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Architecture Feature: Grosvenor Atterbury’s Pittsburgh Buildings

A postcard of the former Federal Street Bridge, which preceded the present-day Sixth Street/Roberto Clemente Bridge, with a view of the four Pittsburgh buildings by Grosvenor Atterbury. Only the Fulton Building (just left of the bridge), now the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel, remains.

By Albert M. Tannler

Grosvenor Atterbury (1869-1956) designed buildings of unusual diversity and character.[1] We will explore his career and the four buildings he created for Pittsburgh between 1904 and 1908.

Atterbury was born in Detroit, Michigan. His father was a lawyer, and Atterbury spent summers on Long Island, New York, where his family had a house. He attended Yale University, graduating in 1891. After six months traveling in Europe and Egypt, he enrolled in Columbia University where he studied architecture for two years. During this period he worked in the office of McKim, Mead & White (Stanford White was a family friend) and studied painting during the summer with William Merritt Chase. In 1894 he began a two-year course of study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. When he returned to New York in 1896, he established his own architectural practice, and moved into the family house on Long Island. He began his career designing townhouses, country houses, and cultural and social facilities such as the Parrish Art Museum and the Southhampton Club near his home.[2]

Atterbury’s residential architecture primarily reflected asymmetrical Shingle Style influences and often found inspiration in the picturesque buildings of Britain and Central and Southern Europe.[3]

Atterbury’s Pittsburgh buildings were erected rapidly—in part simultaneously—within a four-year-period, and stood shoulder-to-shoulder along the Allegheny River.[4]

Bessemer and Fulton Buildings

The Bessemer Building was erected 1904-05 at 100 Sixth Street. It was a popular landmark—many postcards survive and photographs were published of both the exterior and the interior.[5] At 13 stories, the stone and brick clad, steel-frame building was a typical office “skyscraper” of the time. Rough-cut Stony Creek granite covered the first-three floors of the facade. The stone base, decorative “quoins” (bands of masonry) around each corner, and the bracketed, wide-eaved, shallow hipped roof pavilions recall Italian Renaissance palaces. The lobby was marble-clad, with polychromatic geometric tile trim and steel grillwork ornamented with an innovative fusion of Renaissance pattern and exposed rivets and bolts. Atterbury displayed two drawings of the Bessemer Building in the 1905 Pittsburgh Architectural Club (PAC) exhibition.

The building was demolished in 1964; a parking garage now occupies the site. The Bessemer and the Fulton Building, erected across Sixth Street, were clearly intended to complement each other. As PHLF’s architectural historian James Van Trump observed in 1967: “It is a great pity that the Bessemer Building was demolished because the two structures together formed a monumental entrance, a kind of triumphal arch at the river entrance to Sixth Street.”[6]

By October 1905 the Fulton Building was rapidly rising at 107 Sixth Street. Completed in early 1906, the Fulton is the larger building. “A steel frame building with an envelope of brick and granite,” Van Trump wrote, “it has … a skylighted interior court that serves as a lobby. This great court with its monumental staircase and galleries is unusually spacious … and gave rise to a legend that the structure had originally been constructed as a hotel.”[7] Light enters the lobby through the great art glass skylight lit by a central light court, facing the river and dramatically exposed to view, and even more dramatically framed by a seven-story arch.

Van Trump refers to a letter Atterbury wrote in 1909 denying that the Fulton had been designed as a hotel (both the recipient and the whereabouts of the letter are currently unknown).[8] Ironically, if prophetically, the Fulton Building now houses the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel.

Manufacturer’s Building and the Natatorium

The Manufacturer’s Building was located at 530 Duquesne Way (now Fort Duquesne Boulevard).[9] Construction began September 14, 1906, and the 16-story building was completed in 1907. Elevation drawings were displayed at the 1907 PAC exhibition and photographs and postcards exist, but less is known about this building than any of the others. It was the tallest member of the ensemble. Although it shared their granite base, the Manufacturer’s Building had a ten-story shaft of great simplicity topped by a three-story penthouse—an architectural Easter bonnet displaying classical forms—gables with balustrades, fan and circular windows, symmetrical rough-cut stone trim. The Manufacturer’s Building was not an office building, like the Bessemer or Fulton buildings, but a loft building, offering tenants high ceilings and unobstructed floor space.[10] The building was demolished in 1956 and a parking garage now occupies the site.

The Pittsburgh or Phipps Natatorium, a bathhouse and swimming pool, was soon erected at 540 Duquesne Way, behind the Manufacturer’s Building, and could be entered through it. The building was designed and built 1907-08; Atterbury displayed three views of the swimming pool at the 1907 exhibition. In 1980, Van Trump wrote about Pittsburgh bathhouses in Pittsburgher Magazine, observing:

Even more stylish—truly a bathing establishment of Roman Splendor—was the Natatorium, a structure of almost imperial dimensions. The four-story structure was located on Duquesne Way near the Sixth Street Bridge. This was a commercial rather than a charitable venture. Anyone who had 25 cents could get a tub bath, but the place was chiefly famous as possessing the first great swimming pool in Pittsburgh.[11]

The swimming pool was clad in Guastavino tile, a light-weight, fire-proof acoustical tile used in churches, railroad stations, public buildings, and occasionally private homes. Four detailed drawings for the pool have been preserved in the Guastavino Company Archives at the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.[12] The Natatorium was demolished in 1935 to reduce property taxes and the site remained vacant for some years.

