This building is an epitome of the history of the South Side. The first wave of immigrants after the original English and Scotch-Irish settlers was the Germans. There was a Turnhalle, a German athletic club, on this site by 1872, and probably well before; it was across the street from a German Evangelical church. That original Birmingham Turnverein was a frame building, but this splendid brick structure was put up some time a little before 1910. (If you enlarge the picture, you can see a pair of “BTV” monograms on the façade near the entrance.) Then came the influx of East Europeans, and many of the Germans moved out. This became a Lithuanian Hall; the German church across the street was demolished and replaced with a Ruthenian Catholic church. In the twenty-first century, we have all become antisocial, and clubs and churches have died; the building has been turned into apartments, as many similar buildings have been.
We have mentioned before how thick the air was with clubs in Oakland. Here is one that has been almost forgotten: a small clubhouse by a big architect. The Bellefield Club on Craig Street was designed by James T. Steen, who also gave us the House Building, among many others.
The club opened in 1904; since then the building has had some small alterations. Cheap stock windows have replaced the windows upstairs, with cheap filler to take up the rest of the space. (Father Pitt has not seen a picture of the building in its original state; it is possible that there was a balcony behind those upper arches.) The front has been painted in a gaudy combination of brown and cream; it probably looked better with the original yellow brick. But the alterations are not severe and could be reverted by a sensitive owner.
This building was one of those unexpected discoveries one sometimes makes in the big city. Old Pa Pitt was walking up Craig Street to take pictures of the Craig Street automotive row when this building arrested his attention. He must have gone past it in a car or a bus a hundred times, but this time he noticed it. It seemed like something different from the surrounding buildings. Was it an old theater or some institution? The Pittsburgh Historic Maps site revealed that it had been built as the Bellefield Club, and less than twenty years later in 1923 was inhabited by the Pittsburgh Academy of Medicine. A little more poking around found the architect.
The Schenley Farms section of Oakland was crusty with clubs a century ago, but few were as influential as this one.
Charles Bickel designed this elegant clubhouse for a Jewish gentlemen’s club made up mostly of members of the Rodef Shalom congregation. To call it a gentlemen’s club brings up images of well-dressed men sitting inert with newspapers in their hands, but these gentlemen were far from inert. These were gentlemen who got things done. This club was the incubator of Reform Judaism; it was at the club (when it lived on the North Side) that the Pittsburgh Platform was signed.
This clubhouse was built in 1913, and the club continued to use it for almost a century. It finally fell to the same forces that evicted most of the other clubs in this section: declining membership in our antisocial age, and the bottomless well of money that the University of Pittsburgh can draw on. It was sold to Pitt in 2009, and is now known as the O’Hara Student Center.
A Turnverein (German for “gymnastics association”) was a German athletic club, many of which were scattered through the city. This was doubtless the most luxurious of the lot. It is now the Gardner Steel Conference Center of the University of Pittsburgh.
Art Nouveau is rare in Pittsburgh, but here is a building that crosses Jugendstil with Prairie Style to produce a distinctive classical modernism. (The picture above is big: enlarge it to appreciate the delightful abstract decorative details.) It was finished in 1912, when Jugendstil was perhaps past its peak in Germany but was still adventurously modern here. The architects were Kiehnel and Elliott, who were more experimental in spirit than most Pittsburgh architects of the time. Richard Kiehnel was born in Germany and had absorbed Jugendstil at the source. The firm is actually more famous for its buildings in Florida; Kiehnel designed a Miami mansion for the president of Pittsburgh Steel, and it apparently made such an impression down there that Kiehnel and Elliott moved to Miami in 1922.
If your club was prospering, you could have a clubhouse by Benno Janssen, Pittsburgh’s favorite club architect. Among the club buildings he designed that are still standing we may mention the Twentieth Century Club, the Keystone Athletic Club, the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, the Masonic Temple, and this one, a cultural and athletic center that was one of the ancestors of today’s Jewish Community Center. Like several of Janssen’s other club buildings, this one, built in 1924, takes the form of a Renaissance palace. The building now belongs to Pitt, of course, which calls it Bellefield Hall and still keeps up its splendid indoor swimming pool.
The university has glassed in the huge arch that forms the main entrance; old Pa Pitt has ruthlessly manipulated this picture to bring the inscription out from behind the glass.
Father Pitt imagines the sculptor, having worked months to intertwine the letters Y, M, W, and H in this artistic cartouche, proudly presenting his work to Mr. Janssen and being told, “You left out the A.”
A view of the building from Heinz Chapel’s new formal garden across the street.
Old Pa Pitt would be delighted if someone could tell him something of the history of this building. He knows that it was put up in 1921, because the date is proudly displayed at the top of the building. He suspects, from the look of the building and from some random chatter on the Internet, that it was an ethnic club, possibly Serbian—but that is speculation. Technically it is on the Slopes side of the railroad that separates the South Side Flats from the South Side Slopes, but this lower part of the Slopes seems to be socially more connected to the East European Flats than to the German streets above. About fifteen years ago, Liberty Hall was briefly a nightclub; it closed in less than a year, and neighbors rallied to prevent it from opening again. And that is all Father Pitt knows, so he would be happy to hear from someone better informed.
Two great cultural institutions that vacated their landmark buildings for different reasons. The Twentieth Century Club, Pittsburgh’s premier women’s club, fell on hard times like most clubs in our antisocial twenty-first century. The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, on the other hand, prospered and moved its collection to the Heinz History Center in the Strip. Old Pa Pitt is delighted to see that the old Historical Society building will soon be a Latin American Cultural Center, so that once again it will be a cultural landmark in Oakland.
The Twentieth Century Club was designed by the prolific Benno Janssen.
The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania was by the firm of Ingham and Boyd.
It is now apartments, of course; the Polish Falcons have moved to more modest quarters just a few blocks away. A historical marker in front of the building recalls the visit of Paderewski, in his role as one of the founders of modern Poland (though he was probably in town to play at Carnegie Music Hall), to recruit for a Polish army to fight in the First World War and win independence for his long-oppressed country. A falcon still flies from the upper façade.
Like almost every other substantial building in this part of Oakland, the Twentieth Century Club—once Pittsburgh’s premiere women’s club—now belongs to the University of Pittsburgh. This picture was taken a little more than a year ago.
The Pittsburgh Athletic Association, built in 1911, is Pittsburgh’s grandest clubhouse. (Not the richest, of course: that honor belongs to the Duquesne Club, the focus of all money and power in the city.) The architect was Benno Janssen, who was quite successful in Pittsburgh in the early 1900s. The club itself went bankrupt in 2017, but was able to make a deal to sell the building to investors who will allow them to occupy part of it. Now the building is getting a renovation.