Hornbostel put his stamp on Pittsburgh with building designs

Looking from the Fine Arts Building at Carnegie Mellon University in Oakland, the Mall is lined with buildings designed by New York architect Henry Hornbostel, as photographed on December 3, 2013.
Looking from the Fine Arts Building at Carnegie Mellon University in Oakland, the Mall is lined with buildings designed by New York architect Henry Hornbostel, as photographed on December 3, 2013.
Photo by Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
John Conti
| Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Henry Hornbostel happened on Pittsburgh at just the right time.

Trained in architecture at the famous Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and practicing architecture in New York, he won a competition to design the campus of a new technical school that Andrew Carnegie planned to build on a sloping hillside site in Oakland.

It was 1904 and at the height of America's enthusiasm for the Beaux Arts and the resulting City Beautiful movement.

The Beaux Arts style emphasized florid decoration of buildings styled much like Greek and Roman temples, while the City Beautiful movement called for such stately buildings to be grouped in relation to each other around formal, landscaped open spaces.

The result was the historic main quadrangle of what is now Carnegie Mellon University, a broad, sloping lawn from which you can look out toward the center of Oakland, with an ordered procession of academic buildings along each side.

Hornbostel began to shift his emphasis from New York to Pittsburgh, and a score or more of other landmark buildings followed. Rodef Shalom synagogue and the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland, the City-County building, the Grant Building and the Smithfield United Church of Christ, Downtown, are among his most prominent works.

Altogether, he's believed to have designed more than 100 buildings, including houses, in and around the city, of which these are just the most familiar.

Pittsburgh would be a very different and much-less-interesting city, architecturally, had Hornbostel never come here. And apparently, given Hornbostel's bon vivant character, he helped make the staid early years of the century more interesting here socially, too — as he was known for his parties, and, to his colleagues, for a certain amount of mischievousness, too.

All of this has been newly related almost 100 years later in a beautifully photographed documentary by local filmmakers, American Ark Films, called “Henry Hornbostel: In Architecture and Legacy.” The film follows the career of Hornbostel (1867-1961), including his years as the much-revered head of the department of architecture at CMU. The film is available at www.americanarkfilms.com, and will be shown occasionally on WQED-TV.

Hornbostel was never a doctrinaire Beaux Arts designer, and unlike some of the lesser practitioners of the style, he was never a “surface” architect — interesting from the outside, but routine inside. Indeed, the more you experience the inside of Hornbostel's buildings in Pittsburgh, the more you begin to appreciate his work.

He appears to have especially enjoyed designing entrances and the sequences of experiences that you encounter as you move through a building.

At the CMU College of Fine Arts building, you enter under a vaulted ceiling alive with murals of famous buildings and places, and then climb a short set of stairs to another two-story hall that, making a “T” with the entrance hall, crosses through the building with balconies at each end. There are sculptures, a monumentally carved stone entrance to the dean's office, and, inlaid into marble floors, stylistic floor plans of famous buildings. Then, more stairways, up and down, at each end of the hall.

Back at the main entrance, to your right is the Kresge Theatre, a 400-seat, semi-circular oak-paneled auditorium of such warmth and intimacy that, whether there for a theatrical production or a lecture, you feel as though you are almost onstage.

As ornate and decorated as the entrances to the Fine Arts building are, if you cross over to Baker Hall, you are in for a totally different Hornbostel treat. Here, he created vaulted ceilings out of orange-brown Guastavino tile — a thin tile that he used often. There are no murals or decorations, just a sculptural interior of tile. The entrance hall has a long slope downward — an unusual feature in any building — and to the left after you enter is a helical tile staircase that continues up three stories with little visible means of support. The drama is worth the trip if you have never seen it before.

As you travel down the sloping hallway, you encounter stairways with railings made of thick pipe — not at all ornate in the Beaux Arts sense, but clearly evocative of the purpose of the building, which was intended to teach industrial arts.

In fact, Hornbostel had practicality in mind throughout his designs for Carnegie. Though decorated at cornices and entrances with terra-cotta moldings, the buildings are faced with cream-colored Kittanning brick — a local material that most Pittsburghers at the time would have associated with industrial buildings.

Downtown, at Smithfield United Church of Christ, Hornbostel displayed another dramatic use of “sequences.” The worship space at this church is on the second floor of the building, so that you have to use stairs and make several turns before you go through the doors that lead you to the sanctuary. This has the desirable effect of leaving you feeling well-isolated from the city outside.

Hornbostel designed well-known buildings — and several other campuses — across the country. He also worked with famed bridge engineer Gustav Lindenthal (designer of Pittsburgh's Smithfield Street Bridge) and won considerable acclaim for designing the architectural features for Lindenthal bridges such as the Hell Gate, Queensboro and Williamsburg bridges in New York City.

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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