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Book Review: Pittsburgh Architecture in the Twentieth Century

By Peter Cormack
The Journal of Stained Glass, XXXVIII, 2014 [British Society of Master Glass Painters], 178-179.

Albert M. Tannler. Pittsburgh Architecture in the Twentieth Century: Notable Modern Buildings and Their Architects. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, 2013. Softcover, 276 pp., 321 col. and b/w ills. ISBN 978 0 9788284 9 3, $18.95.

The work of architectural historian Albert M. Tannler, Historical Collections Director of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, is well known to readers of this Journal. As the devoted chronicler of the city’s architectural heritage, he is something of a civic treasure worthy of statutory designation himself. The latest title from his pen (or computer) is a cornucopia of informative discussion and description, accompanied by numerous fine illustrations, revealing the remarkable wealth of modern buildings in this great American conurbation.

In the minds of many people who do not know the city, Pittsburgh’s identity is still indelibly marked by its industrial past, tellingly illustrated by a late 19th-century view in the ‘Eve of Modernism’ section of Tannler’s Introduction. The present-day city, however, has lost the pall of filthy smoke and soot overhanging and coating its buildings, as almost all the traditional manufacturing has disappeared or been transformed. Nowadays, one is very aware of Pittsburgh’s beautiful setting of surrounding hills and the fine rivers that run through it, and the city’s architecture has few rivals in the USA for historical interest and aesthetic distinction. Tannler’s focus is on the successive stages of post-1900 architectural modernism, broadly defined. He describes the buildings, gives fascinating short biographies of their designers and often adds socio-economic details of their up-and-down history to the present day. In his introductory writing, he also charts the dissemination of American and European modern styles through publications and influential institutions like the Pittsburgh Architectural Club.

The book covers all types of building. Glancing through the many illustrations, one is immediately struck by the diverse cultural influences prevalent among Pittsburgh’s architects––a natural consequence, of course, of its polyglot immigrant population. The Hungarian-born Titus de Bobula designed several churches that clearly demonstrate his awareness of Art Nouveau and Secessionist trends in central Europe. The First Hungarian Reformed Church (1903-4) in Hazelwood has echoes of Medgyaszay[1] in its rounded fenestration and determination to avoid historicist traits; it also has charming stained glass roundels (by an unidentified designer-maker), depicting heroes and heroines of Hungary’s Protestant history. De Bobula, Tannler tells us, was later under FBI surveillance and was described by his biographer as a ‘notorious architect and arms merchant’.

Leaded-light glazing is a conspicuous feature of much of the pre-First World War domestic architecture, sometimes in simple quarry patterns but occasionally in an idiom akin to Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. The Lydia A. Riesmeyer house (architect Richard Kiehnel, 1914) has particularly Wrightian windows and leaded light-fittings, partly in citrus-coloured opalescent glass combined with textured whites. Interior photographs show how such detailing was very much part of a total decorative scheme that embraced all exterior and interior elements. The suburban borough of Thornburg can boast a number of houses in which this kind of coordinated design approach was capably designed by architects influenced by Midwest, California and other regional idioms. S. T. McClarren’s splendid 1132 Lehigh Road is a later version of the 19th-century ‘shingle style’, given a quasi-expressionist sweep of horizontality and beautifully positioned on a sloping wooded site.

The Austro-German influence is a leitmotif throughout much of this book, evident in Kiehnel’s 1916-31 Greenfield School, the main doorway of which ‘quotes’ Herrmann Billing’s Mannheim Museum. As almost always happened in such cases, however, the European source gains a convincingly American identity in its new setting, aided by more ample contextual space and a generally more expansive scale for the buildings themselves. Tannler devotes a section of his book to the so-called Art Deco style (more properly called ‘Moderne’) with a description of one notable interior scheme given prominence. This is the Omni William Penn Hotel’s banquet room (1929) by the great Viennese-American designer Joseph Urban. It has all the luxuriant splendour of 1920s slient-era Hollywood move décor, blended with Wiener Werkstätte sophistication (Urban was the Vienna group’s US representative). Urban’s scheme has been conserved in recent years but, as the photographs show, it would benefit from a comprehensive restoration to reveal fully its original impact.

Appropriately, since Tannler has done so much to examine the topic in a scholarly way, a chapter on ‘American Gothic 1905-38’ is at the heart of the book. As well as featuring the masterpieces of Ralph Adams Cram (Calvary Church, 1905-7, Holy Rosary, 1926-31 and East Liberty Presbyterian, 1930-35), and of Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue (First Baptist Church (1909-11), which all have powerful glazing schemes by Charles Connick and his contemporaries, he illustrates and discusses Carlton Strong’s equally powerful Sacred Heart (1926-54), with glass by George and Alice Sotter, and (Welsh-born) William P. Hutchins’s St James Catholic Church, Wilkinsburg. The later is notable for its eighty windows by Wright Goodhue. Stained glass was recognized as an essential component of Modern Gothic buildings, even in secular structures such as Charles Z. Klauder’s soaring Cathedral of Learning on Pittsburgh University’s campus, built in the 1930s. Along with Klauder’s Stephen Foster Memorial and Heinz Memorial Chapel, it features glazing by Charles Connick. The Heinz windows, intricately blending biblical and American historical imagery, are in themselves well worth a pilgrimage to Pittsburgh.

Glass, although rarely if ever stained or leaded, increasingly dominates much of the later architecture illustrated, as the International Modern Movement increasingly imposed its ‘functional’ ideology and rejection of tradition on Pittsburgh’s building styles. Those in sympathy with this merciless reduction of an art form to a branch of engineering science may find much to please them in the illustrations and scholarly descriptions. Your reviewer’s tastes and prejudices will be all too evident, and it will be best of conclude this review by praising unreservedly the author’s exemplary research and fluent writing, and the equally exemplary enterprise of his publisher, PHLF, which has done so much to preserve and celebrate the architectural heritage of one of America’s most historic and beautiful cities.

[1] István Medgyaszay (1877-1969), Hungarian architect, trained at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.

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