Meet The Famous Architect of Pittsburgh's First Iconic Buildings
Daniel Burnham designed more buildings in Pittsburgh than any other city outside of his native Chicago. Although a few have not survived the test of time, other icons he contributed to the Steel City landscape are enjoying a renaissance.
Long before anyone ever drove through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, Pittsburgh already had its grand gateway.
Visitors disembarking from their trains a century ago at Union Station — now The Pennsylvanian — first beheld downtown through an arched portico dazzlingly aglow with hundreds of incandescent bulbs. The graceful rotunda embodies “the flowing movement, the supple architecture of a swan, or a woman outlined in necklaces of brightness, in jewels of fire,” Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation co-founder James Van Trump wrote in 1968 in a pamphlet calling for its preservation. “There is nothing else quite like it in Pittsburgh.”
When the Pennsylvania Railroad resolved to build this new train station on Liberty Avenue in 1898 to replace one torched by rioters two decades earlier, they hired the most famous architect in America to design it: Daniel Burnham, the impresario of the Chicago World’s Fair, held five years earlier.
photos by chuck beard
This brick-and-terra cotta “Burnham Baroque” train station harks back to the Pennsylvania Railroad's heyday as the nation’s biggest. Burnham’s first plans called for a broad front entryway with five arches. He changed his mind, but later used a similar design on a much bigger scale for Union Station in Washington, D.C. The “Pittsburg” spelling in the portico came from a hotly contested, short-lived federal attempt to standardize city names. This building escaped the wrecking ball more than once, and it was a bus station for a time. Scars on the marble floor mark where turnstiles once counted passengers.
The White City, as the 1893 Columbian Exposition was popularly known, drew an astonishing 27 million visitors in the six months it was open. (By contrast, Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Fla., welcomed 19 million visitors in all of last year.) Spectators marveled at its innovations — Ferris’s wheel and Westinghouse’s lights being two notable Pittsburgh contributions — and strolled amid the grandeur of pale, floodlit Classical temples dedicated to art, industry and commerce, all arrayed around a lakefront lagoon. Burnham and his work at the World’s Fair later would be woven through the narrative of the 2004 non-fiction best-seller “The Devil in the White City.”
Burnham, a prominent Chicago architect and one of the first to design steel-framed skyscrapers, was director of works for the fair. Its success launched the Harvard and Yale reject to stardom never before seen in his profession. D.H. Burnham & Co., the first major modern architectural firm in America, would design more than 200 buildings across the country, spurred by its boss’s maxim: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”
As does his iconic Flatiron Building in New York, most of Burnham’s structures employ a mix of Roman and Renaissance motifs. Known as Beaux-Arts, the style became immensely popular after the 1893 World’s Fair, spawning a movement called City Beautiful.
Daniel Burnham’s first Pittsburgh building was this bank for Andrew Mellon and Henry Clay Frick. The bank later moved to much bigger digs on Grant Street, but the safe still is there and members can eat lunch in it. Frick introduced Mellon to his future wife in the year it was built. As Treasury Secretary in 1928, Mellon praised Burnham and City Beautiful: “If we can give to our office buildings something of the beauty of Gothic cathedrals or model our banks and railroad stations after Greek temples, we shall, in time, provide a magnificent setting for the requirements of modern civilization.”
Outside of Chicago, no other city in the world has as many Burnham buildings as Pittsburgh, where seven still stand today. And it was here, not Chicago, where Burnham built his tallest skyscrapers — fittingly financed by the Gilded Age barons who made their money turning out the girders used to erect these soaring new structures.
Inevitably, taller buildings with more modern silhouettes would eclipse Burnham’s creations in the Golden Triangle’s skyline. Some of the formerly celebrated skyscrapers would sit vacant or nearly so for years, even decades. But today, Burnham’s Pittsburgh skyscrapers are enjoying their renaissance. No longer a boarded-up derelict, the Highland Building in East Liberty now boasts full occupancy of its 99 luxury apartments. The Henry W. Oliver Building downtown, recently on the brink of default, soon will be the site of a 225-room Embassy Suites hotel opening this winter.
