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New book assesses Henry Hornbostel’s influence on Pittsburgh

By Patricia Lowry,
Post-Gazette Architecture Critic
Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Walter Kidney begins his new book on the work of Henry Hornbostel not with the buildings but with the man himself.

The hardback book, published by Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and Roberts Rinehart Publishers, costs $49.95 and is available through PHLF (412-471-5808) and local bookstores.

A wise decision, not because the buildings are lacking, but because the man was larger than life even before he was fully a man. By 17 he had ridden some 400 miles from his native Brooklyn to Niagara Falls on a bicycle — the kind with a big, 6-foot wheel in the front. By his senior year at Columbia University, he was the champion one-mile racer of the United States. By his 70s, after a long, fruitful and varied career, Hornbostel, a friend recalled, still could “out-dance, out-drink and out-eat anyone 40 years old.”

And by page 2, the reader is hooked.

Then there are the buildings. Hornbostel was of that heroic, city-building generation of architects born just after the Civil War, whose careers began with Classical training at Paris’ Ecole des Beaux-Arts and ended as modernism was dawning. They shaped the urban American landscape with orderly plans and monumental buildings that communicated power, stability and faith in God and government.

What would Pittsburgh be today without HH? Imagine the city without Carnegie Mellon’s School of Architecture, which he founded, and without the City-County Building, Smithfield United Church and its lacy aluminum spire, Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Rodef Shalom synagogue, all of which he designed.

He was architect, too, of the original CMU and Pitt campuses, the Grant Building, B’Nai Israel synagogue, Westinghouse Memorial in Schenley Park and many structures in North and South parks — including the South Park Golf Clubhouse, with its exotic, Yucatan-inspired entrance and motifs in bas-relief red brick.

But Pittsburgh wasn’t his only canvas, and architecture wasn’t his only career. Hornbostel’s buildings and bridges can be found in New York, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa and California, where he designed the Oakland city hall. And in the 1930s, when the Depression caused a nationwide building slump, Hornbostel became a well-known and colorful public figure as Allegheny County’s director of parks.

For years Hornbostel personified architecture in Pittsburgh, and the human face he gave to the profession was, as one writer described him in 1954, “lovable, unpredictable, flamboyant.” A prankster and a character, Hornbostel had a Vandyke beard, wore red silk bow ties and carried a cane, probably more out of affectation than need. His friends knew him as “Horny,” but he also answered to Major, a title he earned in the Army during World War I.

For decades Hornbostel has been a book waiting to happen. Kidney, architectural historian with Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, took him up in 1991 and, with contributions from architectural historian Charles Rosenblum and architect David Vater, gives the man his due in “Henry Hornbostel: An Architect’s Master Touch,” a revealing and generously illustrated monograph.

While it includes an overview of Hornbostel’s work around the country — competition entries, college campuses, public buildings and homes — much of the book is devoted to a catalog or survey of the Pittsburgh work.

In his preface, Rosenblum, who is writing his Yale dissertation on Hornbostel, puts the work in the broader context of American and European architectural history. He begins by asking if HH was truly a Pittsburgh architect, given that he was Brooklyn-born and educated at Columbia and the Ecole and had maintained a New York residence for more than 50 years.

The answer, Rosenblum concludes, is yes, partly because he designed more projects here than anywhere — 110 of 228 total. But more importantly, Hornbostel “captured and enhanced the essential character of the place in truly individual fashion,” with “a talent for deriving architectural poetry from the otherwise inconveniently sloping sites of which the city has so many.”

Two such buildings spring to mind, both associated with CMU’s first president, Arthur Hamershlag: “Ledge House,” his rubble-walled home of about 1909 on a prominent corner in Schenley Farms, and Hamershlag Hall, a sort of classical, institutional version of the vernacular South Side Slopes house, which takes advantage of the hillside to create a much bigger building than is apparent from the facade.

Rosenblum also separates Hornbostel from many of his Beaux-Arts contemporaries, establishing his interest in its problem-solving approach rather than its mimicking of historical styles. As at CMU, Hornbostel’s college campus plans, which include Emory University and the Evanston campus of Northwestern, are formal and symmetrical, with long, axial views and buildings grouped around quadrangles.

In 1908, Hornbostel adapted Beaux-Arts rationality to a steep, irregular site in his competition-winning design for the Pitt campus — an acropolis of Classical buildings that stepped down the hillside. Unfortunately, only five were built, and only two of those remain.

Rosenblum suggests that American Beaux-Arts architects “could be at least reasonably progressive,” working in a more abstract style known then and now as the “Modern French.”

But as both Rosenblum and Kidney underscore, Hornbostel’s imagination didn’t allow him to limit himself to a single mode of expression. He was an eclectic who “used his schooling and acquaintance with historic architecture in a creative, innovative and bold manner,” Kidney writes.

That claim is borne out by the inventiveness of the work. William Rydberg’s color photographs take us inside private buildings and allow Pittsburghers to see the public ones with fresh eyes.

And what an eyeful. Here we see up close the sensational painted ceiling of CMU’s College of Fine Arts building, one of the wonders of the Pittsburgh architectural world. As medieval stained glass was a bible for the illiterate, Hornbostel must have seen the murals of his vaulted ceiling, painted on canvas by James Hewlett, as an introduction to the pantheon of the arts. Among the world’s great buildings, Hornbostel, a man with no small ego, wasn’t shy about including his Hell Gate Bridge, completed in 1917 in New York — a pair of triumphal, granite arches framing what was then the world’s largest steel-arch span.

Hornbostel could transform an earthly material like clay into something extraordinary and spectacular. He designed much of his own terra cotta ornament, layering it with great decorative effect, and his use of Guastavino tile in the winding staircase of CMU’s Baker Hall is magical, considering it uses almost no structural steel.

Hornbostel gave East Liberty one of its major landmarks, the late, lamented Liberty Theatre with white, glazed terra cotta tiles framing an American flag composed of red, white and blue light bulbs. In its day, it was a vibrant gateway to the Penn Avenue commercial district.

As head of CMU’s school of architecture and its most prominent and beloved teacher, Hornbostel was held in high esteem by “his boys.” The book touches only lightly on this legacy and on Hornbostel’s influence on at least one generation of Pittsburgh architects.

And some of the building descriptions are too thin: Hornbostel’s last work here, a fortress-like stone house of 1939, is kissed off in three sentences. Certainly the book captures the astonishing breadth, if not always the depth, of Hornbostel’s work and presents it in a smart, inviting design.

Vater has compiled the list of all known works, built and unbuilt, beginning with an 1891 student drawing in Paris. Twenty-two are on the National Register of Historic Places.

At the end, HH, who had been born in 1867 and seen almost a century of change and evolution, was ready to start all over again in a modern vocabulary. He told a friend at his 88th birthday that if he were 25, “these young fellows of today, who think they’re so progressive, would look like stuffy conservatives.”

After reading “Henry Hornbostel,” it’s hard to disagree.

Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.
This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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