This curious structure is at the back end of a commercial building on Fifth Avenue, where it faces the alley called Watson Street. It’s hard to tell from the old maps, but this may be the back end of the building that used to be the Uptown postal station, Pittsburgh 19. The tower is curious for multiple reasons: first, that there is a tower here at all along the alley rather than at the front of the building where it could be seen; second, because it looks as though it was put together from two slightly mismatched halves; third, because of the extraordinarily narrow Romanesque windows that look as though someone was expecting an attack by enemy archers. The upper floor, which is what makes this look like a tower, may be a later addition.
If you enlarge the picture, you will notice a ghost sign on the building next door: Progressive People Want Perfect Liquors. The position of this sign—where it is all but invisible unless you are looking down on it from a distance with a long lens—suggests that it may be even older than the tower that obscures it.
These are Baltimore-style rowhouses, where the whole block was built at once as more or less one subdivided building. They are much less common in Pittsburgh, but we do find them occasionally, and these rows in Garfield preserve many of their original details. They were built in the 1880s, probably as rental properties, since the 1890 map shows them as all owned by Brown, Donnell & Verner. Intact rows from this era are rare in Pittsburgh, and we should take care to preserve these two rows. Above, the 5100 block of Penn Avenue. Below, houses in the 5200 block.
Terra-cotta owls decorate every house. One wonders whether they had special significance for Brown, Donnell, or Verner.
Now part of the Conroy Early Childhood Center, this old school hovers between classical and Romanesque styles, which means that perhaps the best term for it is Rundbogenstil, the word old Pa Pitt most likes to pronounce in public.
Since it has been made an annex of a larger building, it no longer requires its main entrance, which leads to this architectural dissonance:
It looks like an ordinary Romanesque rowhouse, like hundreds of others in Pittsburgh. But as we approach it, we notice an unusually lush growth of grotesque foliage in the carved stone relief.
You can enlarge this picture to admire the many whimsical details. According to a local historian who left a comment here a decade ago, this was the home of Achille Giammartini, the uniquely talented stonecarver whose work can still be found all over the city, especially on the North Side. The comment is worth reproducing in full:
Much of the local stone carving as well as work across the North Side, downtown, Carnegie Mellon University, etc was done by Achille Giammartini who built the house at 1410 Page St, near Page St & Manhattan St, in Manchester (beside Allegheny West). Although this was his personal residence he used the exterior as a “billboard” for his considerable skills. —Mark
Some years later, we received a very interesting comment from G. Blair Bauer, a lineal descendant of the sculptor, in reply to the comment from Mark:
Thank you, Mark. He was my great grandfather and his daughter, my grandmother, told us little about him. I remember one Christmas we got delayed going to my grandmother’s for dinner in Allegheny West because they were tearing down all the old townhouses. My grandmother said that her father had carved a lot of the mantels for the living rooms. My mother was horrified and said she wished that she had known as she would have gotten a mantel for each of us 4 children. Grandma replied, “He worked with his hands; I want to forget about him.” Mother was so enraged we got up and left dinner on the table. I now have an address and will visit his house; hope there is a lot of his work visible.
Well, the front would certainly have left a good impression of his talents. A prospective client who visited Mr. Giammartini at home would get the impression that here was a remarkable artist, and the impression would be conveyed before the client even walked in the door. Even the address has a touch of Romanesque fantasy:
A pair of Romanesque houses, mostly brick but with a splendid stone front. The decorations are extraordinarily fine, and Father Pitt suspects that they were by the extraordinary Achille Giammartini, who lived a few blocks away and was responsible for much of the ornamental stonecarving on the North Side.
Sharpsburg had three Lutheran churches within three blocks. One was English (that one is still going), and two were German, and the two German ones have a curiously intertwined history. Father Pitt will try to piece it together, but anyone from Sharpsburg who can correct his reconstruction is earnestly requested to do so.
