Two newly reused Braddock church buildings recall the legacy of a wildly original local architect. | Architecture | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Two newly reused Braddock church buildings recall the legacy of a wildly original local architect.

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Braddock is as good a place as any for a rediscovery of the paradoxical and deeply unlikely. Here, amid some particularly acute urban decay that typifies the nearly extinct steel industry, a steel mill -- Andrew Carnegie's Edgar Thomson Works -- still operates, though with a workforce greatly reduced from Braddock's heyday. Meanwhile, the efforts at cultural and economic revival have resulted in exciting but odd juxtapositions, such as urban cornfields and colonizing bands of Brooklynite hipsters increasingly leavening the sometimes bleak townscape. It's all just about appropriately weird enough for a rediscovery of architect Titus de Bobula.

Braddock Deputy Mayor Jeb Feldman rediscovered de Bobula as part of a real-estate transaction. In 2007, Feldman purchased two structures, the former St. Michael's Catholic school and parish house, at 1135 and 1137 Braddock Ave., to stop their rapidly advancing decay and to reuse them as arts-exhibition and studio space and housing for visiting artists. When he researched the properties, he discovered that de Bobula was their original architect.

Only hints remain in the Braddock buildings, but Titus de Bobula was the Pittsburgh area's most wildly original architect at the turn of the 20th century. Born in Budapest in 1878, he came to Pittsburgh in 1903 to design what was eventually a series of mostly ecclesiastical structures.

While many Pittsburgh architects of the day engaged the obligatory but laborious hauteur of classical or gothic revival styles, de Bobula was best described as a Secessionist -- not so much a direct follower of Otto Wagner in Vienna, but a designer who searched for novelty in wild-eyed concoctions of classicism with liberal dollops of Art Nouveau geometry.

There would have been some of that adventurousness in Braddock had the school been built with an eccentric dome that it wears in an early rendering. As it stands, only some curious lancet windows on the façade indicate its Central European pedigree. But other especially vivid examples of rampant de Bobulism survive.

One of the best is in Munhall. His building for St. John's Byzantine Catholic Cathedral, of 1903 (now the National Carpatho-Rusyn Cultural and Educational Center), has curiously rough arches at the base, from which emphatically vertical towers rise to 125 feet with shafts of delicately layered and detailed masonry, topped by copper cupolas. De Bobula wrote emphatically about developing uniquely American architecture. This building well suits an America full of Eastern European immigrants.

Another favorite, this one in Carnegie, is St. Peter & Paul Russian (now Ukrainian Orthodox) Greek Orthodox, of 1906, which sports especially ornate onion domes, supported by masonry that seems to contemplate a future of hard-edged, abstract art.

These buildings are stunningly eccentric, fascinating in and of themselves. For de Bobula, though, the architectural eccentricities were apparently just a warmup. In 1910, he married Eurania Dinkey Mock, a niece of the wife of steel magnate Charles Schwab. De Bobula later unsuccessfully sued Schwab for libel after the industrialist expressed desire to throw him out a window, perhaps one of a curvilinear Secessionist variety. De Bobula was also sued not once but twice by hapless laggards who couldn't avoid the path of his speeding automobile.

His pinnacle of fame occurred in 1923 when, as recounted in the New York Times, he was arrested in Hungary for attempting to overthrow the government. Few details of the plot survive, except that United States government officials secured his safe release.

Back in the United States, de Bobula worked for a time as an arms dealer, though allegations that he sold poison-gas grenades in the Southwest, mentioned in one of his many lawsuits, remain unproven. His career took a turn toward science fiction in the 1930s, when he worked for famed Serbian inventor Nicola Tesla, designing a tower, power plant and housing for the inventor's "impenetrable shield between nations."

Although de Bobula died in 1961, his legacy is not completely lost. In addition to several surviving structures, his works appear in the late Walter Kidney's Landmark Architecture of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, and Al Tannler, of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, published a feature article on de Bobula's work for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2003. Also, Carnegie Mellon University architecture archivist Martin Aurand shared with me his extensive de Bobula files.

Any opportunity to revisit de Bobula's work is an opportunity to encourage adventurous, eccentric and worldly architecture.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the current  use of the former St. John's Byzantine Catholic Cathedral.

Delicate and detailed: de Bobula's St. John's Byzantine Catholic Church, in Munhall. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Delicate and detailed: de Bobula's St. John's Byzantine Catholic Church, in Munhall.

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