Category: Hill District

  • Wesley Center AME Zion Church, Hill District

    Wesley Center AME Zion Church

    A striking modernist Gothic church whose clean lines are lovingly preserved by the congregation. Below, we add some bonus utility cables to prove that this is Pittsburgh.

    Wesley Center with utility cables
  • St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Hill District

    Cupola of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Hill District

    Elise Mercur was an extraordinary woman. The first female professional architect in Pittsburgh, and one of the first anywhere, she had a prosperous career for about a decade between 1894 and 1905. Then she retired, and most of her buildings have been crushed by the steamroller of time—or by university presidents who need them out of the way to make room for some donor’s vanity project.

    St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

    This church remains, however. It was built for the St. Paul’s Episcopal congregation; later it passed to the Church of the Holy Cross, a Black Episcopal congregation that eventually moved to Homewood. Right now it belongs to the Christian Tabernacle Kodesh Church of Immanuel.

    Centre Avenue end of the church
    From the side

    Those little triangular dormers are imitated from Richardson, who used them in his famous Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Allegheny West.

    The Wikipedia article on Elise Mercur is unusually thorough, so old Pa Pitt will not repeat its information here. He will add, however, that he has been scanning old trade journals to see whether any other buildings by Mercur have survived, and he will publish any findings in this spot.

    Perspective view

    As the only known remaining work of our first female architect, this church has a historical significance that makes it a preservation priority. Father Pitt assigns it to the Near Threatened category in his classification of our vulnerable landmarks.


    The most striking feature of St. Paul’s is the octagonal cupola.

  • Warren United Methodist Church, Hill District

    Warren United Methodist Church

    The Warren United Methodist Church might qualify for Rundbogenstil were it not for the very slight pointing of the arches, which takes away the Rund part of Rundbogenstil. With its battlemented roofline, it gives the impression of a chapel built into a castle. The attached parsonage is more interesting and more striking than the church when we see it from the street, and our only legitimate complaint about it would be that it draws too much attention toward itself and away from the church.

    Parsonage and church
  • Store and Apartments by J. E. Cole, Hill District

    2909 Centre Avenue

    So far this is the only building old Pa Pitt has identified as designed by J. E. Cole, about whom he knows nothing other than that Cole designed this building. The storefront has been modernized, but otherwise the building is in near-original condition. The corner is an obtuse angle, and Father Pitt wonders whether the unusual seam at that corner was the result of the architect’s original plan, or of the low-bidding contractor’s refusal to trim the bricks properly without an extra payment. It was imitated many years later by whoever added the modern storefront.

    Dwelling House Savings
  • Ewart House, Hill District

    Ewart House

    Short of a miracle, nothing can save this rambling manse from the middle 1800s, so we can only remember that it was here with these pictures. It was built in various stages by the Ewart family, who once owned all the land on both sides of Centre Avenue in this part of the Hill. The earliest part was probably built in the 1850s or 1860s; the frame addition may be as late as the twentieth century. The whole building will be demolished when the city gets around to it: it is only blocks from million-dollar houses in Schenley Farms, but those blocks make the difference.

    Gable end
    Perspective view
    Perspective view of the front
    Centre Avenue face
    Ewart House
  • FNB Financial Center

    FNB Financial Center tower nearing completion

    It’s getting close to done—our fifteenth-tallest skyscraper, if old Pa Pitt’s calculations are right, and the first really big one built outside downtown since the Cathedral of Learning. When the Lower Hill was demolished to get all those poor people out of sight of the executives downtown, the promise was that it would be replaced with a gargantuan cultural and commercial center that would make Pittsburgh proud. Instead it became mostly arid wasteland. This complex, of which the tower is the most visible manifestation, is promoting itself as finally delivering on those promises made all those decades ago, with “next-level social impact” and everything. Since we waited this long, we came out of the era of arid and uninspired International Style architecture, went straight through the era of Postmodernism, and landed smack in the middle of the Arid and Uninspired International Style Revival. The design came from Gensler, the world’s largest architecture factory.

