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Secrets of the Buhl Building revealed

| Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009

This is a little gem of a building, clad in blue-creamy-white terra cotta thickly decorated with Renaissance motifs. The color contrast recalls Italian sgraffito work, in which an outer layer of stucco is cut away while still fresh to reveal ... an inner layer in a contrasting hue. The ground floor has been altered in a Moderne manner. -- Walter C. Kidney, Landmark Architecture (1985)

The Buhl Building, at 204 Fifth Ave. in Downtown Pittsburgh, has had many admirers, despite a Depression-era first-floor modification. The building was designed in 1913 by Pittsburgh architect Benno Janssen (1874-1964), who also designed the white, terra cotta addition to Kaufmann's Department Store in 1913 -- known for its famous clock -- at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Smithfield Street.

Pittsburgh's William Penn Hotel, the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, the Mellon Institute, Longue Vue Club in Penn Hills, the E. J. Kaufmann Sr. house in Fox Chapel, Rolling Rock Stables in Ligonier, and the B. D. Phillips house in Butler are some of the better-known regional landmarks designed by this distinguished architect.

The Buhl Building is owned by N & P Properties, LLC and is undergoing a restoration of the upper facade, a refurbishment and reconstruction of the first floor, and construction of a Market Street addition.

As the Moderne facade was removed from the first floor of the Buhl Building, sections of blue-and-white terra cotta were revealed. There, above the doorway, all could read: Bash Building. Bash Building• Who?

The Buhl Building is in the 1975 Downtown Survey conducted by Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation (PHLF). The survey form stated: "First called the Bash Building, this structure was under construction by mid-1913. Henry Buhl Jr., bought it in October 1913, while it still was under construction." This was our first "lead" -- it provided names and a date -- but little else and, as we would discover, the information was not entirely accurate. There is no information on the building in the Benno Janssen papers at the Carnegie Mellon University Architecture Archives.

I assembled a chronological history of the building using plat maps, city directories, census records, newspapers and deeds, assisted by researcher John Husack, who is documenting the history of Market Square for the foundation, and History & Landmarks attorney Anne Nelson, who interpreted legal documents. Architectural historians Lu Donnelly and Martin Aurand directed me to the Jewish Criterion (1862-1965), available online at http://pjn.library.cmu.edu , which proved to be invaluable. I used hard copy and the searchable database of city directories prior to 1940 on the Historic Pittsburgh Web site at /http://digital.library.pitt.edu/pittsburgh . City newspapers were read on microfilm at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Here's what we found:

Real estate mogul Franklin Felix Nicola (1859-1938) is known primarily, Walter Kidney tells us, for his "Bellefield and Schenley Farms development companies (that) transformed a large area in Oakland, and provided a setting for much of the city's best architecture." On Feb. 2, 1900, Nicola purchased the land and commercial buildings at 200-208 Fifth Ave.

In 1906, Morris H. Bash opened a fur salon at 202 Fifth Ave. Bash, who also sold women's clothing and had a second location at 437 Smithfield St., operated his businesses with his sons Henry, Louis and William. Beginning in 1908, the firm was known as M.H. Bash Sons.

On Jan. 30, 1913, Nicola announced that the 200-208 Fifth Ave. buildings would be demolished May 1, 1913, and construction would begin on a new building designed by Benno Janssen. Bash Sons paid for half the cost of constructing the new building and all furnishings; consequently the building would be named the Bash Building. As the principal tenants, Bash Sons were permitted to sublet the space they did not occupy in the building.

On Aug. 11, 1913, while the building was being constructed by James L. Stuart Company, Henry Buhl Jr. purchased the property from Frank Nicola.

Advertisements -- illustrated by a perspective drawing -- of "The New Home of M.H. Bash Sons" appeared in Pittsburgh newspapers the second week in October. The Bash Building opened Oct. 13, 1913. In late 1915 or early 1916, the Bash firm declared bankruptcy. Their stock was liquidated by the Frank & Seder Department Store.

From 1917 to 1921, both names -- Bash Building and Buhl Building, 204 Fifth Ave. -- were listed in city directories. In 1922, the building became the Buhl Building. Henry Bash was able to remain in business and he retained a retail space in the Buhl -- nee Bash -- Building for some years thereafter.

N & P Properties, LLC will donate a preservation easement on the Buhl Building to Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation guaranteeing that the Buhl Building facade will be preserved for future generations.

Albert M. Tannler is historical collections director, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

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