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December 8, 2016

Campus architecture: Delighting in the details

The delight is in the details of the University’s Pittsburgh campus architecture. When we look up — way up — to the heights of the Cathedral of Learning or the spires of Heinz Chapel, we may miss what is really in front of our eyes: the details architects both famous and obscure designed for Pittsburgh campus buildings. Whether built as part of the 1907 Henry Hornbostel 30-building Acropolis plan to create the University’s Oakland campus following its move from the North Side, or acquired later from other local institutions, campus buildings sport gems of ornamentation and construction worth noticing and appreciating.

The University Times asked Pitt photographer Mike Drazdzinski to help us see the details we’re missing in buildings throughout campus. Christopher Drew Armstrong, director of architectural studies, agreed to act as tour guide.

“These buildings incorporate works of art,” Armstrong says. In fact, the architects and those who commissioned them “thought of architecture as a fine art … to enrich your life through its visual impact. These are not architects who are thinking in purely functional terms.” Most of the Pitt buildings shown here date from before World War II, many from the 1920s, when designers echoed classical forms of Greek and Roman antiquity, and adhered to the City Beautiful movement.

During this time period, “there’s a strong sense among elites, who can commission architecture, that it should be visually enriching,” Armstrong explains. They also hoped to bring American cities up to European standards, seeing the city itself as a work of art — an environment where citizens encounter beauty.

Looking at architecture, we shouldn’t get bogged down trying to figure out which type of plant or species of animal is part of the design, Armstrong cautions. While the creatures and vegetation depicted in stone can sometimes tell a story or prompt us to think of other, more famous structures, “it’s really the contrast in light and shadow,” the pure visual experience, that we are most meant to appreciate.

—Marty Levine 



architectural details of campus buildings,218318,October 2016,Bellfield Hall

Arching above the entrance to Bellefield Hall — formerly the Young Men’s and Women’s Hebrew Association, designed by Benno Janssen in 1924 — is a shield with the organization’s initials, a medusa’s head and strap work resembling cut leather. Incised areas, creating shadows within the shield, are designed to create a sense of depth. But the shield and arched portal, in a dull, solid, pale limestone, make the real star of the building stand out even more, Armstrong says: the brick work. Here, unusually thin, long bricks, ranging from beige to brown-red and grey, are used to create long horizontal visual lines. Pairs of bricks abut with no mortar at regular intervals, to give even more sense of the horizontal, with smaller bricks punctuating the surface in between. Farther up, a set of bricks zigzags across the building face. Armstrong calls the effect “subtle and innovative … I don’t know of anything like this in Pittsburgh. This is very sophisticated.”




architectural details of campus buildings,218318,October 2016,Eberly Hall

The eagle perched atop Eberly Hall is, of course, a very powerful signal of proud Americanism amid all the classical references of this classical structure, designed as Pitt’s original Alumni Hall in 1921 by Benno Janssen. It was a response to a new influx of students being trained on university campuses during World War I, and thus reflects “a self-conscious U.S. triumphalism,” Armstrong says, similar to the Federal Reserve and other government buildings that were built over the next decade in Washington, D.C. Such structures don’t feature standalone columns, but rather more spare, column-like facades. “No finicky fooling around in these buildings,” he says.




architectural details of campus buildings,218318,October 2016,Alumni Hall

Near the roof of Alumni Hall — built as the Masonic Temple in 1915, at the height of America’s infatuation with classicism — is a design containing few shapes the non-mason is meant to recognize, apart from leaves and vines. In fact the entire building was designed to seem impenetrable and forbidding, Armstrong says, down to its lack of many visible windows. It is the work of Benno Janssen, who designed Bellefield Hall as well as the nearby Pittsburgh Athletic Association and Downtown’s Omni William Penn Hotel. The sculptors’ work is quite fine, Armstrong notes, fitting with Janssen’s application of a classical system that dictated the building’s proportions, down to the space between the column tops and the roof.




