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Louis Bellinger: Pittsburgh's African-American architect

| Sunday, Feb. 9, 2003

Numbers may speak more forcefully than words. In 1930 there were 22,000 white architects in the United States. The number of black architects• – 60. One of them was Louis A.S. Bellinger of Pittsburgh.

Louis Arnett Stuart Bellinger (1891-1946) was born in Sumter, S.C., and educated in Charleston. He attended Howard University, concentrating on mathematics and engineering (among his other subjects were Latin, Greek, and German) and was graduated with a bachelor of science degree in 1914.

After college he married. His wife, Ethel, was two years younger and a native of New Jersey.

Bellinger became a mathematics teacher, first in Florida, then in South Carolina. World War I interrupted his teaching career, and he served part of 1917 as a lieutenant in Training Company 2, 17th Provisional Training Regiment, before returning to the classroom. (He was proud of his military service, however brief; the details are inscribed on his grave marker.)

In 1919 the Bellingers moved to Pittsburgh, and Louis began a new career as an architect. In 1922, he rented a downtown office at 525 Fifth Ave. across from the Allegheny County Courthouse, took out a listing in the Yellow Pages, and debuted in the “Contracts to be Awarded” section of The Builders' Bulletin as the architect of a house to be built in Greenfield. That house and an apartment building on Junella Street in the Hill District are his first recorded architectural designs in Pittsburgh; their precise location, whether they were built, or, if so, whether they still stand, is presently unknown.

From 1923 to 1926, Bellinger worked as an assistant architect in the office of the City Architect of Pittsburgh. During this time he designed a police station and remodeled service buildings in the city parks. No specific records documenting Bellinger's work for the city have yet been found, but this position would have given him practical experience in the workings of an architect's office and useful contacts within city government. He further sharpened his skills by taking a course in advanced construction at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University in Oakland).

In September 1926, he returned to private practice with a major commission for a building to be erected, not in Pittsburgh, but in Philadelphia, for the African Methodist Episcopal Book Concern. (The building was built, but its current status has not been determined.)

Early in 1927 Bellinger designed his most important Pittsburgh building. On Feb. 19, 1927, The Builders' Bulletin announced that plans were being prepared for a building on Centre Avenue in the Hill for the Grand Lodge, Knights of Pythias. The Knights of Pythias was a national fraternal organization devoted to “toleration in religion, obedience to law, and loyalty to government.” Its inspiration and name came from the story of the Greek friends, Damon and Pythias; its appellation as a knighthood was based on the medieval concept of chivalry. The Pythian Temple would be the headquarters for the local chapter of the organization as well as provide office and commercial space and recreational and entertainment facilities for the community.

On March 12, 1927, the Pittsburgh Courier formally announced the project and gave details of the interior amenities planned for the building, based on an interview with the architect:

Mr. Bellinger when interviewed by a Courier reporter, divulged the information that there will be entrances with a lobby decorated in Italian marble with a terrazzo floor.

There will be three commodious storerooms in the first floor, with separate storage cellars. On the Center avenue side, there will also be a banquet and a drill hall with a clear space with 5,000 square feet of drill space. In addition to this, there will be a modern equipped kitchen, a cloak room which can accommodate 2,000 wraps and lavatory facilities.

The second floor will furnish the city with a long-felt want. This floor will contain an auditorium with a gallery, ladies and gentlemen's lounging rooms, miniature stage with modern footlights, suitable for amateur productions and musical concerts. The auditorium has been so arranged that the floor can be easily converted into a basketball court, with a clear 20-foot floor space of 6,000 square feet. Seating accommodations for 1,500 people have been arranged. The auditorium will be decorated in classical style, with myriad lights, finished walls, box seats, hardwood floor and a new innovation in seating arrangement. Entrance to the gallery will be through a fireproof foyer. Several modern office suites will complete this floor.

On the third floor there will be five lodge rooms, with the latest sound-proofing acoustical methods and several suites of business offices.

The construction contract was awarded to Hodder Construction Co. of Braddock, and construction began in June 1927. Bellinger served as construction manager. Approximately nine months later, on March 25, 1928, the completion of the building was celebrated.

