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Author recalls greatness of forgotten Pittsburgh designer

By Bob Karlovits
Saturday, October 19, 2002

Henry Hornbostel’s legacy climbs along the hills of the Carnegie Mellon University campus in Oakland to the peak of the Grant Building, Downtown.

It provides a theater for politics at the City-County Building, a resting spot for tired visitors at the Webster Hall hotel in Oakland and a home for families from Squirrel Hill to Monroeville.

“Henry Hornbostel is a man you don’t want to forget,” says Walter C. Kidney, architectural historian from the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, and author of the first book on the architect (1867-1961).

He is the author of the new “Henry Hornbostel: An Architect’s Master Touch” (published by the foundation in cooperation with Roberts Rinehart Publishers, $49.95).

The 272-page volume is the impetus for tours and book signings that will draw attention to the work of an architect whose buildings are Pittsburgh landmarks. It contains 470 illustrations, including 200 color photographs.

Although Hornbostel created buildings and other architectural works throughout the United States, no other city has the same “critical mass” of works by him, says Martin Aurand, architectural archivist at Carnegie Mellon.

His 110 works in this area are about half of his total output, Kidney says in the book.

The Carnegie Mellon archives, which includes 17,000 drawings, has the largest collection of Hornbostel documentation because of his work in designing the Oakland campus, Aurand says.

It has 560 of the Brooklyn native’s drawings, along with sketch pads from before his education in at Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. It also has an unfinished autobiography, “which I’m sure everybody wishes would go a lot further,” Aurand says.

David J. Vater, a Mt. Washington architect, author and collaborator on the book, says he regrets that Hornbostel isn’t as well known as artists such as H.H. Richardson, known for the Allegheny County Courthouse.

“People don’t know Hornbostel or even know he was a Pittsburgh architect,” he says of the craftsman who settled in Oakland in 1920 after working on local projects for more than a decade.

He lived here until he retired to Connecticut in 1939.

“Hornbostel is an architect who was well liked in his day, but since then has seemed to have fallen through the cracks,” says Charles L. Rosenblum, architectural historian and adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon.

He, Kidney and Vater all agree the reason for that is the rise of modernism in the 1940s and ?50s.

“Modernists did not want to deal with anyone who was not part of their movement,” Rosenblum says.

“It was only in the ?70s, when post-modernism came into play that there was renewed interest in Hornbostel’s life,” Vater says.

Eclectic for the ages

While the name Hornbostel might not carry the weight of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, his work carries a style that establishes itself.

Kidney points out how Hornbostel is “eclectic” in his use of styles, using elements that hint sometimes at modernism as well as shades of Renaissance or Grecian influences.

In Pittsburgh, that mixture creates its own image in buildings such as Oakland’s Webster Hall, the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial, the Carnegie Mellon campus and Rodef Shalom Temple, Downtown’s Grant Building or additions to the Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin.

He also designed homes that bear gabled ornateness in Squirrel Hill or a chateau-like rural nature in Monroeville.

From 1936 to ?39, he was Allegheny County’s Director of Parks and contributed commonly used buildings such as the Boathouse in North Park and the Golf Clubhouse in South Park.

As for Hornbostel’s works in other areas of the United States, one can note that:

He designed the Williamsburg and Queensborough bridges in New York City.

Twenty-two of his structures are on the National Registry of Historic Places.

He also designed city halls in Oakland, Calif., and Hartford, Conn.

He contributed a large number of buildings to what is now Emery University in Atlanta.
His work on Carnegie Mellon University’s campus gives the school an appearance that has, more or less, been upkept over the years, Vater and Aurand say.

When he was commissioned by Andrew Carnegie to design the school in 1904, it was at a time that was rather interesting ? a time when “universities were being designed from scratch.”

Although there are buildings at Carnegie Mellon that are modern and unlike Hornbostel’s work, the university frequently as tried to maintain his theme, Vater says.

Wean Hall, for instance, is a modern-looking, angular building, but is similar to Hornbostel’s work in its color and even the slope of his roof, he points out.

Vater also mention the blends of artistry and practicality in Hornbostel’s designs. In Baker Hall, for example, a cantilevered, circular staircase is a striking bit of design at the center of the building.

