Style is Forever, Trends in Pittsburgh Architecture and Decoration

House at Bridgewater, PA
House at Bridgewater, PA

Chicago Hotelier Bertha Palmer is said to have coined the phrase “fashion is fleeting, but style is eternal.” In Pittsburgh the definition of fleeting may be a little longer than in Palmer’s Chicago and to a New York observer, styles in Pittsburgh may certainly have seemed at times to verge on the eternal.

If there’s one truism that runs through art, architecture and the decorative arts in Pittsburgh it’s that new styles were adopted later than in other cities. Someone with a background in nineteenth-century designs in New York or Philadelphia may at first place buildings and furniture from Pittsburgh a decade or more before its actual time of creation.

This fact is likely a testament to the state of communication before 1850. It may also be a testament to the conservative nature of the populous.

By the 1840s, the simple lines of Greek Revival became unsatisfying to New Yorkers wanting architecture to reflect the city’s unparalleled wealth. The Italianate style offered flamboyance Greek Revival could not. Pittsburghers were not in such a rush for flamboyance, however. Elements of the Greek Revival in architecture lasted at least until 1860. Likewise when the prominence of the Italianate style in New York had met its demise in the mid 1870s, Pittsburgh was busy building with it.

One such example of the persistence of the Greek revival in Pittsburgh is a house in East Allegheny built in 1859 in what was then Allegheny City. The home was built by Henry Charles, a carpenter who built interior staircases for homes. The home is of a moderate size and has a curious blend of Greek Revival and Italianate details.

On the outside the home has a face of only two stories, while someone designing a typical Greek Revival home would have probably had a third story. The roof peak is very shallow, however and does not have any dormers in the attic, which would suggest the designer was aiming for a Greek revival look. It would have been easy to extend the height of the roof line and brought additional living space. A full third-floor may have been emitted for considerations of cost.

520The doorway consists of two columns and a pediment. Meanwhile the corbels with leaf carving on both the doorway and under the roof eave are Italianate. It was not uncommon for Italianate houses in Pittsburgh to retain traces of Greek Revival decoration, or as may be partially the case here, for Greek revival houses to be dotted with Italianate details. Two vertical panels on the front door are repeated in the molding on either side of the door. The vertical panels are topped by an arch, an element at home in both Italiantate and Federal styles, but less common in Greek Revival.

Once inside, a small foyer includes an interior door with two side lights and again the rounded pattern is repeated in two windows in the door. The windows are only in the upper half of the door, however. Below them is a Greek key pattern that is repeated on the inside of the door.

The parlor, as well as then ceiling in the entry way contains a ceiling cornice with perforated moldings. This design resembles that in earlier homes built in a Greek revival style including the Merchants House in New York City, built in 1832. An elaborate ceiling medallion in a leaf design centers the parlor ceiling.

The home also contains a side door built with side lights and a transom window that appears to have origins in Greek revival architecture.

The design with a side hall would suggest roots in an Italianate design for a much larger house. With only six rooms and no third floor, taking space for a side hall seems unreasonable, yet its clear from the low pitch to the room and side hall, space was not a primary consideration.

The curved stairway is centered by a statuary niche that again repeats the curved pattern of the door panels and interior door windows. Also preceding even Greek Revival, the use of a statuary niche in the stairway is seen in Boston’s Nichols House built in 1803 attributed to architect Charles Bulfinch and, being a common element, the niche has been observed in many later homes in Brooklyn, NY and elsewhere.

The use of wood in the homes mantles is somewhat of an oddity considering the extra attention given to form at the expense of space. It may be that Henry Charles, a carpenter, chose to use wood because it was the material he was accustomed to working with. Later Charles would own a planing mill that manufactured moldings, but the house pre-dates the mill. The mantles are simple in form and have squared openings.

The woodwork in the house has diagonally mitered corners, a feature consistent with Italianate homes.

The obvious sacrificing of space to form is curious considering Charles moved into the house with his wife Margaret and three Children, Mary, Margaret and Elizabeth in 1860. Widowed in the 1860s, Charles would live with his second wife, Celeste and three more children until 1875.

The period of Italianate architecture was nearing its end in New York when John and Sarah Arthurs had a house built along the Ohio River outside of Pittsburgh in what was probably a speculative venture around 1873. The features of Italianate utilized in this home suggest a mid-period of Italianate architecture in Pittsburgh.

Like Charles, Arthur was a carpenter, yet apparently retired from the profession to work as a clerk by the Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds before returning to carpentry sometime after 1865 and would work as a carpenter until at least 1870.

The house constructed by or for Arthurs is now known as the Arthurs-Johnson house. The house has many elements consistent with suburban Italianate architecture including the shape, four panel doors, plaster cornices and non-symmetrical door and window trim with diagonally mitered corners.

Baker's Mansion, Altoona, Pa
Baker's Mansion, Altoona, Pa

This is not to say all architectural examples in Pittsburgh were built after they were going out of style in eastern counterpart cities. It is however unlikely that early example of a given style existed in Pittsburgh. Other examples of Greek Revival architecture in Pittsburgh were to be found when the style was in its prime including Picnic House (1835) , the Samuel Church House (Woodlawn) 1833, the Judge William Wilkins House (Homewood) 1835 and a little farther to the east the Elias Baker House built in Altoona relatively late (1844). Unfortunately only the Elias Baker House still exists.

Trends in architecture are not unlike trends in furniture styles and cabinet-making, however styles were slower to be adapted and lingered longer in Pittsburgh than elsewhere.

About Art After X

With the death of President Kennedy in 1963, America changed. As hard as it is to minimize that sentiment, the effect of Dallas was even greater. The same year saw the merging of the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts, which had been central to the art scene, and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Douglas MacAgy, then the director of DMCA, not only opposed the merger, but also declined to directorship of the combined museum. The regionalist movement which had been strong for decades, was giving way to more of an interest in what was going on nationally, and internationally. Like it or not, Dallas was on the national stage. When the Kennedy’s arrived in Fort Worth, local collectors had decorated a hotel room with internationally-renowned works. While the president and his wife learned a great deal about the ability of Texans to collect major art, there was little they could glean about the local scene in this era-defining city. With this in mind, we have begun a project to look not back at the art scene in Dallas, but foreword from 1963. We are interviewing gallery owners, curators and others involved in the art scene then, but this will be a story told mostly through interviews with artists active in the city from that point into the 1980s. The result will be a book with a video component. We hope you will join us in our journey. The hashtag for the project is #artafterx and the url artafterx.com will point to the latest updates on this weblog.

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