“I think people rediscovered the value of his buildings,” explains Rob Pfaffmann, who is renovating Burnham’s Frick Annex, now called the Allegheny Building, at 429 Forbes Ave.
An award-winning Pittsburgh architect from a family where architecture seems to run in the blood, Pfaffmann is the nephew of a former dean of the architecture college at Cornell University — and the great-great-grandson of Burnham himself. Pfaffmann says he tried for years to get a job renovating one of his legendary ancestor’s skyscrapers.
Now that he finally has his chance, he hopes to restore the Allegheny Building lobby to something resembling its original splendor when it opened in 1905.
“People want to be in a place that has a history, an authenticity, that has a story to tell,” he says. “A city like Houston or Dallas doesn’t have that legacy. That’s inspirational to a kid [here] building the next Google.”
Judy Perlow is among the smitten. “I love this place,” says the artist, showing a visitor around the Oliver Building renovation, where she is planning the lobby and room décor for the hotel scheduled to open in 2016. Perlow pays homage to Burnham, whose handiwork stretched from New York to Pittsburgh to Chicago to San Francisco, by including his image in a large silkscreen canvas that will hang over the hotel reception desk. She marvels at the ornate roofline cornice that will dominate the vista from the 25th-floor bar. “They don’t build like this anymore,” she says. “Every single detail is masterfully done, because it was done by a genius.”
You enter this building through the basement because a 15-foot “hump” of Grant Street was cut away a decade after its completion. Burnham criticized La Farge’s first drawing for his window, advising him to make Fortuna look more goddess-like and have her hair more windblown; the artist’s friend, Henry Adams, called the final result a “giddy, disheveled, voluptuous strumpet.” Alexander Proctor took so long to cast the bronze lions that Frick quizzed Burnham, “Is Proctor still living, as far as you know?” Doorknobs have an “F” design, and Frick’s luxurious shower on the 19th floor has nine control nozzles, including “spinal” and “liver.” The former private club, with its lavishly molded ceilings and breathtaking rooftop terraces, now holds the offices of Carnegie Learning; the original landlord surely would not be amused. At the Annex next door at 429 Forbes Ave., the Apollo Café ceiling shows off a bit of the original marble.
As Burnham began work on the train station drawings in 1898, the celebrated architect also was sketching plans for one of the railroad’s biggest shareholders, Henry Clay Frick. The “Coke King” had been so taken with the concept of the Chicago World’s Fair that he spent a small fortune to build a 50-foot, working-scale model of his Connellsville plant for it. After a fire destroyed his and Andrew Mellon’s Union Trust bank, Frick hired Burnham to design a Greek temple for them on Fourth Avenue, then Pittsburgh’s version of Wall Street.
A year later, the industrial titan asked Burnham to start drawing up plans for a new mansion for him in the East End with an art gallery to showcase his growing collection of Old Masters oils. “Nothing that has come to me since the World’s Fair has so interested me,” Burnham gushed in a letter to his client that fall.
Then all of a sudden, Frick had new priorities. He had reached a breaking point with his senior partner, Andrew Carnegie. Their relationship had first gone sour in the Homestead Strike of 1892, when an anarchist shot and stabbed Frick while Carnegie summered at a Scottish lodge. Now things had gotten even worse.
On Jan. 10, 1900, Carnegie walked into Frick’s office in the Carnegie Building — then the city’s tallest office tower, not yet 5 years old — and told his junior partner that, in addition to pushing Frick out of his chairmanship of the coke and steel businesses, he intended to trigger a clause forcing Frick to sell back his steel shares at far below market value.
Howling that Carnegie was a “goddamn thief,” Frick chased the 64-year-old out into the hallway, shaking his fists in fury and slamming the door.