The Pythian Temple – dramatically sited on a crest of Centre Avenue as it curves past Devilliers Street – is built on the hillside between Centre and Wylie avenues.

The Centre Avenue front is the principal facade. Bellinger gave the fraternal knighthood a four-story brick and terra cotta structure decorated in the late English Gothic style known as Tudor. Below the crenellations at the top are coats-of-arms and projecting bands of molding with foliaged tips, laid in vertical strips across the facade and bent into flat-topped frames around the store windows on either side of the main entrance. The store windows and the grand arched entrance adorned with Tudor flowers had transoms inset with textured glass panes or prisms, popular in display windows since the 1890s.

The Wylie Avenue side, at the top of the hillside and across the street from Ebenezer Baptist Church, is narrower, three-stories high, and constructed of patterned brick. Over the arched center doorway is the inscription, “Pythian Temple A.D. 1927.” Originally there were shops on the first floor and offices above.

The Knights of Pythias presented public exhibitions of quasi-military drill team exercises. Hence the need for a 5,000-square-foot drill hall (that could be converted into a banquet hall). The second-floor auditorium, with its innovative seating arrangement that allowed the space to be used as a basketball court, was, according to the Courier, “a long-felt want.” It immediately became the community showplace, attracting nationally known black entertainers to Pittsburgh.

While the Pythian Temple was under construction, Bellinger participated in the first major exhibition of the work of African-American artists in the United States, sponsored by the Harmon Foundation and held in New York City, Jan. 5-15, 1928. He exhibited a “Proposed Plan for Church and Apartments.” (This may have been a design for the Ebenezer Tabernacle at Hemans and Addison streets.)

During the last years of the decade, Bellinger designed several houses, including a duplex for Ethel and himself (they had no children) at 530 Francis St.; an apartment building for the Prince Hall Temple Association on Centre Avenue; an office, store and apartment building for Mutual Real Estate Co. at Wylie and Morgan; remodeled an older home into a store and apartments in Hazelwood; and remodeled St. Mark AME Church in Wilkinsburg and Rodman Street Baptist Church in East Liberty.

The successes of the late 1920s gave way to the economic hardships of the 1930s. A commission to design a new church for the Sixth Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Lincoln-Larimer was canceled (they bought a nearby building). Bellinger's only recorded jobs between 1931-36 were an apartment building on Centre Avenue and a storeroom remodeling on Wylie. The duplex on Francis Street was sold. Louis gave up his downtown office; Ethel gave music lessons at home, which supplemented their income.

There were professional disappointments. Bellinger's drawing of a Proposed Masonic Temple for the 1933 Harmon Foundation exhibition was damaged in transit and couldn't be displayed. Although the Pythian Temple auditorium was flourishing – in 1932, for example, a Duke Ellington concert before a live audience of 3,000 was broadcast nationwide – the Knights of Pythias were forced to sell the building. In the autumn of 1937, Pittsburgh architect Alfred M. Marks prepared plans to convert the building into a commercial theater. In 1938, now sporting a polychromatic Art Moderne first floor front, the Pythian Temple became the New Granada Theatre.

By this time, Bellinger had taken a leave-of-absence from the private practice of architecture, and become an inspector with the City Bureau of Building Inspection. Except for an unsuccessful attempt to reopen his practice in 1940, Bellinger worked as a city building inspector from 1937 to 1942.

His return to private practice began slowly. The only commission recorded prior to 1945 was a church basement in Hazelwood. In 1945, however, Bellinger was working on several projects out of the house he and his wife rented at 3171 Centre Ave.: remodeling a house into African-American Legion Post 27 in Fairmont, W.Va.; expending the Iron City Lodge Post 17 on Centre Avenue; remodeling the Crunkelton funeral home in Manchester; remodeling Johnson's Photography Studio on Centre Avenue; designing a new house for photographer Luther Johnson. Ethel was now teaching music at Robert L. Vann Elementary School.

On Feb. 3, 1946, Louis Bellinger died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 54 years old. His career in architecture and the building industry in Pittsburgh had continued for more than a quarter of a century. His death was noted in The Builders' Bulletin, Pittsburgh Courier, Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette. He was buried in Allegheny Cemetery; his gravesite is directly up the hill from the grave of baseball player Josh Gibson.

