With the aid of a very wide-angle lens, we can see the whole face of the tallest building in Pittsburgh from Grant Street. This was a very tall building when it was put up: it was the eighth-tallest in the world, and the tallest outside New York and Chicago. Now it doesn’t crack the top two hundred, but it is still record-breakingly massive in one way: no other building has a roof that big that high. Other tall buildings taper; this one goes straight up.
The Alcoa Building, designed by Harrison & Abramovitz and built in 1953, was supposed to revolutionize skyscraper design.1 It didn’t, but it had some interesting innovations—swivel windows that could be cleaned from the inside, for example, and of course its aluminum cladding, which was in effect a huge billboard advertising Alcoa’s product. This building did have one important and lasting effect on Pittsburgh: it brought Harrison & Abramovitz into the city, and our skyline would certainly be very different without their work.
Alcoa moved across the Allegheny in 1998, and for a while this was called the Regional Enterprise Tower, but now it holds luxury apartments instead of offices and is calling itself the Alcoa Building again—or, to give the marketers’ full name for it, the Residences at the Historic Alcoa Building.
To old Pa Pitt this building always looks like a stack of 1950s television sets.
Father Pitt has pictured this building before, but here are two more pictures. This would be an undistinguished modernist box except for the patterns in the bricks, which elevate the whole building to Art Deco and make it an ornament to its corner rather than an unfortunate relic of the middle twentieth century.
This tenement house in Hazelwood was built in 1903, making it one of Titus de Bobula’s early commissions in Pittsburgh. It is very conventional for De Bobula, but it represented him in a Pittsburgh Press roundup of local architects in 1905 (“Able Architects the Authors of City’s Architectural Beauty,” April 29, 1905), where this picture was published (we regret that we have not been able to find a better copy than this ugly microfilm scan):
From what we can see in the indistinct old photograph, the building has not changed much at all, though Gertrude Street in front of it has been regraded.
The Gertrude Street face. It is likely that many of the first residents were Hungarian millworkers: that is a bit of De Bobula’s First Hungarian Reformed Church peeking out from behind the building.
Entrance on the south end of the building. The entrances originally had some sort of triangular pediment or small projecting roof; the Press photo is too indistinct to make out any details, but we can see the shadow of a triangle over the entrances at both ends.
The Elizabeth Street end of the building.
These tiny houses on Frank Street have a historic importance far out of proportion to their cost and size. First of all, they are among the relatively few remaining works of the eccentric architectural genius and flimflam artist Titus de Bobula, the man who would have been Fascist dictator of Hungary if he had had better luck. Second, they are built of reinforced concrete, some of the very first American houses so built. Titus de Bobula was the apostle of concrete in his brief architectural career, and his influence would be hard to overestimate.
The houses have had their separate adventures since they were built, including some artificial siding. This one has had windows and front door replaced, but at least it shows the simple outlines of the design, including the bay window in front.
The house on the end may be the best preserved of the row.
Many sources say that twenty of these houses were built. Six remain, and old Pa Pitt believes there were never more than nine. The architect claimed to have built more, but we cannot rely on anything Titus de Bobula says about his work, because he was prone to exaggeration and outright fabrication.
The houses were an investment by multimillionaire newspaper magnate Eugene O’Neill, owner of the Dispatch and no relation to the playwright of the same name. He owned the land on Frank Street and along Greenfield Avenue to either side. Some architectural historians say that De Bobula rowhouses went up on Greenfield Avenue, but that is contradicted by old maps and today’s evidence.
These rowhouses on Greenfield Avenue, on the land once owned by Eugene O’Neill, were built at about the same time as the De Bobula houses, but these are standard brick. Old maps do show three more concrete houses on Lilac Street, perpendicular to the row on Frank Street, but those were replaced after the Second World War by two larger and more expensive houses:
These two houses stand where a row of three concrete houses, probably by De Bobula, stood in the first half of the twentieth century.
For more on Titus de Bobula and his very surprising career, you can see Father Pitt’s article on Titus de Bobula in Father Pitt’s Pittsburgh Encyclopedia.
