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Up on the Roof

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"At the Union Trust Building," my e-mail source stated simply, but with hushed excitement, "the penthouse space might have architectural significance."

 

 

Might?! The whole building is architecturally significant. Located at Fifth and Grant streets, it's Frederick Osterling's 1917 masterpiece for Henry Clay Frick, now officially known as Two Mellon Center. Its stunning 11-story atrium, even reduced from the consumerist delirium of its origins as a shopping arcade, remains an architectural extravaganza.

 

And the roof? There's a truly effusive iteration of Flemish Gothic revival in pitched roofs, traceries and dormer windows. It's this city's kinder, gentler, but equally virtuosic version of New York's befinialed Woolworth Building. Richardson's Allegheny County Courthouse might be Pittsburgh's most renowned structure, but this is your actual favorite. "Might be significant" indeed.

 

My e-mailer was right about one thing, though: Mysteries have always swirled about the upper reaches of Union Trust's roof. People will tell you still -- with the righteous whisper of a state secret -- that there is a castle up there. And because Catholic churches had preceded Osterling's building on this site, some insist that at least one curiously ecclesiastical gable up there was really a chapel, a homage Frick was contractually obligated to build. 

 

Architectural historian Jamie Van Trump debunked this notion in a 1966 essay. But he, too, marveled at how the building's fanciful roofline encouraged reverie. "Such realms of fantasy constitute not the least delightful dimension of architecture," he opined, in phrases as ornate as any ogee.

 

Now, though, a number of Pittsburgh's Downtown office buildings are slated for conversion -- not to Catholicism, but to condos. DeBartolo Holdings, the Union Trust's owner, told the Pittsburgh Business Times in 2005 that the building might undergo such a shift.

 

So far, DeBartolo has refrained from making an official announcement about its plans. But there was at least one mystery I could solve. Normally, I'm an architectural historian who seeks out facts with a rich historical narrative as my primary reward. Here, though, seemed to be an opportunity to discover an authentic secret of the ages, one with relevance to the current real-estate market.

 

I jumped in the car.

 

At the Union Trust Building, an annoyingly competent security guard thwarted my attempts to go beyond the duly designated public space. Undaunted, I crossed the street, and, emboldened by the increasingly mythic nature of my mission, breached the security of a nearby high-rise.

 

I went up the back stairs a few floors higher than is really allowed.

 

Lo and behold, from that height I could look right down onto the Union Trust. And Jamie Van Trump notwithstanding, the shifted perspective demystifies the roof just a bit. If those gables are chapels to anything, it's heating, ventilating and air-conditioning. The incongruous vents, when seen from above, palpably compromise the medieval quality that seems so convincing from below.

 

David Ross, a partner with The Design Alliance Architects, worked in one of the maybe-not-quite-so-mysterious gables when his firm rented space there more than 20 years ago. "There were small offices up there," he says, recalling elevator mechanisms and oddly impeding cross-braces. "From the inside, it was wacky, throwaway space," he laments.

 

No matter. The building is as stunning as ever. And if they ever do make this into condos, I want to live up there anyway.

 

By the way, my e-mailer was mistaken. It's the Union National Bank building, at Fourth and Wood streets, where developers are touting penthouse space with architectural significance. That project, now called "the Carlyle" and developed by the E.V. Bishoff Company, has condo units for sale. A 1906 structure by MacClure and Spahr, the Carlyle doesn't really have an architectural mythology. But it is part of the Fourth Avenue Historic District, and serves as a very handsome example of restrained classicism in early skyscraper design.

 

Today, its open secret is that the uppermost floor is a 6,000-square-foot penthouse, which will be custom-designed for the eventual tenant. Even unfinished, the view from up there looks like a million bucks. And it's priced accordingly: The developer is asking $1.2 million for it. 

 

Some fortunate person will build a dream for themselves at the Carlyle. But the city's architectural fantasies will still reside at the Union Trust.

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