Atterbury after Pittsburgh

Atterbury last displayed his work in Pittsburgh at the 1910 PAC exhibition—houses he had designed years before at Bayberry Point, Long Island. He continued to design country estates on Long Island; he redecorated major rooms in New York City Hall, and he designed the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1924-25). He designed hospitals and medical facilities, including the Yale University Medical Library, and educational buildings and clubhouses.

He also continued to design worker housing in New York City, and experimented with prefabricated reinforced concrete to produce standardized, low-cost housing. He became an urban planner/designer, first and most notably at Forest Hills Gardens in Queens (1909-13), where he and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. created a 140-acre planned community 15 minutes from Manhattan by train. Atterbury designed Indian Hill Village for the Norton Company in Worchester, Mass. (1915-16), as well as worker housing in Cincinnati, Mocanaqua, Pa. (Luzerne County), and Erwin and Kingsport, Tennessee.[13]

By all accounts, Atterbury had a successful career. His idealistic commitment to affordable housing may have been uncommon, but his exploration of innovative technologies while creatively re-imagining traditional forms was typical of peers such as Burnham, Hornbostel, and Post, as recent studies have shown.[14] Still, as biographer David Dwyer notes: “It was as a town planner with a special concern for housing the poor and for hospitals that he wished to be known. Architects with such interests rarely become famous.”[15]

[1]The first critical study of Atterbury was published in 2008: Peter Pennover, and Anne Walker, The Architecture of Grosvenor Atterbury (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008).

[2] Donald Dwyer, “Grosvenor Atterbury, 1869-1956.” Long Island Country Houses and Their Architects, 1860-1940, ed. by Robert B. MacKay, Anthony Baker, and Carol A. Taynor (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 49-57. Also “Biographical Sketch” (May 22, 1953), Grosvenor Atterbury papers, Rare and Manuscript Collections, Carl K. Kroch Library, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

[3] For illustrations of his work, in addition to Long Island Country Houses cited above and Pittsburgh Architectural Club exhibition catalogs cited below see American Architect and Building News 94 (August 26, 1908) and (September 2, 1908) and C. Matlack Price, “The Development of a National Architecture: The Work of Grosvenor Atterbury.” Arts and Decoration 2:5 (March 1912): 176-179.

[4] James D. Van Trump, “Henry Phipps and the Phipps Conservatory,” Carnegie Magazine 50:1 (January 1976), 31, had credited Atterbury, who designed the Phipps Houses in New York in 1905 (and later), with the design of the demolished Phipps Model Tenement erected in Allegheny 1906-08. The building was designed by Alfred C. Bossom (1881-1965) and the drawings were executed in Atterbury’s office.

[5] The Brickbuilder 13 (June 1904), 131; 14 (October 1905), 236; “Bessemer Building interior, Grosvenor Atterbury,” Ohio Architect & Builder 14:6 (December 1909): 42.

[6] James D. Van Trump and Arthur P. Ziegler, Jr., Landmark Architecture of Allegheny County Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, 1966): 53.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Fulton Building,” James D. Van Trump Notecards, Van Trump Papers, James D. Van Trump Library, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

[9] Construction 3:3 (January 20, 1906): “Henry Phipps has approved the plans for a fourteen-story building on his Duquesne Way property in the rear of the Bessemer Building. The plans were drawn by a New York architect. It is expected that work will be started by April 1st. The plot has a frontage of 120 feet on Duquesne Way. The new building will be on the site of the present natatorium building and it is said that another natatorium will be constructed in the rear of the fourteen-story building. The big building will be used for storage and light manufacturing purposes.” [53]

[10] “Downtown Landmark Soon to Be Torn Down,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 29 February 1956.

[11] James Van Trump, “Jamie’s Journal: The Great Unwashed,” Pittsburgher Magazine (October 1980), 19-20. See also “The Pittsburgh Natatorium, Pittsburgh, PA,” The Builder 27:7 (October 1909), 40; 1 unnumbered plate.

[12] “Phipps Natatorium,” Janet Parks and Allen G. Neumann, The Old World Builds the New: The Guastavino Company and the Technology of the Catalan Vault 1885-1962 (Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, 1996), 93.

[13] G. Atterbury, “Model Towns in America,” Scribner’s Magazine 52:1 (July 1912), 20-35; Samuel Howe, “A Forerunner of the Future Suburb: The Growing Popular Appreciation of the Picturesque in Domestic Architecture,” Arts and Decoration 2:12 (October 1912), 414, 419-422; Susan L. Klaus, A Modern Arcadia: Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and the Plan for Forest Hills Gardens (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press), 2002; Laurence Veiller, “Industrial housing developments in America. Part IV: A Colony in the Blue Ridge Mountains at Erwin Tenn.: Grosvenor Atterbury, Architect and Town Planner,” Architectural Record 53:6 (June 1918), 547-559; Margaret Crawford, Building the Workingman’s Paradise: The Design of the American Company Town (New York: Verso, 1995, chap. 6). John L. Fox, Housing for the Working Classes: Henry Phipps from the Carnegie Steel Company to Phipps Houses (Larchmont, NY, 2007).

[14] In addition to Schaffer, Daniel H. Burnham (2003), see Sarah Bradford Landau, George P. Post, Architect (New York: Monacelli Press, 1998) and Walter C. Kidney, Henry Hornbostel: An Architect’s Master Touch (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, 2002).

[15] Dwyer, “Grosvenor Atterbury,” 57.

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