Campus overall from CMU,218165,August 19 2016

This design detail appears around the door of the addition to the Music Building. It copies ornamentation on the original structure, which was designed in 1884 by Longfellow, Alden and Harlow as the home of William J. Holland, minister of Bellefield Presbyterian Church (the church’s original spire, in the same style, remains where the church once stood across the street) and later Pitt chancellor (1891-1901). But Armstrong says it is the masonry around the details that most impresses. It was done in Richardson Romanesque, named for H. H. Richardson, who designed the Allegheny County Courthouse, and whose work was taken over by this architectural firm upon Richardson’s death. It uses large, roughly finished stone in irregular rectangles, with most windows and doors unframed, producing an image of massive solidity. “They were searching for a kind of American style,” reflecting the vastness of the continent, he says. The few details stand out all the more against such stone.




architectural details of campus buildings,218318,October 2016,Thaw Hall

The details near the top of Thaw Hall were never meant to be seen this close up. The Beaux Arts design of Henry Hornbostel’s 1910 structure — the only one remaining from the Acropolis plan — has details derived from ancient Roman models but which are meant to be seen as larger shapes and shadows, hence the deep undercuts in the design. “This is powerful stuff,” Armstrong says. “He’s understanding that this is a major civic building that is going to be part of a set of buildings.”




architectural details of campus buildings,218318,October 2016,Gardner Steel

Gardner Steel Conference Center hardly stands out at the corner of Thackeray and O’Hara streets, but Armstrong calls its details “amazing.” The building began life in 1912 as home to a German-American social and athletic club, and was designed by German-born Richard Kiehnel, who had set up shop in Morningside in the early 1900s. In contrast to Alumni Hall’s curvy design elements, here the capital ornamentation over the entrance doors is reduced to a series of blocks, resembling Frank Lloyd Wright’s detailing from the same era. Most extraordinary, Armstrong says, are the wave-like shapes repeated across the cornice, at the top of the lintel, which likely derive from the German art nouveau movement, called “jugendstil.” For its time, he says, these details represented “a renewal of design.”






Amos Hall is part of Schenley Quadrangle and dates to 1924, when it opened as apartments for the well off who wanted to live near the city’s cultural institutions, from the Carnegie museums to Schenley Park. Apartment living was then the height of luxury, and the rooftop vase with a ram’s head and grape-leaf motif was meant to signify wine, leisure and the enjoyment of fine things. The building was designed by Hornbostel, who trained in Paris at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts, the premier place in the early 1900s for Americans hoping to become sophisticated designers. “Details like this matter to this architect, because he’s thinking of his building as a complete classical grouping” with nearby residences that also became Pitt buildings eventually, Armstrong points out. Amos Hall was built by developer Franklin Nicola, who also built the Schenley Hotel (now the William Pitt Union). “This was a tony neighborhood, so all of this architecture contributes to that high-quality environment,” Armstrong says.





This coin-like low-relief of coal magnate Henry Clay Frick is directly over the front entrance of the Frick Fine Arts Building, commissioned in 1965 as an homage to Frick’s art patronage by his daughter Helen. The portrait medallion is meant to convey the idea that the entire building is a work of art, Armstrong says. “It’s also a way of resuscitating his image, that he was not just a ruthless businessman,” he says of Henry. It was sculpted by Malvina Hoffman, a student of Auguste Rodin, which gave her the same imprimatur Hornbostel received for his Paris studies. Hoffman was later commissioned by the Field Museum of Chicago to sculpt “The Races of Mankind,” once considered a didactic illustration of immutable realities, now a curio from a different age.





Atop Allen Hall, built in 1914, is ornamentation inspired by Roman detailing, since Roman and Greek architecture was seen as “the touchstone of sophistication, elegance and beauty,” Armstrong says. The winged griffins, curling plant tendrils and urns are in a style called the Grotesque. That doesn’t signify any lack of esthetic beauty, he says — rather, it means these images reflect artifacts found in the caves, or grottoes, of ancient Italy and Greece. This example is meant to fit in with Hornbostel’s Acropolis idea of monumental public structures.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 49 Issue 8

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