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FYIAppearance: looking good

Builders use line, shape, space, color, and texture to communicate ideas or please the eye.

  1. A matter of style
  2. Houses: Keeping up appearances
  3. Company towns and suburbs
  4. Architect-designed houses
  5. Style detective work

Bridges and Buildings

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A matter of style

Of course, a building's appearance relies on more than structural requirements and the functions taking place within. Like all artists, architects manipulate the basic art elements of line, shape and space, color, and texture, and sometimes embellish the basic shapes of their designs with ornamentation. Styles—the "fashion" of architecture—develop around how individual architects and other untrained builders put all of these pieces together. Housing styles also reflect the influences of the community, the owner's affluence and tastes, the availability of plans and materials, and social and political factors of the day.

Houses are a great place to start a study of appearance and style, since they are so varied and close at hand. It also helps that everyone has intimate knowledge of his or her own house, and is an unacknowledged authority about how it works! We'll use examples from Houses Around Here, but houses are well-represented in many of the other neighborhood programs and you can easily substitute segments one of those.

Houses: Keeping up appearances

All houses, from one-room log houses to high-rise apartments to mansions, essentially function as containers for family life. So the shape and embellishment of these houses and how they are arranged into neighborhoods gives us a wealth of information about the people who live inside, and the communities they belonged to. For example, the Greek Revival and Italianate row houses lining the Mexican War Streets of the North Side or the steep stairways of the South Side Slopes are a clue to their origins in a time when everyone was a pedestrian and walked to work, school, and shops nearby. Their compact size kept walking distances short and allowed many families to live in a neighborhood. Their styles were easy for carpenters to adapt to different building types without the help of scarce professional architects.

Jim Judkis for Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

Vernacular houses individualized over time, cling to the South Side Slopes.

Detached houses, on the other hand, like those found in the suburbs, are larger with grassy lawns surrounding them. These houses were built for middle class families who around 1900 began moving out of the city into the more spacious suburbs, like Wilkinsburg, Knoxville, Westview, or Dormont. They commuted downtown to work by train or trolley. (See Rivers and Valleys for more about transportation and geographical development.)

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

Knoxville was originally a "streetcar suburb" where middle class families moved in the 1890s through the 1910s to enjoy larger houses and greener lots.

The houses of these more affluent families Highland Park and Shadyside showcase some of the ornate styles that were popular during Victorian times: Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, Second Empire, Romanesque, and Colonial Revival.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

Suburbs that developed around 1900 were a showcase of Victorian architectural styles. It was an age of exurberant embellishment, multiple texture, peaked towers and broad porches, dormers, cupolas, and bay windows galore!

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Company towns

Outside of the city, company houses were common in the days of coal mining and steel production. They were given that name because the houses – long economical rows of identical structures – were built and owned by the company who owned the mines. Company managers found this device an effective method of control over immigrant workers who might consider quitting (i.e., you quit your job, you lose your house). The almost style-less style of most company houses and similar utilitarian houses is often called the Vernacular style, meaning it is a common, simple design built by carpenters or homeowners untrained as architects. These structures still exist in Pittsburgh's surrounding areas, and families still live in them -- although they no longer are controlled by the mining companies, most of which are defunct, and their new owners spend quite a bit of effort making them uniquely theirs.


Susan Donley

Company houses, like these in Vintondale, were built identically with economy in mind, but owners still found ways to make them their own (top). Bottom: Immigrant miners built their domed orthodox church in the highest point on a steep street.


The suburbs

Middle class families in the early and mid 20th century had several interesting options for making a move to the suburbs. Swift, the local company that originated a way of selling and building "pre-fab" houses, allowed customers to pick from several styles ranging from "revival" styles like, like Cape Cod, Colonial, and Tudor to International Style-inspired ranch houses. Swift homes became extremely popular in the 1950's and were being built in 28 states throughout America. Ultimately, more than 300,000 Swift homes were built worldwide.

Another example of Pittsburgh's lasting contribution to the development of suburbia was Chatham Village, on Mt. Washington. Built in the 1930's, it is one of the earliest examples of planned communities. This concept of planned communities can be attributed to the Buhl Foundation, who wanted to build garden communities for people of moderate incomes. It was such a success that Chatham Village became a model for planned communities around the world.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

Chatham Village, on the top Mt. Washington, was a model of planned middle class community in the 1930s. 197 housing units shared a common space in the middle with walkways closed to traffic. Its style was eclectic: it borrowed from several styles.

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Architect-designed houses

The houses in planned communities, if not exactly identical in appearance, at least bear a strong family resemblance. At the opposite end of the spectrum were the unique features of houses designed by Pittsburgh architects, including Frederick Scheibler, Frederick Sauer, Frederick Osterling, and Walter Roberts.

Like people, houses often change over time to reflect growing or diminishing status. In 1892, a respectable upper middle class brick house underwent an appearance "upgrade" at the hand of architect Frederick Osterling to match the increasing fortunes of its owners. The result was Clayton, the grand mansion in Point Breeze that served as home to industrialist Henry Clay Frick and his family from 1882 to 1905. The home has been restored and today holds many original Frick family treasures, perfectly preserving life as it had been for Pittsburgh's privileged classes at the turn of the century. Clayton opened to the public as a museum in 1990, and through photos and artifacts, visitors can trace the growth of the region through industry and social customs. The Fricks, by the way, moved on to an even bigger mansion in New York.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

Clayton, the home of Henry C. Frick, is now restored and open to the public in Point Breeze. At the time it was remodeled in 1892, the surrounding neighborhood was home to the mansions of the likes of the Mellons, George Westinghouse, and Andrew Carnegie.

Less ostentatious, but just as unique is the work of several twentieth century architects who had a fondness for designing houses. One unique dwelling is a collection of stone castles in Aspinwall that has been renovated into apartment buildings – but the unique style paid homage the castles in the homeland of the buildings' architect, Frederick Sauer. Sauer immigrated to Pittsburgh from Heidelberg, Germany, in the early 1900's – just one example of how immigrants helped to shape the look of the city by bringing with them a little bit of home.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

"The Castle," in Aspinwall, was architect Frederick Sauer's intepretation of the architecture of his German homeland.

Architect Frederick Scheibler was a rare architect who actually enjoyed working on middle class and low-income housing, as well as houses for higher-paying clients. The Old Heidelberg Apartments in Point Breeze, his largest work, combines Modern shapes and textures (stucco) with classic ornamentation like tile decorations and eyebrow dormers. It works! Today, there is almost a waiting list of people who want to live in it! Scheibler is just now being recognized for being a pioneer of Modern architecture.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

The Hellmund House (1915-16, Swissvale) shows architect Frederick Scheibler's experimentation with Modern style elements-- asymmetry, unusual combinations of colors, textures, and geometric shapes.

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Style detective work

Regardless of designer, the appearance of the tiniest city row house with scrubbed stoop and beautifully planted window boxes or the sprawling suburban estate with manicured lawn and stone Colonial Revival house—tells much about the values and attitudes of the people who built them and lived in them.

Savvy "architectural detectives" can guess when a house was built almost entirely by its appearance. Just as you can date your family photos by the clothes people were wearing in them, you can learn to judge the age of buildings by learning their styles. Architectural styles are the fads and fashions of the built environment and with a little practice you'll be able to identify those rounded stone arches as 1890s Richardson Romanesque as surely as you peg those 1970-era bell-bottom jeans! Try guessing the age of buildings in your hometown with this [link] Architectural Timeline of southwestern Pennsylvania.

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Bridges and Buildings