Historic Review Commission to vote on mortuary status
By Ellen James
Tuesday, September 3, 2002
On Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission will consider whether Allegheny County’s century-old mortuary should be designated an historic structure.
Pittsburgh architect Frederick J. Osterling, a disciple of the jail and courthouse’s architect, designed the mortuary to match the two other buildings and to create a fortress-like enclave of government centered Downtown, according to a county report about the construction of the three buildings.
And it is that urban design that prompted the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation to nominate the building, built between 1901 and 1903, as a city-designated historic structure.
“Our position was that the mortuary exemplified urban design techniques and overall quality of design or detail,” said Cathy McCollom, director of operations and marketing for the foundation. “Osterling picked up on exterior details from the jail and worked them into the mortuary.”
McCollom said the review commission will vote Wednesday on whether to recommend the mortuary as an historic structure.
If the structure, a solidly built Romanesque building with two gargoyles guarding its entrance, is approved, it would then have to be approved by the Planning Commission and City Council. Final approval would come from Mayor Tom Murphy.
The building originally faced Forbes Avenue along Diamond Street. In 1929, county officials needed a new building for deeds, wills and lawsuits, but the mortuary sat in the spot that would be most convenient for the new building, which is now the County Office Building.
Instead of demolishing the morgue, officials decided to move the 8,000-ton granite building 297 feet to its present location along Fourth Avenue.
It took three months to move the building, but that didn’t stop the regular day-to-day business of the morgue. As Levi Bird Duff, a consultant in the move, said in an interview shortly before his death, “People were killing and dying every day. The coroner’s functions couldn’t be stopped.”
Routine business such as autopsies and inquests continued; and water, gas, plumbing, telephone and electrical service were uninterrupted.
In a feat of engineering prowess, the mortuary was raised 20 feet off its foundation and placed on 22 tracks of hundreds of rails and slowly pulled to its present location by a team of horses. The building then had to be lowered another 7 feet to fit into its present foundation.
The building survived the move with minimum damage.
“It really was a marvel of engineering,” said Tom Donatelli, director of public works for the county.
If the building is approved as an historic structure, the county couldn’t make any changes to the exterior without city approval. There has been no objection from county officials regarding the proposed status.
Ellen James can be reached at email@example.com.