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Strange Interlude in Architecture

Walter C. Kidney
December, 2001

Recently, Landmarks called renewed attention to Sacred Heart Church, in Shadyside, by holding its Awards of Merit ceremony there and by giving one Award to the Church itself.

Begun in 1924 and with church construction finished in 1954, Sacred Heart virtually signaled the end of the Eclectic period of Pittsburgh architecture: a period that had begun in 1883 with H.H. Richardson’s designs for the Courthouse and Jail. The seven intervening decades, when Eclecticism developed, flourished, wavered, and began a slow deterioration, produced most of the buildings we are apt really to like. And yet, it has been under a 50-year cloud, assaulted as uncreative, fakey, even immoral, and was in time forgotten to architectural history.

Eclectic architecture can be thought of as an architecture of costumes, and in this circumstance lay its strength and its weakness. Whatever steel, concrete, or hollow tile slumbered beneath the surfaces of a building the surfaces were no mere coverings but rather an expression of the building’s role in society and the mental associations this evoked. Thus, a house might be Tudor or Colonial, or vaguely Old World while not alluding to any one place or time. A church might be Gothic, Romanesque, Colonial, or even Baroque. A school was likely to be Tudor––or Colonial. A shop, on the other hand, or a theater say, was apt to stress the cosmopolitan, to be Beaux-Arts or Art Nouveau or, in time, Moderne. In conservative Pittsburgh, architects approached the apartment house––an affair of strangers under one roof––with either manorial pretensions or an air of continental European smartness.

The couturiers of such buildings had conspicuous advantages over their Victorian predecessors. Eclecticism coincided with travel to Europe to study and sketch; with the coming of architectural schools in the United States; with the appearance of journals and books illustrating “precedents” in photographs and measured drawings; with professional organizations local and more wide in territory; and with choices of structural systems and decorative materials unknown here before. Eclecticism was an occurrence rather than an ideologically-driven movement, a matter of architects looking back to the Victorian period and thanking God it was over rather than attempting to give forms a priori to the future. If you look back on the seven Eclectic decades, you see an architecture that began fussy and uncoordinated, executed in materials that seemed resigned to such matters as Pittsburgh soot; and became lighter, simpler, more sensuous in its colors and textures, and more integrated in its details. It might be lushly elaborate, like the Cathedral of Learning, but the many details were acting more and more as parts of a unity as time progressed. For a while, domestic architecture displayed an addiction to quaintness, expressed in little towers and gabled entrances, crazy brickwork, battered slates. One may look at the houses of a 1920s suburb and wonder if such fantasy architecture was intended to blur the edges of reality for a people forbidden to relax over a Scotch or two after the business day. Apart from this Mother Goose domestic architecture, though, there was a trend toward simplification that the Depression probably furthered: Stripped Classicism for institutions, a bland Georgian for houses, a rather simplified Gothic for the churches. The 1930s witnessed completion of grand projects of the pre-Depression years, true: locally, the Cathedral of Learning, the Mellon Institute, and the East Liberty Presbyterian Church come to mind at once as lavish works of construction carried over.

Whether the price of materials and workmanship devitalized Eclecticism, or Modernist polemics, or some kind of inbred effeteness, it became a weak thing after 1940. All the Palladian windows and gables of the builders have added up to nearly nothing; they aim to be genteel, but lack taste, let alone inspiration.

Yet Eclecticism in some form is apt to return. Post-Modernism used Classical devices in an “ironic” way, and business architecture today seems to be given over to arbitrary composition and superficial ornamentation. More literacy where historical devices are involved might bring on a revival of styles and quasi-styles such as the economical ‘30s knew, if not the ampler ‘20s.

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