Tag: Smithfield Street

  • Mellon National Bank Building

    Mellon National Bank Building
    This picture has been manipulated on two planes to give the building a more natural perspective than is really possible in Pittsburgh’s narrow streets, at the cost of distorting a few other things.

    The Mellons ordered a bank that would convey the impression of rock-solid stability. It was designed by Trowbridge & Livingston, who would later design the even more imposing Federal Building and the Gulf Building, both also Mellon projects. (We call the Federal Building a Mellon project because Andrew W. Mellon was the Secretary of the Treasury who specified it and wrote his name on it in bronze.) It was a Lord & Taylor department store for about four years in the early 2000s, for which the splendid interior was mostly destroyed. Later, PNC took it over as a call center, and restored some of the bits of interior that were left.

    Inscription: Founded MDCCCLXIX—Chartered MDCCCCII; this building erected MDCCCCXXIII
    Copper cornice
    Light fixture
    Fujifilm FinePix HS10.
  • Standard Life Building

    Standard Life Building

    Built in 1903, this early skyscraper was designed by Alden & Harlow, who festooned it with terra cotta.

    Plaque: “Standard Life Building, 345”
    Fruity swag
    Terra cotta
    Standard Life Building
    Canon PowerShot SX150 IS.
  • Park Building

    Smithfield Street face of the Park Building

    The sun was glaring and the shadows were deep, but as far as old Pa Pitt knows, these composite photographs are the only complete elevations of the Park Building on the Internet. Above, the Smithfield Street face; below, the Fifth Avenue face.

    Fifth Avenue face

    And, of course, the most striking feature of the building: the telamones that hold up the roof.

    Two telamones

    The Park Building, built in 1896, is Pittsburgh’s oldest extant skyscraper. (The Carnegie Building, demolished in 1952, was a year earlier.) George B. Post of New York was the architect, and he designed it in the florid Beaux Arts style that would also be usual in the earliest New York skyscrapers. Although it was damaged decades ago by an ill-conceived modernization, the basic outlines and much of the ornament are intact. It displays all the attributes of an early New York skyscraper—the attributes that became dogma for early skyscrapers across the country. (See “The Convention in Sky-Scrapers.”) And with good reason: a bunch of these skyscrapers may create a certain monotony in the skyline, but following the Beaux Arts skyscraper formula reliably produces a good-looking building.

    “Form follows function,” as Louis Sullivan said. Modernist architects used that saying as a slogan (which probably annoyed Mr. Sullivan) meaning that the form of a building should express the structural functions of the parts. But the form of a Beaux Arts skyscraper expresses the social functions of its parts: it makes visible what different parts of the building do, in a way that modernist architecture often fails to accomplish.

    The basic formula for early skyscrapers is base, shaft, and cap. “A convention of treating them as columns with a decorated capital, a long plain central shaft, and a heavier base, was early adopted,” as the Architectural Record said in 1903.

    The base—usually the first two floors—is the public part of the building, where retail shops or banking halls and such things are located—where, in short, the public interacts with the main business of the building.

    The shaft, which is usually a repeating pattern of windows and wall, is where the ordinary business offices of the skyscraper are located.

    Up in the stratospheric heights of the cap are the very most important people—the princes of commerce, and the lackeys and flunkeys who attend to their needs.

    Now look at the Park Building, and you will see that the third floor, though more or less part of the shaft, is outlined and set apart from the rest. This is the bosses’ floor, in which the important men who supervise what goes on downstairs are located.

    Just by looking at the face of the building, you can tell what goes on in each of its parts, which is not true of a modernist glass box. Here the social functions of each floor are made visible in stone and brick. Although the form is not structural, in a human sense this is form following function.

  • Daub Building

    Daub Building

    Thanks to the research of an architect correspondent, we can say with fair confidence that this neglected building on Smithfield Street was designed by Frederick Osterling, one of the titans of Pittsburgh architecture. It was built in about 1898 for John Daub, whose name in big letters stares down at us from above the fifth floor.1

    Inscription: “DAUB”

    This building has suffered the usual loss of cornice, and the first floor was entirely remodeled at some point by someone who thought weird pebbledash stucco would look just right on a Romanesque building from the 1890s. But between those extremities most of the decorative details are preserved.


