Architecture Feature: The Buhl Building
By Albert M. Tannler
The Buhl Building, at 204 Fifth Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh, was designed in 1913 by Pittsburgh architect Benno Janssen (1874-1964), who also designed the white terra cotta addition to Kaufmann’s Department Store in 1913, Pittsburgh’s William Penn Hotel, the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, and Mellon Institute in Oakland, Longue Vue Club in Penn Hills, the E. J. Kaufmann, Sr. house in Fox Chapel, Rolling Rock Stables in Ligonier, and the B. D. Phillips house in Butler.
In Landmark Architecture (1985), PHLF’s architectural historian Walter C. Kidney wrote:
“This is a little gem of a building, clad in blue-creamy-white terra cotta thickly decorated with Renaissance motifs. The color contrast recalls Italian sgraffito work, in which an outer layer of stucco is cut away while still fresh to reveal . . . an inner layer in a contrasting hue. The ground floor has been altered in a Moderne manner.”
In 2009, N & P Properties, LLC, who own the building, undertook a restoration of the upper façade, a refurbishment and reconstruction of the first floor, and construction of a Market Street addition.
As the Moderne façade was removed from the first floor of the Buhl Building, sections of blue and white terra cotta were revealed and above the doorway the original name of the building was visible: Bash Building.
The Buhl Building is in the 1975 Downtown Survey conducted by Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation (PHLF). The survey form stated: “First called the Bash Building, this structure was under construction by mid-1913. Henry Buhl, Jr., bought it in October 1913 while it was still under construction.”
There is no information on the building in the Benno Janssen papers at the Carnegie Mellon University Architecture Archives so I assembled a chronological history of the building using plat maps, city directories, census records, newspapers, and deeds, assisted by researcher John Husack, who was documenting the history of Market Square for PHLF.
Architectural historians Lu Donnelly and Martin Aurand directed me to The Jewish Criterion (1862-1965), available online at http://pjn.library.cmu.edu, which proved to be invaluable. I used both hardcopy and the searchable database of city directories prior to 1940 on the Historic Pittsburgh website at http://digital.library.pitt.edu/pittsburgh. City newspapers were read on microfilm at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
Here’s what we found.
Real estate mogul Franklin Felix Nicola (1859-1938) is known primarily, Walter Kidney tells us, for his “Bellefield and Schenley Farms development companies [that] transformed a large area in Oakland and provided a setting for much of the city’s best architecture.” On February 2, 1900, Nicola purchased the land and commercial buildings at 200-208 Fifth Avenue.
In 1906 Morris H. Bash opened a fur salon at 202 Fifth Avenue. Bash, who also sold women’s clothing and had a second location at 437 Smithfield Street, operated his businesses with his sons Henry, Louis, and William. Beginning in 1908, the firm is known as M. H. Bash Sons.
On January 30, 1913, Nicola announced that the 200-208 Fifth Ave buildings would be demolished on May 1, 1913, and construction would begin on a new building designed by Benno Janssen. Bash Sons paid for half the cost of constructing the new building and all furnishings; consequently the building would be named the Bash Building. As the principal tenants, Bash Sons were permitted to sublet the space they did not occupy in the building.
On August 11, 1913, while the building was being constructed by James L Stuart Company, Henry Buhl, Jr. purchased the property from Frank Nicola.
Advertisements—illustrated by a perspective drawing—of “The New Home of M.H. Bash Sons” appeared in Pittsburgh newspapers the second week in October. The Bash Building opened on October 13, 1913. In late 1915 or early 1916 the Bash firm declared bankruptcy. Their stock was liquidated by the Frank & Seder Department Store.
From 1917 to 1921, both names—Bash Building and Buhl Building, 204 Fifth Avenue—were listed in city directories. In 1922 the building became the Buhl Building. Henry Bash was able to remain in business and he retained a retail space in the Buhl, née Bash, Building for some years thereafter.
N &P Properties, LLC will donate a preservation easement on the Buhl Building to PHLF guaranteeing that the Buhl Building façade will be preserved for future generations.