This building—a remnant of the pre-skyscraper age on Seventh Avenue—has been many things in its life. These days it is known only by its address. For a long while it was the Federated Investors Building. In 1923 it belonged to the Stevens & Foster Co., which Father Pitt believes was a maker of steel pens. In 1910 it was marked Geo. A. Kelly Co. Wholesale Drugs. Before that, it belonged to J. N. McCullough. It was built in the 1890s on the site of the First United Presbyterian Church, whose congregation had moved to the East End.
This is another one of those pictures where old Pa Pitt has created an impossible perspective by distorting different sections of the picture differently. Sometimes the best way to tell the truth about a building is with a little bit of fakery.
For their client Godfrey Stengel, Kiehnel & Elliott took the basic form of a typical Pittsburgh Renaissance palace, which gave them a box to work with—Richard Kiehnel’s favorite shape. To that canvas the architects applied their trademark Jugendstil-infiltrated-by-Prairie-school decorations. The house was built in 1913, and it must have looked very modern—yet it fits perfectly in Schenley Farms, where other more traditional Renaissance palaces have almost the same shape without the Jugendstil.
The architect Benno Janssen, one of the titans of Pittsburgh architecture, was very fond of terra cotta, as he showed early in his career in the exuberant Wedgwood patterns of the Buhl Building. The William Penn is more restrained, but it is still a feast for lovers of ornament.
The head of William Penn in ceremonial Quaker headdress.
The Boulevard of the Allies side of one of the side-by-side Hartje Brothers buildings. Charles Bickel designed this building and the matching one behind it on Wood Street. This was the later of the two, both built in 1902 for the Hartje Brothers Paper Manufacturing Company. Mr. Bickel was extraordinarily prolific, but old Pa Pitt thinks he deserved his success. For an interesting comparison, look at the Reymer Brothers candy factory and the Concordia Club, and see how Charles Bickel created different effects from the same basic shapes.
Originally called the Alpine, this Renaissance-bordering-on-modern apartment building was put up in 1909 by developer John McSorley. Research by a local expert in all things McSorley shows that the architects were Perry & Thomas from Chicago, who designed many apartment buildings in Shadyside and Squirrel Hill. The rounded corner seems to have been a favorite device of theirs for a while: two other Perry & Thomas buildings on Ellsworth Avenue also have prominent rounded corners.
Given an improbably narrow L-shaped lot to work with, Charles Bickel1 did not despair. Instead, he had fun drawing two quite different but obviously related fronts for the same firehouse. Above, the Boulevard of the Allies front; below, the Smithfield Street front.
The style is rich Renaissance with more than a hint of Art Nouveau. Bickel was probably the most prolific architect Pittsburgh ever had, but he did not fill the city with identical boxes. He dabbled in a surprising range of styles.
It never hurts to put your client’s coat of arms on the front of the building—in this case, the arms of the City of Pittsburgh.
The side of the building is exposed now along the Boulevard of the Allies, showing that it was not very deep, in addition to being very narrow. By 1923, according to old maps, the building was in private hands; the city had built a pair of engine houses half a block away that were probably more suitable for the new horseless fire engines.
Addendum: A city architectural survey dates this firehouse to about 1900 and attributes it to William Y. Brady. Brady was architect of Engine Company No. 1 down the street, which is in a much heavier style; Father Pitt’s evidence is all in favor of attributing this one to Mr. Bickel.
Our source for the date and architect is the Philadelphia Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide, September 21, 1892: “Charles Bickel…has prepared plans for a three-story engine house to be erected on Second Avenue, at a cost of $20,500.” That suggests a date of about 1893. Before the First World War, what is now the Boulevard of the Allies was Second Avenue; and three-storey engine houses are unusual. ↩︎
Benno Janssen, Pittsburgh’s favorite architect for clubs of all sorts, designed this small skyscraper, which was built in 1923. The view above is an attempt at a perspective rendering something like what Janssen would have shown the clients. It is actually impossible in our narrow streets, so old Pa Pitt had to divide the picture into multiple planes and ruthlessly distort them. If you enlarge the picture, you can see some of the comical effects of that distortion; but the building itself looks about right now.
This building received a glowing review from one of Janssen’s fellow architects in the April, 1926, issue of the Charette, the magazine of the Pittsburgh Architectural Club:
PITTSBURGH’S DOWNTOWN Y. M. C. A.
Much has been said from time to time in favorable comment of some of our older important buildings, but thus far nothing has been noted to the writer’s attention with respect to some of the more recent structures. To make particular mention—the Downtown Y. M. C. A. building. A building of the high building category, worthy in its class of as favorable comment architecturally as other buildings of our city renowned in their type. Among the higher buildings erected in recent years throughout the county, it is difficult to select one which surpasses the Y. M. C. A. in point of satisfying design. It is of modern interpretation. A building unified, in which the base shaft and top are related parts, knit together in harmonious composition, enhanced by well studied use of materials and nicety of restraint in carefully selected details. It is a building of design vastly in contrast to many of the present era, whose corresponding parts placed one on top of the other without apparent relation other than the different portions may bear a strain or similarity of type.
A building to be judged architecturally must be viewed with a knowledge or at least an understanding of the limiting conditions under which, and more often in spite of which, a design is created. Thus a cathedral, a masterpiece, may not exceed in architectural attainment that of a small parish church. An extensive mansion may not be better architecturally than a small cottage, though the problems and limitations of both are not comparable. One might not say in comparing the fine church with the fine mansion that one is fine architecturally and the other is not, simply because they belong not to the same class of buildings. The stringent restrictions of Y. M. C. A. planning and design require little emphasis. Every one who has stepped into one of these buildings is familiar with the compactness of the intricate plan problem, the extremely small bed room sizes and the admission of no wasted spaces or areas. To gain adequate light and air to all these complicated appointments and rooms, and still in the exterior to obtain a related design having wall surface which bears some semblance of structural possibilities to maintain itself, is no mean problem. The Downtown Y. M. C. A. building has met these obstacles and surmounted them in an admirable manner. It is a worthy piece of architecture, and Pittsburgh may well take pride in the fact that it is hers in more ways than one.
Built in 1929, this eight-storey apartment tower has a newer ninth floor sheathed in what appears to be corrugated metal. Father Pitt has some advice for architects contemplating asymmetrical additions with cheap materials to symmetrical Renaissance palaces like this:
Like several other apartment buildings in the area, this one is festooned with grotesque whimsies.
The rear section has a bay rising the entire height of the building, with a corrugated-metal hat on top.
Addendum: A kind correspondent has found an advertisement for the Dithridge Apartments when they were new, which supplies us with a definite date (1929; they were to be ready for occupancy in April) and shows us the building as it looked before the top was altered.
This building probably dates from the 1890s, and it looks from the style as though the well-preserved painted sign may date from the same era.
The building still belongs to a kind of bank and is kept in good shape, though its ground floor was unfortunately modernized back when that seemed like a good idea.
On the back, facing traffic coming down the hill from Noblestown Road, was another sign advertising the West End Savings Bank & Trust Co., but it was later painted over with an advertisement for Heselbarths Real Estate—Insurance.