Tag: Penn Avenue

  • McNally Building

    McNally Building

    The McNally Building on Penn Avenue was built in 1896. It is a good example of the kind of tall, narrow building that grew up in the early days of the elevator. But of course the most important thing about this picture is that it allows old Pa Pitt to indulge in his habit of photographing buses coming toward you.

  • Horne’s

    The old Horne’s department store is still kept in good shape on the outside, though it is no longer filled with dry-goods treasures from around the globe.

  • The Roosevelt Hotel

    Built in 1927, the Roosevelt was Renaissance classical on the outside and Tudor on the inside. On Emporis.com, the design is credited to Webber & Wurster, a Philadelphia firm whose only work listed on Emporis.com is this building, although some Philadelphia buildings come up in wider Internet searches. The Roosevelt went out of business as a hotel more than once, for the last time half a century ago in 1972. Since then it has been apartments of one sort or another.

  • Pair of Commercial Buildings on Penn Avenue

    Two buildings very similar in size and shape and remarkably dissimilar in decoration. The one on the left has attractive but very ordinary classical details. The one on the right is festooned with terra-cotta tiles in an almost shocking green.

  • Wilson Drugs, Penn Main

    Wilson Pharmacy

    The district around the intersection of Penn Avenue and Main Street is commonly called Penn Main; it’s on the border of Lawrenceville and Bloomfield, and functions as a secondary commercial spine for both neighborhoods. Because the streets do not meet at a right angle, the buildings on the corner are various odd Pittsburgh shapes. This attractive commercial building is an irregular pentagon. Wilson Drugs, one of the diminishing number of independent neighborhood drug stores in the city, seems frozen in 1948, in spite of its electronic displays.

    Wilson Drugs
  • Three Rivers Arts Festival

    Arts Festival on Penn Avenue

    This year the Arts Festival has taken over Penn Avenue and cross streets in the Cultural District.

    Arts Festival on Ninth Street

    Arts Festival on Seventh Street

    Three Rivers Arts Festival

  • Gone but Not Regretted

    East Mall Apartments

    “I bestride the narrow street like a colossus,” said the East Mall Apartments. They were put up literally on top of Penn Avenue, with a narrow passage for a trickle of traffic, in 1970. The architect was Tasso Katselas, early in his decades-long reign as the leading architect of giant public works in Pittsburgh, and to be fair to him he gave the city just what it thought it wanted: a skyscraper warehouse for poor people. In fact Katselas didn’t like what the city was doing to East Liberty at all, according to this interesting article about his career. But it was good money for an architect.

    “Urban renewal” was all the rage in the 1960s and into the 1970s, and it was pushed with evangelical ardor. But it was never quite clear what “urban renewal” was supposed to be. Often it was a combination of suburbanization and Bauhausization. The things that were distinctive about city neighborhoods—concentrated commercial districts, rowhouses, churches and schools and backstreet groceries just down the street—had to give way to shopping centers, suburban-style tract homes, and modernist towers-in-a-park. One after another, these projects crippled or killed the neighborhoods they were inflicted on, but the urban-renewal evangelists were sure that the next one would be a howling success.

    East Liberty was subjected to a particularly strong dose of urban renewal. Penn Avenue, the commercial spine of the neighborhood that had been known as the “second downtown” of Pittsburgh, was closed to vehicles and made into a pedestrian mall. Traffic was diverted to “Penn Circle,” an orbital boulevard made by widening and consolidating peripheral streets and blowing up whatever didn’t fit with the new vision of East Liberty. And apartment towers like this one went up to house people displaced from their neighborhoods by urban renewal. Three of them were designed by Tasso Katselas—this one and the even taller Penn Circle and Liberty Park apartments. Of the three, this was the one that sealed the urban-renewal project, because this was the one that defiantly went up right on top of Penn Avenue, as a guarantee that the main boulevard of the business district would never again carry substantial vehicular traffic. (An artist friend of Father Pitt’s, noting the odd flared buttresses that flanked the narrow passage for vehicles, described the building as “lifting its skirts for cars to go under.”)

    Pedestrianization projects in the United States have seldom succeeded. Old Pa Pitt would love to see most of Pittsburgh closed to automobile traffic, but he recognizes that the rest of the world does not share his prejudices against motor vehicles. Keeping them away keeps their drivers away, and businesses flounder. Urban planners figured that out after a few decades’ worth of failures, and modern urban planning—finally—tends in the direction of emphasizing rather than destroying what is unique about city neighborhoods. Not coincidentally, suburbanites are moving back into the city.

    Father Pitt took this picture in about 2001. The East Mall Apartments were blown to bits in 2005 in a controlled demolition, and traffic was allowed to flow on Penn Avenue once more without going through somebody’s basement. That same year, Tasso Katselas retired from active architecture, although he still served his firm as a consultant. As of this writing, Mr. Katselas is still alive at the age of 94 or 95, having survived a good bit longer than several of his buildings.

    Do we miss those buildings? Not much; they represent an embarrassing failure in the history of our urban planning. But in his modernist idiom, Tasso Katselas did develop a distinctive style. The classic modernists like Mies van der Rohe insisted on simple lines and flat slabs of identical windows. But Katselas from the beginning preferred a much more cluttered aesthetic. He sometimes seemed like a child playing with blocks, deliberately misaligning them just to see what would happen, as we see here in the staggered façade of the East Mall Apartments. We should also mention that he had a strong understanding of what was practical in a public building. His terminal for the Pittsburgh International Airport is a masterpiece of practical design: everything was thought through with the paramount object of making the functions of an airport work as well as they possibly could. That kind of practical thinking was rare among modernist architects, and Father Pitt praises Katselas unreservedly for it, even if the buildings give old Pa Pitt the visual impression of dance music that you can’t dance to.

  • St. Elizabeth’s, Strip District

    St. Elizabeth’s

    The Strip was once a densely populated immigrant neighborhood, and until 1993 there were three Catholic churches within five blocks—an Irish one (St. Patrick’s), a Polish one (St. Stanislaus Kostka), and this Slovak church. By 1993 hardly anyone lived in the Strip, and in the parish consolidations this church was closed. After a few vacant years it became a night club. Then it became a church again: now it belongs to Orchard Hill Church. In a way this new ownership continues both strands of the building’s history: Orchard Hill is the kind of nondenominational church where worship is a stage show with a band.

    St. Elizabeth’s
  • Art Deco Row, East Liberty, 1999

    East Liberty was down on its luck at the end of the twentieth century, but this row was still filled. The buildings have not changed much since then, fortunately, since this is one of the better Art Deco streetscapes in Pittsburgh, which never really embraced Art Deco as much as many other cities did. Surprisingly enough, Sam’s (no longer Bostonian) Shoes is still here; the terra-cotta tiles have disappeared from the front of that building. Its neighbor Anthon’s is also still in business. Most of the rest of the businesses in the row have changed, but the buildings are still there, and since East Liberty is a trendy neighborhood now, they have a good chance of preservation.

  • Downtown from the Strip

    From the corner of Penn Avenue and 17th Street.