Fifth Avenue in the 1990s

Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh

Father Pitt is not quite sure when he took this picture (some of his records are in a sorry state of disorganization), but it is easy to give it a rough date. In the middle distance we can see the Farmers Bank Building, with its mural of Pittsburgh sports legends by Judy Penzer, an artist who had the good luck to be the sister of a real-estate developer, and the bad luck to be on TWA Flight 800 when it exploded in 1996. That mural was painted in 1992, and the building was imploded in 1997 to make way for the new Lazarus department store.

The Farmers Bank Building was a great loss to our architectural legacy, but we could argue that it had been lost for three decades by the time it was demolished. It was built in 1903, one of our earliest batch of skyscrapers.

Farmers Bank Building

In the 1960s, the owners covered the embarrassingly passé Beaux-Arts exterior with a generic modernist shell, making the building indistinguishable from other International Style boxes except for being uglier. When the building was scheduled for demolition, there was some argument about whether the original exterior could be restored; but the indomitably bland personality of Mayor Murphy overcame all opposition to his project to fill downtown with department stores. Tom Murphy was a brilliant politician, probably the most powerful mayor since David Lawrence, but in this case he was badly misguided. Lazarus failed in a few years, and soon downtown went from four department stores to none at all.

Entrance to St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1994

Entrance to St. Paul’s

This composition is no longer possible, because the building in the foreground was demolished to make way for the larger Rand Building that occupies the corner of Fifth and Craig today. At least old Pa Pitt is fairly sure he was standing in the old Mellon Bank building, although after almost three decades the memory clouds over a bit, and he had to rely on maps and angles to make that determination.

Fifth Avenue in 2001

Fifth Avenue

How things have changed in two decades! Fifth Avenue at the turn of our century was a busy and fairly low-class retail district, instead of the somewhat less busy but much tonier row of specialty boutiques it is now. Above, we look eastward toward the shiny new Lazarus department store, soon to go bust. At this point there were four department stores downtown, which proved to be about four more than the traffic could support. Below, the G. C. Murphy five-and-dime store, which proudly claimed to be the world’s largest variety store, and Candy-Rama, whose sign was probably bigger than the store itself. Note also the last incarnation of a hat shop (formerly Tucker & Tucker) that had been at the same location for decades.

Murphy’s
Fifth at Smithfield

One thing has not changed at all: Pittsburghers have always been inveterate jaywalkers. Note the crowds crossing before the light has changed.

Fifth Avenue, Kaufmann’s on left

On the left, Kaufmann’s, the biggest department store there ever was in Pittsburgh, with fourteen floors of everything. On the right, Lord & Taylor, which didn’t last very long here.

Old Pa Pitt has gone rummaging in old boxes of slides and binders of negatives, so you will see more of these old pictures over the next few weeks. The pictures in this article were taken with a pair of Communist cameras: a Soviet Zenit-B and an East German Praktiflex.

Terra-Cotta Decorations on the Buhl Building

Terra cotta

The Buhl Building, an earlier work of Benno Janssen, is covered with Wedgwood-style terra-cotta decorations. Below, the Market Street end of the building.

Buhl Building
Terra cotta

More Reflections of St. Paul’s

Cross reflected

The Software Engineering Institute gives us an unending parade of reflections of the landmarks around it. The curved wall at the main entrance is particularly productive of interesting effects. Below, for example, what appears to be a reflection of the twin spires of St. Paul’s is actually, on closer examination, the same spire reflected twice.

Spire reflected