Yet, Hornbostel also incorporated a sloping, stone hallway through the building so pieces of heavy equipment could be moved from room to room in the building that was being used for technical study.

Vater also points out that his use of light-colored brick at the campus creates “variations on a theme of white” that differ greatly from the red-brick buildings of Ivy League schools.

Kidney says he became interested in Hornbostel almost as soon as he became curious about architecture, when he was 14. Not only did he appreciate the work of the designer, he liked the name.

“It seemed like the right name for the grand gesture,” he says with a faint smile.

He also has an appreciation for the character Hornbostel was. When he was a teenager, Kidney writes, he rode a high-wheeled bicycle from New York City to Buffalo ? and back again.

He also was well known for being able to eat or drink with anyone, he says.

Aurand points out a Hornbostel-designed rental brochure for the Grant Building. On it, the building is a behemoth towering over a city of buildings ? all designed by Hornbostel.

“Only he would have the ego to pull that off,” Aurand says.

While Hornbostel’s eclecticism can carry his works different ways, Kidney points out, the “Hornsbostelian” elements show up in forms that are like one another. For instance, he says, the sweeping arches of the City-County Building are strikingly close to those of the Hartford City Hall.

Those elements sometimes can be “pompous and rhetorical,” he says, far different from the modern styles of Wright or Walter Gropius.

Yet, few other architects have contributed as much to the image of this city as Hornbostel, says Kidney. D.H. Burnham (1842-1912), designer of the Oliver and Frick buildings, Frederick G. Scheibler Jr. (1872-1959) or Benno Janssen (1874-1964) come close, but don’t rival him ? if only in numbers.

That is why Kidney decided, in 1991, to write a book about Hornbostel.

Rosenblum sees that as a step that was much needed.

“There is a lot more that can be said than in one volume,” he says, “but this is a way to begin the discussion.”


Henry Hornbostel’s works spread across the Pittsburgh area like autumn leaves on a tree-filled lawn.

The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation has scheduled three tours to examine the variety of the architect’s buildings and homes.

Walter C. Kidney will be present at all three tours, and copies of his biography “Henry Hornbostel: An Architect’s Master Touch” will be available for autograph and purchase. Light refreshments will be served at each.

Carnegie Mellon University’s Original Campus

2 to 5 p.m. Sunday, beginning at Hunt Library, Oakland.

Tour leaders: Martin Aurand, archivist of Carnegie Mellon’s Architectural Archives; Charles L. Rosenblum, architectural historian and adjunct professor at the university; Paul Tellers, university architect.

The tour will look at the buildings as well as some of Hornbostel’s original drawings. Tellers will discuss recent building at Carnegie Mellon.

$15; $10 for foundation members, university faculty or alumni; $7 for students.
Hornbostel in Downtown Pittsburgh

Noon to 1:30 p.m. Friday, beginning at City-County Building.

Tour leaders: Lu Donnelly, architectural historian; Rosenblum; David J. Vater, author and architect.

The tour will look at executed and unexecuted works Downtown, including the City-County Building and the Grant Building.

$10, $8 for foundation members and Smithfield United Church members; $5 for students.
Hornbostel in the East End

2 to 6 p.m. Oct. 27, main lobby of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ National Military Museum and Memorial, Oakland.

Tour leaders: Ronald S. Gancas, vice president of Soldiers’ and Sailors’; Donnelly; Rosenblum; Vater.

The tour will travel by bus to places such as Thaw Hall at the University of Pittsburgh and Webster Hall in Oakland to two private homes.

Fee: $55, $45 for foundation members and University Club members; $40 for students.
In addition, a reception and tour will be at the Hornbostel-designed Rodef Shalom Temple, Oakland, 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday.

Besides tours of the temple, the event will included remarks by Phillip B. Hallen, chairman, and Louise Sturgess, executive director of the foundation.

Arthur Ziegler, president of History and Landmarks, will unveil a plaque honoring the temple and Hornbostel.

Cost: $10 for landmark members and temple members; $15 for nonmembers.

Reservations for each event: (412) 471-5808, ext. 527.

? Bob Karlovits
Bob Karlovits can be reached at or (412) 320 7852.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. © The Tribune-Review Publishing Co

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