They never spoke again. Frick sued, and within months a grudging settlement let him keep the shares but took away his executive duties. Meanwhile, Frick quietly bought the property on Grant Street next to the Carnegie Building. By that October, Burnham had a new job.
The 20-story slab of granite known as the Frick Building soon would throw a shadow over the Carnegie Building — and, unfortunately, the new courthouse across the street. Burnham brought in a favorite World’s Fair sculptor to cast two bronze lions for the Italian marble lobby. From John La Farge, then as famous as Tiffany, he commissioned an opalescent glass window of the goddess Fortuna on her wheel. The private Union Club on the top floor featured a rooftop promenade that became a favorite sightseeing perch for visiting VIPs — once a cinder-spewing smokestack on the Carnegie roof was extended high enough to stop choking the Frick’s top-floor tenants and club members.
Before a department store could be built, Oliver had to lease the land from First Presbyterian Church, which stood here, and pay to build a new church next to Trinity Cathedral. Many graves had to be dug up from the old burial ground and moved. Popular historian James Van Trump relished looking out over “the misty smoke-hung towers of downtown” from the ninth-floor dining room. McCreery’s closed in 1938, and the ninth floor now is stripped bare and vacant, but the room’s great Greek columns remain, as do the decorative ironwork stairway railings. Extensive remodeling in 1942 covered the street-level terra cotta scenes but added the stained-glass mural “The Puddler.”
Ironically, before the Frick Building opened in 1902, J.P. Morgan bought out Carnegie and created U.S. Steel. Frick remained an influential shareholder for the rest of his days and could watch from his 19th-floor office as workers shuttled on aerial walkways between his and Carnegie’s building (the walkways and the Carnegie Building later were demolished) as well as an annex Burnham built next door. Frick had seen it coming; he told Burnham to make allowances for the future walkways in his original plans.
The East End mansion and art gallery never happened in Pittsburgh — it moved to Fifth Avenue in New York, where Frick went with another architect. Burnham’s last project for him was the Highland Building in East Liberty. He also designed the immense stone in Homewood Cemetery marking the Frick family plot, carved from a single slab of pink Rhode Island granite.
Still, Burnham had plenty of other jobs to keep him busy. When fire destroyed the hall of the Western Pennsylvania Exposition Society on St. Patrick’s Day 1901, its leaders immediately sought the chief architect of the world’s most famous expo, conveniently in town to check on his train station and skyscraper. Burnham quickly agreed to produce a new blueprint. At opening night that September, thousands of grateful spectators jammed the expo’s new music hall to hear John Philip Sousa conduct an original march, “The Pride of Pittsburg.” (Burnham’s expo buildings later were torn down for Point State Park.)
This T-shaped lobby decked out in Italian marble and bronze is similar to the Frick building’s original configuration. “Harry” Oliver got rich manufacturing nuts and bolts, rolled the money into other ventures including iron mines and newspapers and was briefly touted for U.S. Senate (later, his brother George got the seat). The 20-ton, two-story, steel columns used for the base of this skyscraper arrived at the site hung beneath the axles of timber-wheeled, horse-drawn carts. When workers bolted the final column into place on top, they flew a 20-foot American flag from it.
Another industrial millionaire named Henry is the namesake of Burnham’s tallest skyscraper that still stands today — the 347-foot Henry W. Oliver Building. (Burnham’s tallest-ever building, the 387-foot First National Bank, stood a block away but was torn down to make room for One PNC Plaza.)
The men were acquainted from an 1896 sightseeing trip to Egypt, when the Olivers and Burnhams shared a train carriage along the Nile. In the frenzied year of 1901 — Burnham also designed a new plan for central Washington, D.C., and took a fact-finding tour of Europe that summer — he sketched out two skyscrapers for Oliver on opposite ends of a block between Smithfield and Wood streets. He tried to talk the tycoon into covering both with glazed terra cotta, which could be washed clean of soot and grime easily — a particular advantage in Pittsburgh. Oliver wasn’t convinced, and he told Burnham to build the smaller one first to see how it looked.