The First German Evangelical Lutheran Church (above), which looks like a building from the 1870s or so, was founded by German-speaking immigrants in 1863: Sharpsburg had a large German community in the 1800s. (Old Pa Pitt apologizes, by the way, for the more than usually lush growth of utility cables in these pictures: Sharpsburg is like that.)
The tower originally had a steeple, now vanished, as steeples often do.
The pastor or council of First German alienated a number of members by “enforcement of rules pertaining to association with fraternal organizations.” In 1888, the discontented members left to form their own congregation, St. John’s. They ended up building a fine Romanesque church just a block away from the church they had left.
This has the look of a we’ll-show-them building: it probably dates from the early 1890s, and it was in the most fashionable style the congregation could afford. The tower is quite tall, and originally supported a tall steeple that was hit by lightning and removed in 1930.
The entrance arch is designed to be impressive.
St. John’s had a troubled history. “In the 1930s the Evangelical Church merged with the Reformed Church, and when the recommended type service of the joint church was adopted by St. John’s, we lost members who opposed the change in services.” A church founded by members who walked out of another church may perhaps expect some of them to keep up the old tradition. In the 1936 flood, the church was badly damaged; it suffered a fire in 1956, a month after expensive redecorations. By the time the church closed, it was a member of the United Churches of Christ.
The original First German is also gone now; it closed about fifteen years ago. Now that the congregations are gone, the buildings can be friendly; they both belong to the Sharpsburg Family Worship Center, an Assemblies of God congregation.
By a splendid exercise of bureaucratic irony, the old morgue now houses offices of the county health department. It was designed by Frederick Osterling and built—on Forbes Avenue—in 1901. In 1929, it was moved to its current location on Fourth Avenue.
Frederick Osterling’s Romanesque buildings nearly always give us a monster or two to admire.
Now known as Shady Avenue Christian Assembly, after having spent many years as Shady Avenue Presbyterian Church (without the “Cumberland”).
Just down the street from the huge and spectacular Calvary Episcopal and Sacred Heart Catholic churches, each the size of many a cathedral, this 1889 church is likely to pass unnoticed. Once you do notice it, though, you will not stop noticing it. It is a bravura performance in a sort of Queen Anne Romanesque style by a Victorian architect who was about 22 years old at the time, and who was not afraid to pull out all the stops and stomp on the pedals for all he was worth. An entire issue of the East Ender, the East End Historical Society’s newsletter, was devoted to the architect, T. C. McKee (PDF), and we take all our information from Justin P. Greenawalt with profound gratitude for his research.
Thomas Cox McKee (usually known as T. C. McKee) was apprenticed to architect James W. Drum. But in 1886, when young McKee was still only 20, his master was run over by a freight train. Instead of looking for another apprentice position, McKee went out on his own and seems to have been successful right away. He later built a comfortable practice designing homes for the wealthy and small to medium-sized commercial buildings, along with at least one prominent school (the Belmar School in Homewood, still standing). Then, in 1910, he threw it all away and went to Cleveland, where he took odd jobs until he settled down as a designer of soda fountains. No one seems to know what happened, although Mr. Greenawalt’s article hints that it might have had something to do with McKee’s constitutional extravagance.
That extravagance comes through in every detail of this building. In the age of modernism, this sort of thing was dismissed as a bunch of Victorian noise, but the masses are balanced to form interesting compositions from every angle.
The much more conventional 1911 addition (although even it is a little bit fantastical) was designed by Rodgers & Minnis. Below we see it across the pile of dirt that used to be Shady Hill Center until the property became too valuable to host a suburban-style strip mall.
The idea of a skyscraper university did not originate with Pitt: in 1885, this building—a supertall by 1885 standards—put all of Holy Ghost College under one roof. The architect was William Kaufman, and the building cost the enormous sum of $150,000. The roof originally had a cupola, which must have had amazing views of the city when the smoke parted for a while.