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Pittsburgh buildings in The Bulletin 100 years ago

By Albert M. Tannler
Sunday, November 7, 2004

Architectural historians write about architects and buildings, often using architectural journals and magazines as primary resources for understanding them.
Interviews, profiles and obituaries of architects; notices and articles on new building construction (perhaps illustrated with photographs and floor plans) often provide vital information. When a building has been demolished such articles may be the only source of information.

Some communities are fortunate in having architectural journals that begin early and continue for decades. In Chicago, local buildings and architects were covered in The Inland Architect (1883-1908) and The Western Architect (1902-1931). Cleveland had The Interstate Architect & Builder, founded 1899, renamed The Ohio Architect & Builder, and published until 1919.

As their titles indicate, these journals covered adjacent territories; some references to western Pennsylvania building projects appear in the Cleveland-based publication, especially between 1903 and 1907. However, it would be September 1916 before Pittsburgh got a weekly publication listing building permit applications, contracts announced for bid, contracts awarded, and news about contractors and architects, such as change of venue, industry events, and obituaries.

This was The Builders’ Bulletin, published by the local contractors’ and builders’ association, The Builders’ Exchange. The organization and the publication are still headquartered on Noblestown Road.
The year 1916 is very late, however, for a region settled in the 18th century, with a vast number of distinguished 19th- and early 20th-century buildings. Architects arrived in western Pennsylvania in the 1830s; some early architectural offices lasted into the 20th century, and many of their buildings still stand.

Sometime prior to his retirement in 1983, James D. Van Trump, western Pennsylvania’s leading architectural historian and a co-founder of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, sat down in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and read through some 60 years of a local magazine, The Bulletin, looking for text and illustrations documenting Pittsburgh architecture and design. He also wrote an article about the magazine’s history and content.

The Bulletin was founded in Pittsburgh’s East End in 1876 by John W. Black, an 18-year-old reporter for the Pittsburgh Telegraph. In 1886, a fire destroyed the entire early run of the magazine and the earliest preserved issues begin in 1887.

In 1930, The Bulletin merged with a similar local magazine, The Index, founded in 1895. The Bulletin-Index ceased publication in 1949.

The Bulletin, it must be said, was not an architecture or building journal. Van Trump writes that the magazine was “concerned with, and largely slanted toward Society, a rather amorphous but definitely desirable entity in the body politic of what was in the later 19th century, still a young nation. Based largely on the acquisitions of money in the new industrial and technological world, it echoed, with democratic amendments, the aristocratic cultural milieu of Europe. … Naturally Society news predominated, and in the columns on music, art, drama, fashions, and flowers, writers were lavish with praise and slow to criticize. Its chief feature was ‘The Rambler,’ a kind of potpourri of short items (vaguely like The New Yorker’s ‘Talk of the Town’) generally handled in the moral and sentimental tone proper to the age.”

On the surface, The Bulletin would appear an unlikely source of information about architecture. Van Trump thought it promising enough, however, that he indexed the contents of many issues from 1887 to 1920.

The Bulletin’s usefulness as a source for architectural history is its coverage of some types of new buildings: churches, apartment houses and hotels, country clubs, department stores. Exhibitions are reviewed. Illustrations become more prominent. Featured are black and white panoramas and streetscapes, parks, and exteriors and interiors of houses and gardens of prominent citizens, many of which are gone.

Photographs of artists and prominent citizens — not architects but colleagues and clients — appear. Theaters, schools, hospitals, even public “bath houses” are illustrated. There are advertisements for paintings, decorative art, and furniture at local galleries and department stores.

Three buildings erected 100 years ago in 1904 remain, although changed and altered; in one case, drastically. Rather than reproduce illustrations that appeared in the magazine, vintage post cards show the original appearance of the buildings in color.

Bellefield Dwellings

On June 4, 1904, The Bulletin devoted its cover and lead article to Bellefield Dwellings, a luxury apartment building at Centre and Bellefield Avenues in Oakland. It indicated the building contained 51 “dwellings — only six per floor plus penthouse” each consisting of seven rooms and bath; every apartment has a telephone and servants quarters. Public amenities then included an “automobile room” or garage, a bicycle storage room, locker rooms, and laundry rooms on two basement levels, and a ground floor lobby, reception rooms, and a club room for residents. The roof garden was accessible by electric elevator. The building was fireproof (steel, iron, and masonry construction with brick firewalls separating the units), with security provided by “watchmen” who routinely patrolled the public areas.

The writer lauds the location — above the fog line of the city, practically free from the smoke and dust from industrial establishments and in the heart of a purely residence district — near the Carnegie Library, Schenley Park, and Phipps Conservatory, with ready streetcar access to downtown.

