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Edgewood Club is a neighborhood gem

By Patricia Lowry,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Thursday, November 04, 2004

The Edgewood Club blends so amiably into its neighborhood that it is possible to pass by and not notice what a quietly extraordinary — and extraordinarily satisfying — building it is. The club, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, opened in 1916 in its present location at the corner of Swissvale and Pennwood avenues, in a concrete stucco building designed by architect Edward Brown Lee. A Vermont native and 1895 Harvard grad, Lee came to Pittsburgh in 1900 to work for Alden and Harlow on the Carnegie Institute buildings. In 1901, he won a two-year Harvard fellowship to Europe, which included study at Paris’ Ecole des Beaux Arts and travel in England, France and Italy.

He returned to Pittsburgh in 1904 and spent the rest of his largely unsung career here, designing school, office and hospital buildings and contributing to the civic life of the city as longtime chairman of the Art Commission. Although he collaborated with Henry Hornbostel on the City-County Building, he considered his own masterwork the 16-story Chamber of Commerce Building of 1917. His office was located there, employing 10 to 20 architects at various times. But perhaps his greatest contribution to the city was the more than 100 residences he designed over a career that spanned half a century.

They are, perhaps, one reason that Lee’s Edgewood Club has a remarkable domesticity for an institution, announced by its two-story scale, its red tile roof and the long, columned pergola that stretches down Swissvale Avenue. The pergola would seem more happily at home on a Tuscan villa or on a Sewickley Heights country house than on a middle-class social club hard by the railroad tracks.

Lee delivers on that promise of homey comfort, security and amenity just inside the front door, which opens into a hexagonal room that devotes an entire wall to a fireplace surround of predominantly blue matte tiles — a modern, minimal approach to the hearth that eliminates the expected, clutter-collecting mantel. This is high drama at low cost. While the room now holds tables and chairs, it was outfitted originally as a lounge, with wicker and upholstered furniture. With its fire blazing, it must have given a hearty welcome on a cold winter’s day.

Because the building program also called for a public library and the site was a triangular one, Lee proposed a V-shaped building, with one wing housing the social club and the other the library, located on the second floor (above the club’s bowling alleys) but with its own entrance. The hexagonal room acts as the hinge or pivot point connecting the wings, which terminate with a flourish in Spanish Mission-style gables.

About half of the men of Edgewood took the train Downtown to work, of which Lee would have approved. He traveled to most of his appointments by train and never owned a car.

“A car is an instrument of the devil,” he told his son. “It tempts a man to live too far from his work.”

There were few cars anywhere when the club was founded in 1904 as a way to ameliorate the social and cultural isolation of a community seven miles from Downtown.

The idea of combining a library with social, recreational, cultural and athletic facilities was not new; Andrew Carnegie had done it at Braddock, Homestead and Duquesne. And it was to Carnegie that Edgewood residents turned when they began planning their new building. They requested and received a $12,500 grant, matching the amount in their own coffers, and they were off and running.

The Swissvale Avenue wing of Lee’s building contains a stage and two-story assembly hall, a great medieval barn of a room with a hardwood floor that has hosted countless club and community dances, weddings, reunions and other parties over the years. The library has a similar, though more ornate, beamed ceiling, but its effect is muted and marred by the recent installation of too-prominent contemporary lighting.

Membership has expanded beyond the borough and is open to all East Enders living in the city or Edgewood’s neighboring communities. The club ( currently has about 375 single and family memberships, ranging from $250 to $780 annually. Most of the 1,000 people those memberships represent come in the summer months, to use the outdoor pool and tennis courts and indoor, seasonal cafe.

“The mission of the club is to strengthen the community and provide safety,” said Ron Gallagher, its general manager. “It’s good to know your kids have a place to go to be safe.”

To celebrate its centennial, the club is hosting a luncheon and building tour, with talks by Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation architectural historian Walter Kidney, architect David Vater and architect Robert Grubb. The latter has designed recent renovations to the building, which included replacing the club’s bowling alley with a new children’s library.

Tickets for the Nov. 13 event, which runs from 1 to 3:30 p.m., are $25; reservations must be made by tomorrow by calling 412-731-3443.

The club also has published an informal, softcover book, “The Edgewood Club: 100 Years of Memories,” produced and written by Colleen Derda and Laura Horner, with additional essays by Grubb and former Pittsburgh Press writer and Edgewood resident Bill Modoono. It’s available for $10 at the club.

Lee, who believed so firmly in the club’s mission that he donated half of his commission to the project, never lived in the community he served so well. Beginning in 1917, the architect, his wife, Margaret, and son Edward Jr. were living in an L-shaped farmhouse at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Bigelow Boulevard, where they raised fruit, vegetables, nearly 100 chickens and a cow. The Lees’ 1929 Christmas card shows the skeleton of the Cathedral of Learning rising above the ghostly outline of their lost house, whose site is now part of the tower’s lawn.

In 1930, Lee made over a relic group of worker row-housing on William Penn Place into Downtown’s most intimate and European-flavored space, with the Harvard-Yale-Princeton Club and offices flanking a courtyard and fountain enclosed by brick walls and an iron gate. Within this charming assemblage Lee built for his family a penthouse apartment he called the Cedar Chest, for the Tennessee cedar with which he lined it.

“The stairway into the apartment was papered with blueprints,” his son recalled in “A Pencil in Penn,” a collection of Lee’s sketches of Pittsburgh and vicinity. Edward Jr., then a Community College of Allegheny County professor, published the book in 1970 and wrote the accompanying text.

“Walls of the bedroom were lined with fine old steel engravings. Maps were everywhere, especially on the ceilings, including a big map of New England with the birthplaces of the family members all starred.”

A photograph of the apartment is included in “A Pencil in Penn,” whose drawings of rural, urban and industrial scenes show the same sensitive hand and well-trained eye at work on the Edgewood Club.

(Post-Gazette architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.)

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633