It is one of old Pa Pitt’s endearing quirks that he likes to take pictures with a bus coming toward the viewer.
Fifth Avenue Place from Fifth Avenue
The Mellon Institute
Benno Janssen, whose many designs helped define the Oakland Civic Center, created perhaps his most monumental work here. The huge columns are cut from single pieces of stone—the largest monolithic columns in the history of the world. And Father Pitt, through the magic of computer stitching software, brings you perhaps the only complete face-on photo of the block-long Fifth Avenue façade on the entire Internet. Below, a picture from the corner of Bellefield and Fifth.
Now the University of Pittsburgh’s Alumni Hall, this grand temple was designed by Benno Janssen, who gave us many other Pittsburgh monuments, including the Pittsburgh Athletic Association next door.
Pittsburgh Athletic Association
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.
This curious combination of structures always reminds old Pa Pitt of a corner in some European city ravaged by the Second World War: the tower is all that remains of the Gothic church that once stood here, and the rest has been replaced by an office building that has no architectural connection with it whatsoever, but is just gracious enough to make reluctant room for it.
The old Bellefield Presbyterian Church actually predated the Oakland neighborhood. It was built in 1889 in Bellefield, a rural town that had grown into a suburb or exurb of Pittsburgh. Bellefield’s name is remembered in Bellefield Avenue, though almost all remnants of the place have been obliterated by the one force more destructive to old buildings than war, which is prosperity.
Here is a long article (PDF format) on the church and its neighborhood by James D. Van Trump, the architectural historian to whom we owe the preservation of much of what we have succeeded in preserving. The article includes a picture of the church in 1890; note the cable-car tracks on the street in front of it.
The article was written while the church was still standing. “What the Bellefield Church has meant to the Oakland area during the last one hundred years we have seen,” it concludes. “The history of Bellefield’s future has yet to be written. Its congregation feels that if the contribution of the Bellefield Church to the Oakland area is commensurate with that of the past its future would seem to be assured.”
Well, it’s sort of still there. The congregation was merged in 1967 with First United Presbyterian a short distance down Fifth, and the merged church was renamed Bellefield Presbyterian. In 1985 the old building was sold and demolished for the current undistinguished occupant of the site.
St. Paul’s Cathedral and Its Rectory
This seems to have been the masterpiece of its architects, the Chicago firm of Egan & Prindeville; indeed, the only other work of theirs mentioned in their Wikipedia article is a cathedral in San Francisco that burned in 1962. If they have to be remembered for only one work, though, this is one to be proud of. It was built in 1906, but—like all great cathedrals—it is really only beginning to take shape more than a century later. It takes a heap of liturgy to make a church a cathedral, and chapels and decorations continue to be added by successive bishops.
The Rectory is designed in a matching but more restrained Gothic style.
Addendum: According to the article “Designing in God’s Name: Architect Carlton Strong,” the rectory (built in 1926–1927) was designed by Thomas Carlton Strong, who also designed Sacred Heart Church in Shadyside.
Thousands of commuters pass the little shelter on Fifth Avenue just east of the Highland Avenue intersection every day, but how many ever give it a second glance? Perhaps it was an especially luxurious trolley shelter, suitable to its rich neighborhood, or just a decoration for the expensive condominiums above it.
But in fact it was a public spring, of which Pittsburgh has more than one. The water no longer flows from this one, but the little Greek temple remains, and perhaps the nymph of the spring still weeps occasionally for her lost worshipers. The current structure, built in 1912, was designed by W. H. Van Tine; it replaced one by Alden & Harlow that had been destroyed by the city, causing, according to the Wikipedia article, a monumental stink.
Webster Hall was designed by Henry Hornbostel, Pittsburgh’s favorite architect in the early twentieth century. It was built as a luxury hotel [Update: in fact it was originally bachelor apartments, but that venture soon failed, and it was converted to a hotel] in 1926, and we can see Hornbostel moving from his flamboyant classical style (as exemplified in the City-County Building) to a sort of restrained Art Deco.
The Diamond Building is by MacClure and Spahr, who skillfully met the challenge of a dauntingly irregular site by filling it with a building that looks as if it’s meant to be this shape. It was originally the headquarters of the Diamond Bank, whose logo can still be seen in metal grates at ground level.
Many of the interior details are preserved inside the Diamond Building. Here we look down the stairwell with its ornate railings.
Lower Fifth Avenue
Camera: Kodak EasyShare Z1485 IS.
In the distance, the Tower at PNC Plaza looms over the next block.