Tag: Burnham (Daniel)

  • Under the Rotunda at Penn Station

    Skylight in the Rotunda

    The rotunda of Penn Station is such a remarkable structure that it has its own separate listing with the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. The skylight is a fine example of abstract geometry in metalwork.

    Arch in the rotunda

    The current owners of the Pennsylvanian hate photographers and tourists who come up to see the rotunda, and post signs on the walk up to the rotunda warning that this is private property and no access beyond this point and, with dogged specificity, NO PROM PHOTOS. But old Pa Pitt walked up through the parking lot, taking pictures all the way, and therefore saw the signs only on the way back. Sorry about that, all ye fanatical upholders of the rights of private property, but these pictures have already been donated to Wikimedia Commons, so good luck getting them taken off line.

    Face above Philadelphia

    The four corners of the earth, or at least the four corners of the Pennsylvania Railroad, are represented on the four pillars of the rotunda.


    “Pittsburg” was the official spelling, according to the United States Post Office, when the rotunda was built in 1900.

    New York
    New York
  • Terra Cotta on Penn Station

    Union Station, Pittsburgh

    The front of Union Station, which was the official name of what we usually call Penn Station in Pittsburgh, was completely illuminated by winter sun the other day, so old Pa Pitt took the opportunity to pick out some of the multitude of terra-cotta decorations with a long lens.

    Terra cotta
    Terra cotta
    Above an arch
    Face in relief
    Another face
    Corner ornament
    Broken pediment
    Clock and shield
    Face above the shield
  • Oliver Building

    Oliver Building

    The Oliver Building, designed by Daniel Burnham, was the tallest building in Pittsburgh when it was put up in 1910, passing Alden & Harlow’s Farmer’s Bank Building (destroyed in 1997, or arguably thirty years earlier when it was given a fake-modern skin). Only two years later, though, it was passed by Daniel Burnham’s own First National Bank Building (destroyed in 1968 to make way for a modernist skyscraper barely any taller).

    The front of the Oliver Building still produces an impression of absolute massiveness, spanning an entire block with a 348-foot-tall wall. The rear, on the other hand, is where the light wells are, which divide the building into three narrower towers, changing the impression to one of loftiness rather than massiveness.

    Oliver Building from Oliver Avenue

    Your eyes are not being fooled by a trick of perspective: the section on the right really does extend a little further toward us than the other two.

  • Highland Building in Evening Sun

    The Highland Building looms behind the tiny shops of Ellsworth Avenue.

  • Wood Street Building (300 Sixth Avenue Building)

    Wood Street Building

    A Daniel Burnham design built for the McCreery & Company department store, this building opened in 1904. It originally had a classical base with a pair of arched entrances on Wood Street, but beginning in 1939 it had various alterations, so that nothing remains of the original Burnham design below the fourth floor. This was one of Burnham’s more minimalistic designs; in it we see how thin the wall can be between classicism and modernism.

    Below, an abstract composition with elements of this building reflected in Two PNC Plaza across the street.

  • Allegheny County Courthouse and Frick Building

    Courthouse and Frick Building

    Taken on film in 1999. Note the bus coming toward you; apparently old Pa Pitt has been taking bus-coming-toward-you pictures for at least twenty-three years.

  • Top of the Frick Building, Tower of the Courthouse

    A little slice of skyline seen from the South Side Slopes.

  • Oliver Bathhouse, South Side

    Oliver Bathhouse
    Tenth Street front.

    Known as the South Side Baths when it was built, this was donated by steel baron and real-estate magnate Henry W. Oliver, who in 1903 gave the city land and money for a neighborhood bathhouse to be free to the people forever. In those days, many poor families—including the ones who worked for Oliver—lived in tenements where they had no access to bathing. (Even the Bedford School across the street from this bathhouse had outside privies until 1912.) Oliver might not raise his workmen’s salaries, but he was willing to make the men smell better.

    Bingham Street side
    Bingham Street side.

    To design the bathhouse, Oliver chose the most prestigious architect in the country: Daniel Burnham. Then, in 1904, Oliver died, and his gift spent almost a decade in limbo. The project was finally revived in 1913, by which time Burnham had died as well. The plans were taken over by MacClure & Spahr, an excellent Pittsburgh firm responsible for the Diamond Building and the Union National Building. No one seems to know how much they relied on Burnham’s drawings, but the Tudor Gothic style of the building (it was finished in 1915) is certainly in line with other MacClure & Spahr projects, like the chapel for the Homewood Cemetery. Even MacClure & Spahr’s early sketches show a quite different building, so it is probably safest to assume that little of Burnham remains here.

    Bath House – South Side Pittsburgh Pa.
    For the Henry W. Oliver Estate
    MacClure & Spahr – Architects – Pittsburgh Pa.

    When we compare this to the building as it stands, it looks as though the Oliver estate told the architects that this version was not expensive enough. “Try again,” the estate must have said, “but this time spend more money.”

    There was a fad for building public baths in Pittsburgh in the early twentieth century, and on Saturday nights workers and their families would line up around the block to get into the bathhouses and wash off the grime of the week. Gradually, indoor plumbing became a feature of even the most notorious slum tenements, and all but one of the bathhouses closed. The Oliver Bathhouse, given to the people in perpetuity, remains. It has been saved by its indoor swimming pool, the only city pool open during the winter.

    Classical dolphin

    Nothing says “water” like a classical dolphin.

    Another dolphin
  • Penn Station in 2001

    Penn Station

    It was officially the Union Station, but there was no real union: the other important railroads (the B&O, the P&LE, the Wabash) had their own stations. Most Pittsburghers knew this as the Penn Station for the Pennsylvania Railroad, which owned it and ran most of the trains. Although this view was taken in 2001, little has changed: already the building was high-class apartments, and already the trains came into a dumpy little modern station grafted on the back. Here, on a day of patchy clouds, the afternoon sun shines a spotlight on the station’s most famous feature: the rotunda, one of Daniel Burnham’s most famous architectural achievements, so distinctive that it has its own separate listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

  • Daniel Burnham Makes a Little Plan

    Union Trust Company

    “Make no little plans,” said Daniel Burnham; “they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.” The Chicago Tribune tells us the interesting story of the long search for the original source of that quotation, and the determination that it was in fact what Burnham said. It is probably the second-most-famous quotation from an architect in history: only Louis Sullivan’s “Form follows function” has been heard more often.

    Outside Chicago, Pittsburgh was where the great Burnham was most prolific. Many of our most famous buildings—the Oliver Building, Penn Station, the Frick Building, and a good number of others—are by Burnham. Most of them are colossal. But the old Union Trust Company building—now the Engineers’ Society of Western Pennsylvania—was his first work here, and it is on a small scale. Small, but rich and perfect in its way. The front is a traditional Doric temple; the treatment of the top storey behind the pediment seems to enclose the temple in its own perfect world, insulated from the ugly realities of Fourth Avenue commercialism around it. It was built in 1898, and it can be seen as an answer and a rebuke to the tasteless extravagance of Isaac Hobbs’ 1870 Dollar Bank building across the street.