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Eclectic Pittsburgh architecture reflects industrial influence

By Sarah Billingsley,
Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Pittsburgh homes, grand to humble, are unique.

Picture a typical Pittsburgh basement. The floor is slightly pitched, usually licked with a weary shade of paint that was on sale by the gallon. The cold, damp slope bottoms at the drain. There’s a deep basin, with rusty fixtures. It appears old enough to belong to Blarney Castle, but this stone you don’t want to kiss; it’s limey, mineral-stained and cracked.

There’s the narrow, low-ceilinged room, maybe under the porch, with an earth floor and a closed-off coal chute. These features could be true of houses everywhere. Now picture the Pittsburgh toilet. It’s also in your basement, probably in the center of the room. If your house is well appointed, it’s enclosed. If your house is modest, it’s secreted under the stairs. It’s often yellowed with age, activated by an old-fashioned flushing mechanism.

You don’t find this everywhere. Nor do you find the Pittsburgh shower — which is a little tougher to spot in basements nowadays, since most homeowners removed it when they rolled out the indoor-outdoor carpeting, stuck a Ping-Pong table down there and called it a rec room.

It’s a showerhead, dangling from the pipes, right over the drain in the floor. Pittsburgh real estate agents agree that these idiosyncratic features had a purpose, and it’s not as a luxurious second bath. Decades ago, men who worked hard and got dirty at it would enter their homes through the basement door, scrub themselves at the basin, shower off the dirt and sweat, then head upstairs to the clean upper floors of the house.

The door leading into the basement, the basement toilet and the basement shower were courtesy features in a Pittsburgh home. Pittsburgh was one of the great industrial cities of America, and Pittsburgh residences, from the 19th century on, are tiny mirrors of the American industrial landscape. They are constructed to mimic the style (or deliberate lack of style) of those who ruled industry and this city. Homes were built to accommodate the lifestyles of those who worked in the mills.

“There’s a practical quality to the Pittsburgh house,” said architectural historian Al Tannler of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

Tannler, who is mostly concerned with the outside of Pittsburgh buildings, not basement toilets, cites porches as a prevalent exterior feature particular to Pittsburgh houses. In the East End especially, Tannler notes, many homeowners have torn down their porches or left only a portion intact, creating odd facades.

Tannler says a 1911 survey of Pittsburgh houses by architectural historian and critic Montgomery Schuyler, “The Building of Pittsburgh,” pinpoints Pittsburgh’s style as residential architecture, “unquestionably artistic but impossible to classify under any historical style.”

“We can call it eclecticism,” said Tannler. “You’re staring at a Colonial Revival from the outside, but once indoors you’re inside of a Mission, or the other way around.”

A healthy irreverence toward building styles and a lack of uniformity classify Pittsburgh homes. No one architectural style dominates.

Margaret Henderson Floyd, author of “Architecture After Richardson,” attributes the diversity of styles to the fact that Pittsburgh never developed a school of architecture like the Prairie School in Chicago, though architects of note practiced here and added their work to the mix of buildings.

Tannler dubs the state of Pittsburgh politics in the 19th and 20th centuries a “Scotch-Irish-Presbyterian oligarchy.” These influential men — Carnegie, Frick and Schwab — were fixed on English residential architecture. Many houses were built in a manner similar to Carnegie’s Scottish summer home, Skibo Castle, in what Floyd calls “a mostly conservative tradition, domestic rather than palatial.” This style was copied for smaller homes.

Tannler points out an additional feature of these domestic mansions: Unlike in other cities, all the grand houses of Pittsburgh were built with libraries. All of these domestic idiosyncrasies make Pittsburgh homes original and link us daily to a rich industrial past.

Sarah Billingsley can be reached at or 412-263-1661.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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