  • Beth David Congregation, Hill

    Beth David Congregation

    The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle identifies this as “The Oldest Jewish Building in Pittsburgh.” It is not really very old, but all the older synagogues have been destroyed. That article gives a fascinating summary of this building’s complicated history; old Pa Pitt will summarize the summary. It was built for a congregation of Russian Jews who broke away from the Beth Zedek synagogue and called themselves Beth David, House of David. They started building this new synagogue right away, but they ran out of money, merged with Beth Zedeck again, and formed a new congregation called Shaaray Tefillah; so that, even though the date stone says “Beth David,” no Beth David congregation ever used this building.

    Beth David Congregation

    Shaaray Tefillah moved to Squirrel Hill in 1940, and this building became the Miller Street Baptist Church. That church closed a few years ago, and now we see the building being refurbished for some new use. Father Pitt does not quite approve of the new metal on the mansard roof; but slate would cost more than the building is worth, and that the building has a roof at all puts it ahead of too many historic buildings on the Hill.

    The cornerstone
    Star of David missing

    The Star of David must have gone with the Jewish congregation, or possibly was removed by the Baptists.

    Oblique view
  • Completing Plans for Hebrew Institute

    From The Construction Record, September 26, 1914. The building was put up the next year, and still stands almost exactly as Mr. Cohen designed it.

  • The A. Leo Weil Elementary School, Hill

    Entrance to the A. Leo Weil Elementary School

    Marion Steen was staff architect for the Pittsburgh Board of Public Education for two decades, from 1935 to 1954, and in that time he gave us some striking Art Deco schools. One of the most striking things about them was how different each of them was. Someday soon old Pa Pitt will take a tour of Mount Lebanon to photograph Ingham & Boyd’s schools there, and when he does, you will see that they all have a certain Ingham & Boyd sameness to them—which is not a bad thing: they are good variations on a good theme. But Marion Steen was like a jazz musician who could never play the same solo twice.

    The most striking thing about the 1942 Weil School, which is still in use as a charter school, is the four-storey vertical that marks off the main entrance.

    Sculpture over the entrance

    Old Pa Pitt does not know who is responsible for the strongly Deco allegorical figure pouring out floral treasures for the delighted children below. But he is certain that education is supposed to look something like this.

    Side view of the statue

    The auditorium is an exercise in Deco classicism. Note the textures in the brickwork.

    Auditorium and Soho Street entrance
    Centre Avenue end

    We hope someone will put some effort into preserving the wavy Art Deco metalwork in the railings at the Centre Avenue end of the building.

  • Minersville Public School, Upper Hill

    Monkeys on the Minersville Public School, Pittsburgh

    Ulysses L. Peoples was the architect of this school, which opened in 1902 and even then was something unique.

    The building itself is a tasteful but not extraordinary example of Romanesque style with Renaissance overtones—something we might call Rundbogenstil, because we like to say the word “Rundbogenstil.” It is a little bedraggled-looking now, because it closed in 2005. The more modern addition (by the time it was added this was known as the Madison Elementary School) has been adapted for the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, but nobody seems to know what to do with the original section.

    Minersvill Public School

    A fine piece of work for a small school, like many another Romanesque school in Pittsburgh. But the carved decorations around the entrances are like nothing else in the city, or possibly on earth.

    Alligators, rams, lions

    It seems as though the architect and the artist had conceived the curious notion that children should find school delightful, and that the entrance should convey the message that here is a place where we are going to have fun.

    Monkey capital
    Front entrance
    Front entrance
    Rams’ heads
    Monkey capital
    Side entrance
    Battling lions
    Battling lions
    Lions and rams
    Cherubs, dolphins, and salamanders
    Side and rear

    The side and rear of the building. The rear, facing an alley, is done in less expensive brick.

    Later addition

    The later addition, from 1929, is by Pringle & Robling in quite a different style, a lightly Deco form of modernism.

    A map showing the location of the building.