Conti: Architect deserves more note for eclectic mark made on Pittsburgh
Frederick G. Scheibler Jr. was a Pittsburgh original.
An architect who did his most important work here from about 1900 to 1930, he was never part of the town's architectural establishment.
He didn't get coveted commissions for major public or commercial buildings. And he didn't produce superbly “correct” designs in the then-popular established academic styles, as did the local neoclassical or revivalist architects of his time.
Nevertheless, in a relatively short period, he managed to produce beautiful, eclectic and sometimes quirky houses and apartment buildings that can leave architects — and many of the rest of us — in awe to this very day.
He had no single style, but he absorbed much of what was best in the various progressive movements in architecture at the beginning of the 20th century, emulating and sometimes even surpassing some of the most important international architects of the era.
In his book, “The Progressive Architecture of Frederick G. Scheibler Jr.,” author Martin Aurand cites early modern architecture in Vienna, the English Arts & Crafts movement and the Chicago and Prairie styles as among his influences.
His work was concentrated in the East End and the close-in eastern suburbs of the city. You may be familiar with some of his buildings because of the way they stand out. The sprawling, white stucco Old Heidelberg Apartments along Braddock Avenue in Point Breeze (1905-08) and the colorful Highland Towers on South Highland Avenue in Shadyside (1913-14) are two prominent examples.
He did other significant work, including numerous private houses, in Morningside, Highland Park, Squirrel Hill, Edgewood, Wilkinsburg and Churchill, as well as in places like Greensburg and Oakmont.
Scheibler (1872-1958) was an almost exact contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). But unlike Wright, he did not experience a “second career” after the Depression. Instead, he went into a long period of professional and personal decline that lasted until he died.
His work is interesting today because, more fundamentally than most, he could bring together solidly functional planning in his houses and apartment buildings and match that with unquestionably masterful and stylish exterior designs and often playful and even amusing details.
For example, in the Old Heidelburg and Highland Towers apartments, his innovative original designs provided individual entrances to all the apartments without using corridors. Most of his apartment and home interiors were themselves rigorously laid out with a degree of openness and sightlines from room to room that was rare in any domestic architecture of that day.
For this article, we've photographed the interior of one of the four apartments at the Parkstone Dwellings in Point Breeze, a 1922 work done by Scheibler. Virtually all of Scheibler's details here are intact — including mahogany paneling and trim, a fanciful tile representation of a panther above the stone fireplace and an opaque art-glass screen that separates, but not completely, the living room and the dining room. This is part of his open-plan idea, and the rooms seem larger than they actually are.
Adding to this effect, he almost literally breaks off the corner of the dining room with a stunning three-sided, floor-to-ceiling leaded-glass window that you can walk into. Technically, it's a variation on what's called an oriel window, and, here, it lends a further touch of spaciousness to the overall intimacy of the room.
The current tenant has a taste for fanciful interior decoration. Her early 21st-century combination of colorful found and modern furniture fits perfectly with Scheibler's unconventional early 20th-century ideas.
On the outside, the Parkstone Dwellings are marked most significantly by the four red doors at the center — each leading to one of the apartments. A huge central chimney also emphasizes the center of the composition, which, like many of Scheibler's other buildings, is almost, but not quite, symmetrical.
Each entrance walkway is set off from the other by a concrete “mushroom,” a favorite Scheibler motif. Most whimsical, though, are decorative compositions of brightly hued tile mosaics, curved to look like oriental rugs hung over the edge of the second floor balconies.
What's also amazing about Scheibler is that in the years around 1910 to 1915, he experimented with a number of buildings in a spare, ornament-less style that quite remarkably anticipated the International Style of modern architecture that came to the fore about 20 years later.
In the Morningside neighborhood of Pittsburgh, a 1913 row of townhouses called the Vilsack Row was every bit as modern, as disciplined in proportions, and as livable as the original 1941 design of the Aluminum City Terrace houses in New Kensington by the famous International Style leaders Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer.
Unfortunately, both the Scheibler and Gropius designs have been remodeled significantly over the years.
Scheibler was something rare in Pittsburgh in his time. In touch with all the nascent modern movements of the era, he was able to produce highly rational and substantial buildings that nevertheless express charm, delight and, sometimes, whimsy both inside and out.
John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.