You will find Bellinger's name and a thumbnail sketch in "Negro Artists: An Illustrated Review of Their Achievements" (Harmon Foundation, 1935), in "Afro-American Artists: A Bio-bibliographical Directory," edited by Theresa Dickason Cederholm (Boston Public Library, 1973), and in "Who Was Who in American Art 1564-1975," edited by Peter Hasting Falk (Sound View Press, 1999). You will find a more detailed account of his life and work in the forthcoming "Biographical Dictionary of African-American Architects, 1865-1945," edited by Dreck S. Wilson, et al (Routledge, 2003). Louis Bellinger is the only Pittsburgh architect in the book.

What you won't find easily are his buildings. Less than half-a-dozen buildings are known to have survived, and all have been changed, in some cases drastically. All that remains of his home on Francis Street is a fragment of the green glazed-tile fireplace from the first-floor apartment. (Even the house he rented at 3171 Centre Ave. is now gone, though its neighbors remain.) Because of its local and national significance, the Pythian Temple/New Granada Theatre has been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, but the building sits empty, in need of extensive repair and rehabilitation.

In an article about the redevelopment of the Hill District published in the Tribune-Review on Oct. 13, 2002, Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Mulugetta Birru is quoted as saying that “the Hill's future won't be found in the past. ‘Everywhere I go in Pittsburgh, they talk about the past. The past has completely killed the Hill.'" Wholesale condemnation of the past – or of talking about the past – is unwise, unless one wants to repeat the mistakes of one's predecessors and ignore those aspects of urban living proven to work through time.

The urban redevelopment schemes of the 1960s ignored the past. The heart of Allegheny City was buried under concrete and a gargantuan mall, the commercial core of Pennsylvania Avenue in Manchester was demolished and replaced by alien suburban tract housing, the commercial and transportation center of East Liberty was isolated and almost eradicated amid looming housing projects and “planned” gridlock, and the homes and businesses of the Lower Hill were lost to a grandiose cultural-athletic complex for nonresidents.

From 1979-84, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation surveyed structures in Allegheny County 50 years old and older. As Walter C. Kidney wrote in "Landmark Architecture of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County," "our staff canvassed the county, seeking buildings, bridges, monuments … to identify, describe, photograph, research, and evaluate. From Allegheny County's more than two centuries of permanent habitation and 728 square miles, over 6,000 significant historic resources were recorded.” Since then many additional significant sites have been identified.

Of 300 significant historical and architectural sites in the African-American communities of Allegheny County surveyed for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 1992, only 62 were deemed eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Why so few• Because those buildings were still standing – not empty lots or parking lots or intrusive, later construction, but surviving structures of a living community.

Not talking about the past in Pittsburgh means not talking about or acknowledging racism and racist policies. Not so long ago, the thriving commercial life of Fifth and Forbes avenues in downtown Pittsburgh was severely interrupted because the customers were not considered middle-class and “upscale” (i.e., white) enough.

The URA has targeted dozens of older buildings in the Hill District, many of architectural merit, for demolition in 2003.

In 1930, 60 African-American architects overcame social and economic barriers to become designers and shapers of places and communities. To ignore or eradicate their legacy is to lose something irreplaceable and diminish the creative accomplishments of black Americans.

On Jan. 27, 1947, the Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Institute of Architects remembered two of their members deceased the previous year: Stanley L. Roush, who, as Allegheny County architect designed the Clemente, Seventh, and Ninth Street bridges, and Louis A. S. Bellinger, whose designs in metropolitan Pittsburgh included the Pythian Temple and buildings throughout the Hill District and in Beltzhoover, Greenfield, Hazelwood, Manchester and Wilkinsburg.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

"A Legacy of Bricks and Mortar: African-American Landmarks in Allegheny County" by Frank Bolden, Laurence A. Glasco and Eliza Smith Brown, Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, 1995.

"African-American Historic Sites Survey of Allegheny County" by Eliza Smith Brown, et al, Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1994.

Albert M. Tannler is the historical collections director of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and a freelance writer for the Tribune-Review.

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