This building, the writer takes pains to reassure us, “is so different from anything provided in the ordinary apartment house idea that to call the dwellings ‘tenement apartments’ would be a misnomer.” The name Bellefield Dwellings is intended to signal to potential tenants that this building will “provide all the modern comforts of a metropolitan hotel and at the same time retain all the valued essentials of the private dwelling.”

Today, Bellefield Dwellings provides apartments for senior citizens, its units now subdivided.

The Bulletin article doesn’t identify the architect. Other sources show that Bellefield Dwellings was the first Pittsburgh building designed by New York architect Thomas Carlton Strong (1869-1931), who specialized in hotels and apartment buildings. In 1906, Strong moved to Pittsburgh. In 1910, he became a Roman Catholic, and thereafter specialized in ecclesiastical architecture; perhaps the finest of his many fine churches is Sacred Heart at Walnut Street and Shady Avenue in Shadyside.

Oakmont County Club

On Aug. 20, 1904, Bulletin readers read: “The club house of the new Oakmont Country Club was turned over last Tuesday to President H.C. Fownes of the club by the architect, Edward Stotz, and the contractors. The building represents an outlay of thirty-eight thousand dollars and is one of the most complete in the county.

In the club house. the English domestic style is followed. It is a frame building of two stories and mansard. The dimensions are one hundred and ninety by seventy-seven feet, with one hundred and seventy-five feet of porch.”

An admirably concise passage that identifies client and architect, and provides project cost and a basic description.

Equally important is the verbal “tour” of the new building. On the first floor is the hall, a “lounging” room, a grill and dining rooms, men’s lockers and showers, and “a room for the club’s professional.”

The billiard room, 16 sleeping rooms, and the “women’s parlour” were on the second floor. Staff were accommodated in the attic.

In 1904, golf was clearly a man’s game. Edward Stotz’s clubhouse at Oakmont is still there, now expanded, and the country club is home to distinguished women golfers as well as families. It was a struggle, however, according to Marino Parascenzo’s engaging “Oakmont: 100 Years,” published in November 2003.

McCreery & Co.

On Nov. 5, 1904, The Bulletin took its readers into the new McCreery & Co. Department Store, which had recently opened at Wood Street and Sixth Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh. In “McCreery’s: A Store of Many Attractions,” it is described as a place where “sumptuous richness is the keynote.

“A peep at the window display is all that is necessary to encourage the most vacillating to make a decision, and from the window is but a step before the interior is reached, and then there is an embarrassment of riches from which to make choice in whatever department that is truly bewildering.”

It adds, “It is doubtful if there is a building any place in New York wherein are collected finer examples of all that is superb in house furnishing, furniture and stuffs. A handsome booklet has been issued by this house, embellished with illustrations, and its perusal will serve to demonstrate something of the scope and range of McCreery and Company in the business they conduct. Better still, than reading the booklet would be to visit the store where the decorations of the various departments is in harmony with the objects shown.”

The enthusiastic writer describes an interior amenity by saying “one must not forget the beautiful dining room where one may have luncheon or afternoon tea. … One may have a charming little informal luncheon here with a few friends, or may have a private dining room reserved and give an entertainment as elaborate as one could have at home and without any of the trouble and anxiety incident to home entertaining. Clubs may meet here for their social entertainments and have all the privacy desired. In the afternoon the dining room becomes a large reception room where shoppers may meet their friends and have a cup of tea or not, as they desire.”

The Bulletin did not illustrate the main dining room or the private dining rooms and includes no information about the building. However, both the building and some McCreery & Co. interiors, such as the dining areas, are architecturally significant, according to other sources.

McCreery & Co., established in 1850 in New York by Joseph McCreery, was the first tenant of the building commissioned by Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Oliver and designed by the distinguished Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham in 1902. The building, known as the Wood Street Building, was completed in 1904, the year of Oliver’s death, and resulted in Oliver’s estate commissioning Burnham to design the Henry W. Oliver Building on Smithfield Street at Sixth Avenue.

Five Burnham-designed buildings are still standing in Pittsburgh.

McCreery & Co. was the authorized western Pennsylvania agent for Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman Workshop furniture, lighting fixtures, textiles, and accessories. Stickley was the leading proponent of American Arts and Crafts design, advertised throughout the country in his magazine, The Craftsman.

Shoppers could purchase Stickley products displayed in a special department, the “Craftsman Room,” and the dining rooms were furnished with his products. An advertisement for McCreery’s “Craftsman Room” was reproduced in “American Arts & Crafts: Virtue in Design” (1990) and McCreery’s main dining room is illustrated in David Cathers’ recent authoritative study of Gustav Stickley (2003).

McCreery & Co. went out of business in 1938. Today, the Wood Street Building “its facade drastically and ineptly altered” houses offices. It is mentioned and its torso illustrated in Kristen Schaffer’s “Daniel H. Burnham, Visionary Architect and Planner” (2003).

Albert M. Tannler is Historical Collections Director, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, and a freelance writer for the Tribune-Review.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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