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.
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.
The auditorium is an exercise in Deco classicism. Note the textures in the brickwork.
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.
This classical building was designed (in 1896) by architect William Ross Proctor to preside over this corner as if it owned both streets. By placing the entrance at the corner, Mr. Proctor refuses to decide whether the building is on Centre or Highland. “Both,” says that entrance.
Look up as you pass to appreciate the elaborate detail of the cornice.
Better known to Pittsburghers as Motor Square Garden: it opened as a market house in 1900, but failed a few years later and began a long association with the automobile business. The architects were Peabody and Stearns, who also designed Horne’s department store downtown and several prominent mansions in the East End neighborhoods.
Thanks to a kind correspondent, old Pa Pitt has an opportunity to prove himself right about one thing and wrong about something else. Being wrong is almost as good as being right, because it means learning something new.
Our correspondent sent two pictures that appeared in an advertisement that ran in the Post-Gazette in 1929. The ad was for Frigidaire refrigerating systems, as used in prominent buildings in the city.
First, the Cathedral Mansions apartments on Ellsworth Avenue.
At that time we mentioned that we suspected it had lost a cornice. Father Pitt was right about that, as you can see from the 1929 picture.
Now, here’s the one we were wrong about:
This building is now an apartment building called Hampshire Hall. As “Haddon Hall” it was a hotel with apartments. Here is what it looks like today:
The obvious change is that modernist growth on the front. When he published these pictures, Father Pitt wrote, “It appears to be a glass enclosure for what was once an elegant verandah.” That is wrong. It seems to have been a replacement for the original dining room or lounge of the hotel. It was probably put there in about 1961: a newspaper ad from December 22, 1961, promotes the Walt Harper Quintet’s appearance at the “newly remodeled Haddon Hall Lounge.”
Many thanks to our correspondent for the pictures, which give us new information about these two notable buildings. If anyone knows the architect of either one, but especially Haddon Hall/Hampshire Hall (which is in a distinctive modernist-Renaissance style), Father Pitt would be grateful for the information.
A simplified Italian Renaissance style, with the ornamentation kept to the minimum. Note the variant spelling of the name on the nameplate over the entrance: when this apartment block was put up, the spelling of Centre Avenue had not been standardized to the British spelling preferred by real-estate developers.
Addendum: This was originally called Haddon Hall, and it was built as a hotel, or at least it was a hotel early in its history. We now have a picture of Haddon Hall in 1929, before the modernist growth on the front.
This is a distinctive building, and old Pa Pitt searched almost fifteen minutes for the architect without success. He would be delighted if someone could tell him who designed this little outcropping of dignified Art Nouveau. Father Pitt might suspect Kiehnel and Elliott as the architects most likely to be working in this style in Pittsburgh, but that is nothing more than a wild speculation.
The glass-block windows in the front stairwell were probably stained glass when the building opened, and we can hope that those windows are preserved in a private collection somewhere.
The modernist addition on the front is not as delightful as its architect probably hoped it would be. It was probably put there in about 1961: a newspaper ad from December 22, 1961, promotes the Walt Harper Quintet’s appearance at the “newly remodeled Haddon Hall Lounge.” (In an earlier version of this article, Father Pitt wrote, “It appears to be a glass enclosure for what was once an elegant verandah.” That was wrong: old photos from before the remodeling show no verandah.)
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.
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.
We continue our visits to car dealers of the mythic past with one that catered to the very highest class of motorist. The Painter-Dunn Company sold Pierce-Arrow cars, a luxury brand that lasted until 1938. This dealership is the architectural equivalent of the Pierce-Arrow advertisements, which concentrated on elegant design without trying to tell us how good the car was. The design conveyed the message.
Father Pitt does not know the whole history of this building. The elaborate cornice at the top of the second floor suggests that the third floor was a tastefully managed later addition.
Addendum: The Construction Record in 1915 confirms that this building was put up as two floors, and names the architects: “Architects Hunting & Davis Company, Century building, awarded to Henry Shenk Company, Century Building, the contract for constructing a two-story brick and terra cotta garage and assembly shop on Center avenue, Shadyside, for the Painter-Dunn Company. Cost $100,000.”
Note how Millvale Avenue runs right into the garage entrance.