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.
“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.
300 Sixth Avenue, the former Wood Street Building, was designed by Daniel Burnham. The lower floors were given an Art Deco makeover in 1939, but here we see the more original upper floors in the funhouse mirror of Two PNC Plaza.
Everything in the Frick Building is gleaming white marble, with just enough accents to keep the interior from becoming entirely invisible. Above, the staircase at the Grant Street entrance. Below, the revolving doors and clock at the Grant Street entrance.
The lobby is shaped like a T, with a hall from the Grant Street entrance ending at the long hall from Forbes Avenue to Fifth Avenue, seen here from the Forbes Avenue entrance.
Even Henry Frick himself is gleaming white marble, rendered by the well-known sculptor Malvina Hoffman in 1923.
Louis Sullivan was of the opinion that Daniel Burnham’s success in the classical style was a great blow to American architecture. But what could be more American than a Burnham skyscraper? Like America, it melds its Old World influences into an entirely new form, in its way as harmonious and dignified as a Roman basilica, but without qualification distinctly American.