Category: Hill District

  • 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.

    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
    Auditorium

    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
    Cherub?
    Rams’ heads
    Monkey capital
    Monkeys
    Monkeys
    Friezes
    Side entrance
    Rampant
    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.

    Front
    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.

  • Fifth Ward World War I Memorial, Upper Hill

    Eagle by Frank Vittor

    An unmistakable Frank Vittor eagle; compare it to the eagle on the West End World War I memorial and the one on the portal to the Boulevard of the Allies. City records confirm that Frank Vittor was the sculptor.

    Fifth Ward War Memorial

    The memorial stands in Robert E. Williams Memorial Park, originally Herron Hill Park, which was laid out in 1889. It is a very pleasant green space in a pleasant residential section of the Upper Hill.

    Because war memorials sometimes become illegible for various reasons, and because a historian friend has been trying to reconstruct the names on another World War I memorial and finding the task difficult, old Pa Pitt has decided to record all the names on this memorial. If you enlarge the pictures, you should be able to read every name clearly.

    Inscriptions
    Inscriptions
    Inscriptions
    Inscriptions
    Inscriptions
    Inscriptions

    The emblem of the Corps of Engineers, which in an earlier version of the article Father Pitt had mistaken for the arms of Pittsburgh. Thanks to our commenter below for the correction.

    A map showing the location of the memorial.

  • City View Apartments, Lower Hill

    A fairly early work of I. M. Pei (built in 1964), this was part of the massive redevelopment of the Lower Hill that cleared out all the poor people and replaced their houses, stores, clubs, bars, synagogues, churches, and schools with a modernist wasteland. It was originally called Washington Plaza, and it was meant to be an International Style city-in-a-tower, with everything you would need on the premises and no reason ever to go out into the grubby outdoors. For most of its life, it was gleaming white; the muddy brown came in with the new name.

    Correction: Father Pitt had originally mistyped the date as “1864,” which in geological time is not much of a difference, but in stylistic time is almost enough for the universe to have been destroyed and created again. Much gratitude to “sandisk” for the correction (see the comment below).

  • Macedonia Baptist Church, Hill

    Macedonia Baptist Church

    The imposing Tudor or Jacobean Gothic front of this church is its most impressive feature, with twin towers that make the church seem bigger than it is. The large stained-glass window in the center seems a little undersized for the building, leaving an awkward blank space above it; but that is a minor quibble, and this is a fine building kept in good shape by its congregation.

    Oblique view
  • St. Benedict the Moor Church, Hill

    St. Benedict the Moor

    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.

    Front
    Entrance

    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.

  • Congregation Kaiser Torah, Hill

    Congregation Kaiser Torah

    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.

    Cornerstone
    Webster Avenue front
    From the opposite corner

    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.