In January 1904, a Pittsburg Post reporter raved about Oliver’s 12-story McCreery & Co., then under construction, as the city’s first all-terra cotta building, heralding a “terra cotta age.” Oliver had scant time to enjoy his status as a visionary; he died a week later. His Wood Street department store, however, was an extravagant hit that fall. Among its amenities were furniture showrooms done up in Empire, Louis XV and Moorish styles, a 21-foot, climate-controlled fur vault, departments from millinery to corsets to automobile clothing and an army of 1,200 employees. Burnham soon would create even bigger and more lavish department stores, including Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia and New York, Filene’s in Boston and Selfridges in London. (The McCreery building now is GNC headquarters at 300 Sixth Ave.)
When Oliver’s heirs hired Burnham to do the taller skyscraper in 1909, the construction site became a scene of labor and racial animosity, along with several horrible accidents. Contractors pitted a black hoist operators union against a white one to drive down wages, touching off a strike. Newspapers that summer carried frequent reports of debris — and, in some cases, workers — tumbling from the scaffolding.
In something of a compromise for his deceased former client, Burnham kept the monumental building’s lower floors clad in granite. Above that base, the rest is terra cotta. The shaft of the structure rises austerely to the top floors, where it suddenly erupts into a decorative cap crowned by the cornice Perlow so adores. Seen this way, the entire building is an adaptation of an ancient form, the Greek column.
Frick’s third Burnham skyscraper is the only one the architect designed with an outward-flaring top story. He may have borrowed the idea from his Chicago rival Louis Sullivan. A 44-foot electric sign that extended the full width of the building once added virtually another four stories to the structure’s height. The property stood vacant for decades, and the interior was said to be in “a shambles” when the current owners began remodeling it for apartments. Much of the original marble was salvaged andrepurposed in the lobby and hallways.
When Burnham died in 1912, tributes from President Taft on down hailed him as the greatest architect of the era. As the years went by, though, City Beautiful fell out of fashion. Tastes turned to modern styles that embodied the machine age rather than borrowing from the distant past. The widely admired Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentor, savaged Burnham in Sullivan’s 1924 autobiography, claiming “the damage wrought from the World’s Fair will last for half a century.”
More recent scholars have sought to revive Burnham’s reputation. They draw attention to his talent for urban planning and for keeping his demanding capitalist clients happy with efficiently planned, profitable real-estate investments that also were beautiful. That’s the view of Pfaffmann, whose firm is located in the Benedum-Trees Building, another of Pittsburgh’s grand old skyscrapers. “Their history has something to teach us,” he says of these antiques fashioned from steel, bricks and stone. “They’re not obsolete yet. If we’re creative, they can have a new life.”
Mark Houser, the university editor and an adjunct professor at Robert Morris University, is a former longtime reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. His free audio walking tour of downtown is available in 11 languages at rmu.edu/tourpittsburgh.
Not There Anymore
1901 WESTERN PENNSYLVANIA EXPOSITION HALLS
Duquesne Way (now Point State Park)
A record crowd of 15,000 packed Burnham’s new expo buildings at the Point on opening day, Sept. 4, 1901. They heard a Sousa concert, rode the roller coaster, browsed the booths and saw newfangled wonders such as automobiles. The main hall became a skating rink after the last expo closed in 1915. Later, it was used as a city auto pound before its demolition to make way for Point State Park.
1909/1912 FIRST NATIONAL BANK
Fifth Avenue and Wood Street
When it first opened, this building was the same height as its four-story neighbors. That was temporary. Two years later, workers started stacking another 21 stories on top of the original bank — which stayed open throughout the work. Burnham died a few months after completion of this, his tallest skyscraper. It was torn down in 1969 for One PNC Plaza.