    The Daub Building is vacant right now and therefore in danger; we hope that its attribution to Osterling will encourage preservation and restoration.

    1. Philadelphia Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide, September 15, 1897: “F. J. Osterling, Telephone Building, will prepare the plans for the John Daub Building, to be erected on Smithfield street, near Seventh avenue.” Thanks to David Schwing. ↩︎
  • Americus Republican Club

    Americus Republican Club

    Edward B. Lee designed this clubhouse for the Americus Republican Club in a lush Georgian style. It was built in 1918, and it spans the whole (very short) block from the Boulevard of the Allies to Third Avenue. Since the club moved out, this has been known as the Pitt Building.

    Old Pa Pitt thinks the off-center pediment is an interesting choice for neo-Georgian architecture. It would not have occurred to him if he had been the architect, but the expected symmetry would probably have made a duller façade.

    Update: A correspondent points out that Second Avenue was widened into a boulevard in 1921, and it was done by trimming, moving, or demolishing buildings on the north side of the street. One large building was moved back forty feet. Forty feet would be just enough to account for the asymmetry of this façade. E. B. Lee would have been available to supervise the alterations, but the building’s current form would represent the best he could do under adverse circumstances, not his original grand vision for the Americus Club.

    Pitt Building
  • A Narrow Firehouse by Charles Bickel

    Boulevard of the Allies front of the firehouse

    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.

    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.

    Arms of the city of Pittsburgh

    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.

    Boulevard of the Allies side

    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.

    1. 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. ↩︎
  • Terra-Cotta Front on Smithfield Street

    643 Smithfield Street

    This splendid building is well preserved two-thirds of the way down from the top; the ground floor has been replaced, but with a very neutral remodeling that does not clash offensively with the floors above it. Below, one of the elaborate terra-cotta brackets under the cornice.

    Terra-cotta bracket
  • Victorian Remnant on Smithfield Street

    633 Smithfield Street

    Americans don’t look up. That is the best explanation old Pa Pitt can come up with. It accounts for a number of phenomena: our blank, undecorated ceilings, or even worse our acoustical-tile ceilings; the disappearance of cornices and the healing of the scars thus left with the aluminum equivalent of duct tape; and the way builders and even architects renovate lower floors of a building without even a glance at what the remainder above looks like. Here we have a bedraggled building from 1883 that could be splendid if it were restored, or just renovated with some minimal taste. But what shall we even call that shingly excrescence on the lower two floors? We also note that all the upper windows are gone except on the third floor, where someone has installed a stock glass sliding door. “I’m just stepping out for a breath of fresh air,” says the visitor…

    The Brutalist spiral next door would have been a striking feature in a block of modernist buildings; it seems like, and probably was, a deliberate insult here.

    Top of the building qith 1883 date stone
    Ornamental woodcarving
  • Renovating the Triangle Building

    Triangle Building

    The Triangle Building, originally called the McCance Block, is currently under renovation for luxury apartments. It fills what may be one of the smallest downtown city blocks in the country, so that every side of a relatively small building faces the street.

  • Gimbels Building

    This was built in 1914 as the Kaufmann & Baer Department Store, the Kaufmanns in the name being brothers of the Morris Kaufmann who owned the Big Store two blocks away. It was bought out by the Gimbel Brothers eleven years later, and for generations of Pittsburghers this was the Gimbels Building. Its name is now officially Heinz 57 Center, but most people still call it the Gimbels Building. The architects, Starrett & van Vleck, were specialists in department stores from New York.

    Terra cotta swag and head

    Acres of terra cotta went into decorating the Smithfield Street and Sixth Avenue faces of this building.

    Terra cotta
    A different terra cotta swag and head
    Terra-cotta panel
    Corinthian capital
    Beside a window

    And of course there was the clock. It was not as famous or elaborate as the Kaufmann’s clock, but it was another good place to meet someone downtown. This is obviously a good bit more recent than the building itself: it has a streamlined Art Deco look.