Tag: Modernist Architecture

  • August Wilson African American Cultural Center

    August Wilson Cultural Center

    Old Pa Pitt nursed a secret grudge against this building for years, for the very petty reason that it replaced the old Aldine Theatre, which he had hoped to see restored as part of the revival of the theater district downtown. But on its own merits, the August Wilson African American Cultural Center is a striking building that makes the most of its triangular site, and certainly no Pittsburgher better deserves the naming rights to the first theater to meet our eyes on Liberty Avenue. San Francisco’s Allison Grace Williams was the lead architect, and she made the building into a kind of announcement for the Cultural District: here, it tells us, you are entering a place where great things are happening.

  • Robert E. Sickenberger House, Beechview

    Robert E. Sickenberger house

    This modest house in Beechview does not stand out a great deal from its neighbors. Its lines seem to be a little more simple, perhaps, but you would not stop to gawk at it when you walked by on the street.

    The architect, however, was headed in an interesting direction. H. C. Clepper designed this house for Robert E. Sickenberger in 1914,1 and he was already flirting with the simplicity of modern style.2 Two decades later, Clepper (working for a bigger architectural firm) would be the designer of almost all the ultramodern concrete houses in Swan Acres, “America’s first modern suburb,” most of which still stand today and are still the objects of pilgrimages by architectural historians.

    Front of the house

    As we have seen many times before, surprisingly interesting bits of architectural history are ready to ambush us from the blandest streets once we know to look for them.

    1. Source: The Construction Record, December 6, 1913: “Robert E. Sickenberger, 725 Frick building, is taking bids on the erection of a two-story brick veneer residence to be built on Rockland avenue, Beechview, to cost $4,000. Plans for the building were made by Architect H. C. Clepper, Park building.” R. Sickenberger appears as owner of this house on a 1923 map. ↩︎
    2. We should point out, however, that some of the current simplicity may come from later alterations, such as the replacement of some of the trim with aluminum. and alterations to the porch. ↩︎
  • Reflection of the Keenan Building

    Top of the Keenan Building reflected in a modernist skyscraper

    The top of the Keenan Building (designed by Thomas Hannah) reflected in One Oliver Plaza (designed by William Lescaze and now the K&L Gates Center). It occurs to old Pa Pitt that some modernist buildings rely for most of their visual impact on what they reflect: the sky and other buildings, usually. We might say that makes them aesthetic parasites.

  • Vilsack Row, Morningside

    Houses in the Vilsack Row

    Rows of terrace houses became quite common in Pittsburgh in the early twentieth century, and they all shared the same basic plan: roofed front porches in front of narrow but deep units with shared walls, reducing the expense of each unit. Within that formula, though, there is room for quite a bit of variation. The problem is how to make them attractive even though they are cheap. Because they are on the same street in Morningside, and almost across from each other, we are going to look at two groups today that picked radically different approaches to the problem. In this article, we have by far the better-known of the two: the Vilsack Row by Frederick G. Scheibler, Jr.

    Vilsack Row

    The houses have all been altered in various ways; we can be grateful that they have survived at all. They were certainly the most extraordinary stab at modernism in Pittsburgh, and possibly in the United States, when they were built in 1914. The least mutilated of the row are still startling in their starkly abstract forms.

    Vilsack Row

    Even the ones that have been most altered stand out as like nothing else in Pittsburgh before World War II, let alone before World War I. The alterations have all been retreats from modernism. The porch roofs originally were supported by single columns in the center, so that they seemed to float in space; the porches, entrances, and windows seemed to be holes cut in a continuous flat plane.

    Vilsack Row
    Vilsack Row
    Vilsack Row
    Vilsack Row
    Vilsack Row

    The houses are called the Vilsack Row, incidentally, because they were an investment by Leopold Vilsack, one of the owners of Iron City Brewing, who rests in St. Mary’s Cemetery in a mausoleum of quite a different style.

    Radical modernism was certainly not the only solution to the problem of rowhouse design. At about the same time these houses were going up, the Garber row was being built on the same street, and it took almost the opposite approach.

  • St. John’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, McKees Rocks Bottoms

    St. John’s Ukrainian Catholic Church

    Built in 1960, this church adopted a radically simplified Byzantine architecture. It is much smaller than its Ukrainian Orthodox (formerly Ukrainian Greek Catholic) neighbor St. Mary’s around the corner, but both congregations continue to inhabit the same neighborhood without throwing bricks at each other.

    Perspective view
    Church and rectory

    The attached rectory is in an equally simple style; the pasted-on false shutters are an attempt to make it feel less institutional.

  • U. S. Steel Tower from Grant Street

    U. S. Steel Tower

    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.

  • Alcoa Building

    Alcoa Building from Mellon Square

    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.

    1. See this article on Mellon Square at the Society of Architectural Historians’ Archipedia. ↩︎
  • Admiral Apartments, Shadyside

    Admiral Apartments

    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.

    Corner view
  • Glen Tenement House by Titus de Bobula, Hazelwood

    Tenement by Titus de Bobula

    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.

    Front view of the tenement

    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.

    Oblique view from the south

    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.

    Elizabeth Street side

    The Elizabeth Street end of the building.

  • Concrete Rowhouses by Titus de Bobula, Greenfield

    Titus de Bobula houses

    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.

    A single house in the row

    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 row from the Greenfield Avenue end

    The house on the end may be the best preserved of the row.

    From the Lilac Street end

    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.

    Rowhouses on Greenfield Avenue

    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:

    Where more De Bobula houses used to be

    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.