College eyes pool
By Bill Zlatos
Monday, February 6, 2006
One of the country’s first indoor swimming pools in a home, built for banking magnate Andrew Mellon, soon may become a lost relic.
Chatham College, which received the Tudor-styled Shadyside mansion as a gift from one of Mellon’s children, is considering other uses for the now empty pool, once a glamorous symbol of the wealth, power and excess enjoyed by Pittsburgh’s barons of banking and industry.
“We’re working now to determine what those possible uses could be,” said Chatham spokesman Paul Kovach. A meeting room is one possibility.
In the meantime, the drained pool, housed in a vaulted room lined with pearl-like tile, lies covered with a blue tarp. The eight-lane, 75-foot-long Sigo Falk Natatorium in the college’s new Health and Fitness Center has made the old 60-foot-long pool obsolete.
Al Tannler, historical collections director for Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, said he understands why the college would want to change the pool.
“Reuse is not a problem,” he said. “It’s a matter of it being a tasteful way, and Chatham has a good reputation for that.”
A year ago, the college converted another icon of Mellon’s wealth — the mansion’s two-lane bowling alley — into a broadcasting studio.
The mansion, now Mellon Hall, the college’s administration building, has a storied history.
“We’ve always heard old stories from alumni about hearing the ghost of Mr. Mellon walking around the house,” Kovach said.
Located on Woodland Road just off Millionaires Row on Fifth Avenue, the house was built for George Laughlin Jr. in 1902. The mansion features at least 10 intricately carved wood and marble fireplaces, stone archways, wood paneling and pocket doors.
Mellon, the former U.S. secretary of treasury, bought the house in 1917. He hired the original architect, MacClure & Spahr, to expand his home. The expansion included the bowling alley and a 60-foot-long swimming pool with Guastazino tile, a material popular for its light weight, fireproof ability and good acoustics.
“People just loved it,” Tannler said of the tile. “They went nuts.”
However Chatham decides to use the pool, the Guastazino tile will stay put, Kovach assured.
Other Pittsburgh landmarks with that tile are the Allegheny County Courthouse, Buhl Planetarium and the vestibule of the City-County Building.
Tannler said there’s no way to know if the Mellon House was the first local home with an indoor swimming pool. In 1907, architect Grosvenor Atterbury designed the public Phipps Natatorium, now razed, Downtown.
Indoor swimming pools in homes were rare in those days, said Darren Poupore, curator of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., the largest private home in America with 250 rooms. Biltmore, built in 1895 by George Vanderbilt, grandson of industrialist Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, featured an indoor swimming pool with vaulted Guastazino tile. That pool is 53 feet long and 27 feet wide, with a maximum depth of about 9 1/2 feet.
Mellon never visited Biltmore, Poupore said, but Pittsburgh’s millionaires were familiar with the Vanderbilts. Coke and steel baron Henry Clay Frick rented George Vanderbilt’s home on Fifth Avenue in New York City after he left Pittsburgh.
There’s no way to know whether Andrew Mellon felt the urge to keep up with other millionaires when he added his pool.
“There definitely was a lot of one-upmanship, trying to outdo your colleagues and siblings,” Poupore said.
Bill Zlatos can be reached at email@example.com or (412) 320-7828.