residential, with no stores or churches or any of the other things that make a neighborhood in the city. But its success showed that people wanted attractive housing in an urban setting, and paved the way for other developments to come. This is Crawford Street, with St. Benedict the Moor (one of the few remnants of the old neighborhood) at the end of the block.