Update: See the comment from David Schwing below identifying this as a 1906 design by Chicago architect Samuel N. Crowen. Father Pitt looked at some of Mr. Crowen’s other buildings, and the ones from this period certainly seem to bear a stylistic resemblance, although in his later works the architect turned more conservatively classical. Compare this apartment building on Google Street View, with its similar corner balconies, square windows, exaggerated cornice, top floor set off by a masonry stripe, and entrance surrounded by Art Nouveau curves. Imagine how much more that building might resemble this one if this one had not been painted.
Father Pitt keeps the original article, with all its speculations, below, so that his readers can see how his mind works.
Today this strange building that makes faces at you as you go by has no name; on Google Maps, it is called “Apartment Building.” But on a 1923 map it is marked as “Emerson,” belonging to a B. F. Newman. It first appears on the 1910 layer of the Pittsburgh Historic Maps site, where property owners are not marked. And with that, old Pa Pitt has exhausted all the information he has been able to gather about this building. Searching for information is made more difficult by the fact that there is a later apartment building in Shadyside also called “The Emerson,” a Frankenstein construction with a Fifth Avenue mansion at its core encrusted with modern growths of differing ages and styles.
At first sight this has the outlines of an ordinary early-modern apartment building, but when you look up at the balconies you find the building looking back at you.
We know that this building was put up before 1910. Father Pitt knows of only a few architects working in Pittsburgh at the time who were batty enough to do something like this.
Father Pitt’s first guess is Titus de Bobula, whose churches are strongly marked with Budapest Art Nouveau. He also did commercial and apartment buildings, and his career is obscure enough that a number of commissions have probably gone unrecognized. He is known to have done the Everett Apartments (1907) on Ellsworth Avenue at Copeland Street; it has similarly inset balconies flanked by decorated square pilasters, and it uses exactly the same terra-cotta cornice moldings as the ones on this building.
Frederick Scheibler, our most famous early modernist, is known to have designed about 150 buildings around here, of which Father Pitt has fewer than forty in his Great Big List as of this writing. His style varied over the years of his career, but the whimsically grotesque faces do not seem like his sort of thing.
Kiehnel and Elliott were also working here at that time. They were influenced by German modernism, and when they later moved to Miami they became famous for extravagantly decorated Art Deco designs. They are a possibility.
We might also mention Edward Keen, about whom Father Pitt knows nothing (even his name: in some sources it is Kern) except that he designed the D’Arlington in Oakland, a building teetering on the border of classicism and modernism whose lines strongly remind us of this building.
So there you have it: an enigma, and Father Pitt would certainly be grateful for any scraps of information about this building.
The curving lines of this entrance also strongly suggest Titus de Bobula.
Ulysses L. Peoples was the architect of this school, which opened in 1902 and even then was something unique.
The building itself is a tasteful but not extraordinary example of Romanesque style with Renaissance overtones—something we might call Rundbogenstil, because we like to say the word “Rundbogenstil.” It is a little bedraggled-looking now, because it closed in 2005. The more modern addition (by the time it was added this was known as the Madison Elementary School) has been adapted for the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, but nobody seems to know what to do with the original section.
A fine piece of work for a small school, like many another Romanesque school in Pittsburgh. But the carved decorations around the entrances are like nothing else in the city, or possibly on earth.
It seems as though the architect and the artist had conceived the curious notion that children should find school delightful, and that the entrance should convey the message that here is a place where we are going to have fun.
The side and rear of the building. The rear, facing an alley, is done in less expensive brick.
The later addition, from 1929, is by Pringle & Robling in quite a different style, a lightly Deco form of modernism.
Now known as Two PNC Plaza, this building held an interesting architectural record. It was designed by Natalie de Blois (or DeBlois; old Pa Pitt sees it spelled both ways, and he is not willing to pay a spirit medium to contact the architect) for the firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and when it opened in 1974 it was the largest building in the world ever designed by a woman. A block of Oliver Avenue was eliminated to make room for this skyscraper, but Oliver Avenue was never much of a street anyway.
More views of the old Gimbels warehouse on the South Side, now called 2100 Wharton Street. We have a couple of other angles here.
The building covers almost the entire block, but leaves a narrow space for one row of old houses at the eastern end on 22nd Street.