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Building Awareness

An architectural historian's take on the city's best buildings

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Pittsburgh has been, arguably, slow to appreciate the power of good architecture. Just ask Frank Toker.

"I [saw] this brochure talking about the Blockhouse at the Point," the University of Pittsburgh professor says, of the small stone building that is Pittsburgh's oldest still-standing structure. "Yeah, we were putting up the Blockhouse, and Philly was building Independence Hall."

But Toker -- who literally wrote the book on Pittsburgh architecture with his 1986 work, Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait -- says the city's charms are all around us, built into the neighborhoods: "That's the strength of the city."

While many Pittsburghers are impressed by grand gestures (like Pitt's Cathedral of Learning) and Downtown giants (Philip Johnson's postmodern PPG Place is a perennial favorite), you won't need us to point them out. But Toker says some of the city's best buildings are smaller, and easy to miss if you don't know where to look.

A recycled garage, the Lubetz Architectural Office (357 N. Craig Street, Oakland), is "a small, powerful building with a strong street façade and three whimsical doghouse gables facing a parking lot on the right," Toker writes. The building's whimsy is also evident in the exposed, upside-down stairs on its front, which call to mind M.C. Escher.

Toker says it's "perhaps the first postmodern building in Pittsburgh," though he notes "the word ‘postmodern' is going out of the vocabulary." (In fact, he's removing the word in the 2009 update of his book, now titled Pittsburgh: A New Portrait.)

The WQED television and radio studios (4802 Fifth Ave., Oakland) are not far away. Passersby may be tempted to dismiss the building as a slab-sided bunker, but Toker says it warrants a second look. "The concrete was poured with such care that its every joint is a small poetic statement," he contends. "[T]he whole design present[s] educational television as the equivalent of the libraries, colleges and churches that upheld civilization in the past."

Pittsburgh also offers many excellent examples of residential design. In Shadyside there are the Highland Towers (340 S. Highland Ave.), in which Toker finds Japanese and Dutch influences. What's more, according to Toker, the Towers show architect Frederick Scheibler Jr. "at the point in his career when he was most influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright [made evident in] the proportioning ... and the use of decorative tiles on the building."

Not all of Toker's favorites are so steeped in tradition -- in fact, some were built after he first published his book. Built on one end of a resurgent Penn Avenue corridor, the 60-unit senior facility Fairmount Apartments (Fairmount and Penn avenues, Garfield) dwarfs some of the smaller-scale buildings nearby, but the glass-window first floor keeps them from becoming intimidating. "The colors are lively, the rhythm of the façade is great ... and this is subsidized housing!" Toker exclaims. "It's not the old, ‘Let's stick people in there.'"

Fairmount is a worthy successor to a 1930s-vintage housing project known as Chatham Village, in Mount Washington. Built as affordable housing and featuring some 197 townhouses and 19 apartments, the community was mapped out on "ground so hilly that it was regarded as unbuildable," Toker writes. But thanks to brilliant design by its creator, the Buhl Foundation, the project became a model for all federally assisted housing development. Even today, its property manager boasts, accurately, that it combines "the charm of an English country village with the convenience of urban living." But if you're looking for sheer knock-your-socks-off buildings, Toker acknowledges, you've got to go Downtown.

The Omni William Penn Hotel (530 William Penn Place) exudes old-world money. Industrialist Henry Clay Frick, who built it, "vowed that this would be the finest hotel in the country," Toker writes. And the elegance of Frick's vision remains. Make sure to go inside -- especially to the Urban Room, an Art Deco masterpiece on the 17th floor -- for the full effect.

But Frick wouldn't have been an industrial magnate if he'd settled on just one Downtown tower. Toker says another of his buildings, the nearby Union Trust Building (535 Grant St.), is "without question the most glamorous of Pittsburgh's Downtown buildings" -- at least on the inside. There, a "stained-glass Cyclops eye still glowers from the top of the central light well, 10 stories high." Outside, "the roofline is lively without being busy ... with two chapel-like elevator shafts poking out at the top." (You may hear locals insist these actually are chapels; they're not.)

And then there's the dean of Downtown buildings: H.H. Richardson's Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail (436 Grant St.). "To many critics [it] is the most distinguished American building of the nineteenth century," Toker writes. "Some architects ... go farther and call it flat out the best building in the United States." Built in the 1880s, the courthouse wraps around a cozy courtyard, and is built to "the basic concept and shape of a Renaissance palace" Toker writes.

But most importantly, Toker adds, "The courthouse does not merely stand in Pittsburgh -- it is about Pittsburgh." Like the rest of Pittsburgh's landscape, it is a marriage of the many historical, political and philosophical forces that created this city.

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