Art Deco style survives in Pittsburgh — if you look around
By John Conti
Published: Saturday, May 4, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
The optimism of the must have been a thing to behold. That was an exuberant age that Nick, Daisy and Jay Gatsby lived in.
So many things were changing so fast. In that decade, the automobile became commonplace. Radio broadcasting began for the first time. Suddenly, airplanes were being flown across the Atlantic. And styles of dress, manners and even morals changed forever.
It's probably fitting that the decade also inspired a radical change in architecture, as artists of every sort endeavored to find new forms and new styles that would be appropriate to the new age.
One of the most fascinating — and fleeting — of those styles was what came to be called Art Deco. Neither totally new nor totally old, Art Deco architecture, while modernistic in many respects, was anything but plain. Art Deco buildings showed all sorts of vigorous and colorful ornamentation, inside and out. Bold patterns characterized the style, with zigzags, chevrons, fleurs-de-lis, and almost any other kind of geometrical decoration that suited an architect's whims.
Art Deco was everywhere in the prosperous Pittsburgh of the era, influencing everything from humble gas stations or corner drugstores to what were, at the time, the tallest skyscrapers Downtown. Movie theaters, automobile dealerships, diners and retail stores that were intended to be both modern and crowd-pleasing were examples of the trend. The first floor of Kaufmann's (now Macy's) department store was once all lavish Art Deco, though it has long since been restyled.
Today, probably the finest local example of well-preserved Art Deco architecture, inside and out, is the 32-story Koppers Building, which opened Downtown in 1929. The Gulf Building across the street, which opened three years later, is also Art Deco in style, although it is less exuberantly so.
The Urban Room on the 17th floor of the Omni William Penn hotel is an Art Deco masterpiece. Paneled with black carrara glass and brass trim, it was designed by Joseph Urban, a New York stage set designer. The main terminal at the Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin is an energetic exercise in the style. And the old Isaly's headquarters building on the Boulevard of the Allies in Oakland (now being used by Magee Women's Hospital) was once all Art Deco. Even governments got into the act. The well-preserved municipal building in Mt. Lebanon was built in full-blown Art Deco style in 1929 after modern-minded town commissioners rejected a traditional Colonial design.
But very few of the theaters and stores of the era survive, most having been updated to newer styles over the years. You usually have to look above today's storefronts to the second and third stories of the commercial buildings that line the main streets of the region to see Art Deco details intact.
It's not that way at the Koppers Building.
There, the Art Deco style is intact inside and out. Its three-story-high lobby is resplendent. All the original marble (a creamy white with mostly tan veining and some green and red accents) and virtually all the original Art Deco detailing is still there. Brightly painted gold, green and red cornices, pressed with a chevron design, outline each section of ceiling. Bronze balustrades, featuring an Art Deco adaptation of a fleur-de-lis, line the balconies in the lobby, while clocks, light fixtures, elevator doors and even a lobby mailbox (which features a somewhat whimsical replication of the building's steeply pitched copper roof) are all original illustrations of the style.
The only significantly discordant feature of this amazing lobby is the quality of the light. Some years back, in the quest for energy efficiency, the light fixtures were re-lamped with fluorescent bulbs that give a cold bluish-white cast to much of the interior, dampening the color of the marble and cornices and even the luster of the bronze. Hopefully, these cold lights can be replaced someday by even more efficient LEDs that can match the warmth of the incandescent bulbs that were once there. Using lightbulbs suitable for a factory or warehouse in such a sumptuous interior is a big mistake.
Still, bad lighting or not, this is as rigorously designed as any Art Deco interior you might want to see. The architects were Graham, Anderson, Probst and White of Chicago.
Art Deco had its beginnings in the early 1920s, but didn't get its name until after 1925 when a Paris World's Fair called the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs highlighted the style in industrial and graphic design and architecture. As the name implies, Art Deco was almost entirely a matter of decoration. And architects sometimes abstracted ancient Persian, Moorish, Egyptian, Mayan or Native American elements for Art Deco, too. Indeed, the stepped pyramidal tops of the Gulf Building and the Mt. Lebanon Municipal Building reflect a Persian motif quite well.
In any case, Art Deco did not last long, having waned in popularity by the mid-1930s. And it had little influence on residential designs. Still, its presence was spectacular and its charm is enduring. The Chrysler and Empire State buildings in New York City, built in 1930 and ‘31 respectively, are among its most world-famous examples.
John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.
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