This curious structure is at the back end of a commercial building on Fifth Avenue, where it faces the alley called Watson Street. It’s hard to tell from the old maps, but this may be the back end of the building that used to be the Uptown postal station, Pittsburgh 19. The tower is curious for multiple reasons: first, that there is a tower here at all along the alley rather than at the front of the building where it could be seen; second, because it looks as though it was put together from two slightly mismatched halves; third, because of the extraordinarily narrow Romanesque windows that look as though someone was expecting an attack by enemy archers. The upper floor, which is what makes this look like a tower, may be a later addition.
If you enlarge the picture, you will notice a ghost sign on the building next door: Progressive People Want Perfect Liquors. The position of this sign—where it is all but invisible unless you are looking down on it from a distance with a long lens—suggests that it may be even older than the tower that obscures it.
Uptown is a neighborhood in transition, and it still is not entirely clear what it will become. Will these rowhouses become valuable properties worth restoring? Or will they be knocked down for skyscraper apartments? Or will the development mania grind to a halt before it reaches this block? These two houses are in pretty good shape and worth preserving for their nearly intact fronts. Both have some fine woodwork. The one on the left has had some unfortunate renovation done to the dormer, but otherwise nothing bad has happened to it. It has newer windows, but in the right size and shape, and if you painted those aluminum frames they would be indistinguishable from the originals. The one on the right is even more perfectly intact. Note its proper Pittsburgh stair railing: in Pittsburgh, railings are a plumber’s art.
This is a particularly grand rowhouse: note how much taller it is than its neighbor, indicating high ceilings. It seems to be abandoned right now, but perhaps it has a chance if the urban pioneers moving into the neighborhood get to it before it mysteriously catches fire. There is much worth preserving: the woodwork is in fairly good shape, and the windows—mostly unbroken—are still original and proper for the period. The location of the house on Fifth Avenue might make it attractive, but also might put it in the way if development mania reaches this part of the street.
This church in the Soho section of Uptown was built in the 1880s. It began as the Central Presbyterian Church; in 1897 it merged with First Presbyterian downtown and became the Central Chapel of the First Presbyterian Church. The style is typical Pittsburgh small-church Gothic. More recently this was the Corinthian Baptist Church, and although it is now boarded up, someone at least maintains the grounds.
This Kodak bridge camera has a very long Schneider lens, and in pictures at the far end we notice some vignetting if the background is plain enough. It could be corrected in the GIMP, but in this picture the vignetting adds to the artistic effect. How is that for an excuse for laziness?
This building was our first specialty eye and ear hospital, and a brief description from a history published in 1922 will show us how the idea of a hospital has changed in a century.
Located on Fifth avenue, corner of Jumonville street, is the Eye and Ear Hospital, under the auspices of a board of women managers. It had its inception at a meeting held May 20, 1895, at the home of Miss Sarah H. Killikelly, who during her lifetime was well known in the literary and historical circles of the city. A charter was secured June 22, 1895, and a location was secured on Penn avenue, but a removal was made to the present building in 1905. The first board of managers consisted of thirteen women and two physicians, eye specialists, for the medical and surgical treatment of all diseases of the eye, ear, nose and throat. The patients are divided into three classes—first, for the poor who require treatment of a character that is not necessary to detain them at the hospital; second, for the poor who require detention in the hospital, to whom free beds are allotted in the wards and a nominal charge made if they are able to pay; third, for those able to pay, private rooms are furnished, therefore the hospital is in no sense a charity; it must under its charter minister without charge to all those who suffer from any disease of the eye and ear, who are unable to pay for treatment.
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.
The T. R. Mackey Baking Co. became the home of the Famous Biscuit Company in 1911, and you can still see the Famous Biscuit sign on the eastern wall of the building. The style bridges the gap between Romanesque and classical. After a long period of deterioration, the building has been beautifully restored as loft apartments.
Would you like to know the whole exciting story of the founding of the Famous Biscuit Company? You can read it in the biography of founder John Archibald Simeral in the massive History of Pittsburgh and Environs published in 1922. “Among its well known brands are the ‘Dlekta,’ ‘Orienta,’ and ‘Bon Ton,’ and the slogan used by the company in its widespread advertising campaigns is ‘One Hundred and Fifty Good Things to Eat.’ ”
The Armstrong Tunnel connects the Tenth Street Bridge to Forbes Avenue Uptown. It opened in 1927, three years after the Liberty Tubes. Unlike most of our tunnels, it has a curve in the middle. It also retains its pedestrian walkway, which the Liberty Tubes lost in the 1970s. The impressive portals (we see the north entrance here) were designed by Stanley L. Roush, who worked on a number of transportation-related projects, including the Allegheny County Airport and the portals to the Smithfield Street Bridge.
Uptown is a good-news/bad-news sort of neighborhood right now. The good news is that, after decades of gradual abandonment and decay, the neighborhood is rapidly turning upward. The bad news is that much of the neighborhood is still in danger. The Soho end of Uptown, near the Birmingham Bridge, is not yet feeling the effects of the prosperity radiating from the new arena, the restoration of Fifth Avenue High School, and the proximity of downtown to the western end of Uptown.
Here is a row of houses on Seneca Street that probably will not be here much longer. The blue CONDEMNATION stickers have appeared on several of them. These are houses from the Civil War era, which are not as common as they used to be. A few more such rows remain Uptown, and some of those are also in danger—either from decay or from the even more dangerous force of prosperity. On two of these houses, the façades have been replaced with architecturally worthless curtains of brick; but the remaining four retain many of their original features.
Until recently, it was inevitable that condemned houses like these would be razed to leave an empty space behind them. Now it is just possible that at least the space will not be empty forever. That would be moderately good news; unfortunately, the rolling waves of prosperity will not reach Seneca Street in time to make it profitable to save these houses. A century and a half of history will vanish, and almost no one will notice. But at least these pictures will serve as a memorial and a document.
If the plans go through, this building is about to undergo a curious transformation: it will be surrounded by and encrusted with new development, leaving the façade exposed. It was originally the Mugele Motor Inn. (In the early days of the automobile, “Motor Inn” was a popular name for a garage.) More recently it belonged to the city Department of Public Works. It has a good location across from the restored Fifth Avenue High School, and it will be along the new “bus rapid transit” line to Oakland.