Category: Hill District

  • Trinity A. M. E. Church, Hill

    Trinity A. M. E. Church

    A modest church from 1925 in an unusual Spanish Mission style. That style was very popular for houses and apartments in the 1920s, but in Pittsburgh it is seldom found in churches.

    The well-preserved, though somewhat bedraggled, Italianate house next door is also worth noting.

    Trinity AME Church and Italianate house
  • Carnegie Library, Hill District Branch

    Carnegie Library, Hill District Branch

    Another elegant little branch library by Alden & Harlow. Although the branch library moved a short distance away to a larger modern building, this one was fortunately taken over by a mosque and is therefore still loved and kept up.

    Oblique view
  • Monumental Baptist Church, Hill

    Church from the side

    Here is an interesting example of the persistence of architectural traditions. To look at this church, you might guess that the main building dates from the 1870s or 1880s. It has the typical look of a small Pittsburgh church of that time—the shallow-pitched roof, the walls divided into sections by simple pilasters. In fact, according to the cornerstone, it was built in 1924, and “remodeled” in 1949. The “remodeling” doubtless included the Romanesque front and corner tower.

    Monumental Baptist Church
    Front
    Decorations
  • Hebrew Institute, Hill

    Front of the Hebrew Institute

    In the early twentieth century, the Hill was Pittsburgh’s most diverse neighborhood, and in particular it was the main center of Jewish culture. A number of buildings survive from the Jewish community there, though they have all been turned to other uses. This one, for example, is now a “community engagement center” run by the University of Pittsburgh. But it was the original home of the Hebrew Institute, which moved to Squirrel Hill in 1944. It was a school that taught Hebrew language, literature, and culture to Jewish children. The style of the building is typical Pittsburgh School Classical, but the broken pediment above the entrance frames a Torah scroll.

    Broken pediment with Torah
    From the west
    Erected 5675–1915
    From the east
  • Seventh Presbyterian Church, Hill

    Seventh Presbyterian Church

    Almost certainly nothing can be done to save this grand old Romanesque church on Herron Avenue in what used to be called Minersville. It has been abandoned too long and decayed too far to be revived except by some miraculously heroic effort, and miracles like that seldom happen on the Hill, where even the New Granada Theater has been languishing abandoned for decades. But enough remains of this church that we can at least admire the architecture of it before it comes down. It was built in 1894 as the Seventh Presbyterian Church (some online sources say First Presbyterian of Minersville, but it appears that the smaller frame building that formerly occupied this site was already called Seventh Presbyterian by 1890). By 1923 it was known as the Herron Avenue Presbyterian Church. It would later be bought by the John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was founded in 1836, but by the 2000s that congregation apparently could no longer maintain the building. Water from mine runoff was a constant problem, according to the church’s long-out-of-date Wikipedia article.

    There are pictures of the vandalized interior various places on line if you look for them. Father Pitt follows his usual policy of not trespassing, so he brings you only a few pictures of the exterior, which is an interesting kind of Romanesque verging on Rundbogenstil—a word old Pa Pitt uses at every opportunity, because he likes to say it.

    John Wesley A. M. A. Zion Church
    Front
    Ornament at the peak of the tower

    An iron ornament at the pinnacle of the main tower.

    With a tree
    From Wylie Avenue
  • South Side, Bluff, and Lower Hill

    A view from the South Side Slopes. Below, a closer look at part of Duquesne University and Mercy Hospital on the Bluff.

  • Tito-Mecca-Zizza House, Uptown

    Tito-Mecca-Zizza House, Uptown

    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?

    Tito-Mecca-Zizza House

    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.

  • Washington Plaza Apartments

    Washington Plaza Apartments

    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.

  • Crawford Grill

    Crawford Grill

    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.

  • Minersville Cemetery Comes Back from the Dead

    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.