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.
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.
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.
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.