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'Bank' building short in statue, long on style

| Sunday, April 19, 2009

Despite its short stature, the Beaux arts-style building at 333 Fourth Ave., Downtown, is long on history. So much so that it would likely surprise most passersby, if only, as they say, "those walls could talk."

Being transformed into a couple of nightclubs over the years, as well as a bank or two, it was best known in its as heyday as home to the Pittsburgh Stock Exchange. And that was not that long ago -- the exchange occupied it from 1903 until 1974.

At only two stories tall, it is an imposing facade that hearkens back to the area of the city that was once known as the Financial District. At the turn of the last century, Pittsburgh was the nation's industrial center, and the amount of money held in Pittsburgh's national banks was second only to that in New York. Within the first decade of the 20th century, the Pittsburgh Stock Exchange was among 20 banks and trust companies located in and around Fourth Avenue.

Founded in 1894, the Pittsburgh Stock Exchange grew out of the oil boom that followed the striking of oil in Pennsylvania in 1859. In 1955, direct telephone linkage was made to the Philadelphia exchange, and members were allowed to become associate members of Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington exchange. In 1969, it merged with PBW, but maintained a separate trading floor until 1974.

Except for its next door neighbor at 337 Fourth Ave. -- Daniel Burnham's classically styled Union Trust Company building (1898), at present home of the Engineers' Society -- there is little evidence of the district today.

"Part of what makes the facade interesting and important is the context in which it is sitting in, because there are other buildings in this block, west of it, that are larger, more mannerist in style," says Elmer Burger, university architect-planner at Point Park University. "This is rather straightforward, considering it's sitting right next to a Daniel Burnham facade that is very heavy-handed. So, it comes off rather clean."

Point Park University is the owner of the structure, which currently is not in use. The university purchased the building in November 2006 from two private investors and has plans to turn it into a theater complex.

"One of our overriding goals is to be respective of (existing) architecture." says William D. Cameron, vice president of operations at Point Park. Plans for a new Pittsburgh Playhouse Development include performance and teaching space, a proscenium theater, thrust theater and studio theaters, a residence hall and below-grade parking, Cameron says.

"The university will continue to be a good steward for historic pieces of architecture," Cameron says, just as it has with the redevelopment of the recently completed Lawrence Hall and the Bank Center, which is now the new University Center, an award-winning project filled with restored stained glass and marble of which Cameron was project manager.

Designed by Pittsburgh architect Charles M. Bartberger, the original structure at 337 Fourth Avenue was built in 1897 was home to the Merchant Bank.

Borrowing from what architectural historian Franklin Toker, a professor of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, describes as, "The architectural language of the Englishman Nicholas Hawksmoor, the Frenchman Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, and the German Peter Speeth," the building smacks of neo-classical influence, yet Charles M. Bartberger's new design brought forth the best of Beaux-arts style.

The facade consists of a huge granite arch, over top of which three small, deep-set windows look down onto the street.

"I still like the way those windows on the street let you know who is in charge," Toker says, "even if the passerby does not know precisely what is going on that upper floor. That is, you sense power there even if not explicit."

Once inside the building, one realizes that those windows are set in what is essentially the second floor of the building, which is beautifully lit from above by magnificent skylights made of stained glass, housed in a vaulted ceiling.

"The upper floor is indeed cleverly done, with just those three facade windows but also stained-glass skylights for the boardroom and presumably executive offices," Toker says.

University architect Burger surmises the stained-glass skylights were designed by Bartberger himself.

"(His father) is credited for some of the glass at St. Paul's (St. Paul of the Cross Monastery Church, South Side)," Burger says. "If he did it, they may have been constructed over in Germany, because St. Paul's windows were made in Munich."

The main floor of the building is an imposing two stories tall. Lined with marble, it is flanked by massive brass palladium windows. At the entrance is a marble-and-brass staircase that leads to the second floor. Beneath that, another marble staircase leads to a basement that houses a marble bar, a remnant of previous nightclubs, "Zack's Club" and "Pressure."

Bartberger, whose self-styled home still exists in Friendship, was one of three generations of Pittsburgh architects who contributed greatly to the landscape of the city. Seven of 11 of the buildings he designed still exist, including, most notably, Pittsburgh's Peabody High School and Friendship Elementary School.

The German-trained Bartberger was the son of Pittsburgh architect Charles F. Bartberger, one of Pittsburgh's most prolific architects from the 1850s to the 1880s. Charles M. Bartberger inherited his father's practice, and he in turn passed it on to his son, Edward.

All told, the three generations practiced architecture in Pittsburgh for well over a century, spanning from 1845 to 1956.

Bank buildings

Banks may go bust, but the buildings they once occupied live on. Here is a short list of a few bank buildings around town that have been renovated for re-use -- good, bad or otherwise.

• The newly opened Zone 3 police station in Allentown at the corner of Warrington and Arlington avenues, recently was converted from previous use as the 50-bed Pittsburgh International Hostel. When the hostel opened in 1997, its Web site boasted about the heavy-duty safe -- the only remnant of the turn-of-the-century bank that remains -- that had been cleverly converted into an elevator.

• In the 1990s, Point Park University restored a converted shopping mall called the Bank Center into its Library Center. Officially opening in May 1997, the 60,000-square-foot structure, which now serves as Point Park's University Center, used to be the home of the Bank Cinemas I & II and such popular Pittsburgh restaurants as Cappuccino, Bahama Mama, the Rusty Scupper and the Board Room. It is a far cry from the five adjacent, turn-of-the-century bank buildings that were converted into the urban mall complex in the mid-1970s.

• Also in the 1990s, Desmone and Associates Architects took a turn-of-the-century bank building that sits on Doughboy Square in Lawrenceville and converted it into the firm's headquarters. Formerly known as the Pennsylvania National Bank building, it was built in 1902 and sat vacant for 10 years before Desmone renovated it.

• As the name implies, the Vault Coffee and Tea Bar in Brighton Heights, is housed in a former bank.

• Once the Shadyside branch of National City Bank, the Colonial Revival-style building at 800 South Aiken St., near the beginning of Walnut Street, now houses the Athlete's Foot shoe store.

• Now home to professional offices, the stark, modernist structure at 5816 Forbes Ave., which stands in great contrast to a PNC branch next door with magnificent marble columned facade, housed the former Franklin Federal Savings and Loan Association between 1927 and 1981.

• Built between 1923 and 1924, the landmark Mellon National Bank and Trust Company Building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Smithfield Street once sported 20 columns clad in fluted Italian marble that lined a huge, 62-foot-tall vaulted banking lobby. All that was gutted in the late 1990s to make way for a $30 million Lord & Taylor department store. A little more than three years after opening, the store closed in 2004.

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