Forbes and Fifth

Refining the Consumption of Architecture in Pittsburgh's East End

Achitecture is rhetorical theory—rhetoric being the designing of language with the intention of impressing or persuading an audience. Jeff Grabill writes, “Good rhetorical theory helps us think and engage the world in ways both strategic and practical” (Grabill 256). Architecture meets both of these functions. It is strategic in the way that it is designed to create an aesthetic experience for the viewer, and it is practical because it creates functional facilities in which people live and work. Frederick Scheibler Jr., a prominent architect in Pittsburgh during the first half of the 20th century, claimed that the relationship between these two functions is critical to the appreciation of architectural aesthetic. Scheibler said, “It is a matter of relationships. Simple relationships. And the relationship of the ornament to the structure is one of the most important of these” (Cannell IV.17). This quotation parallels Grabill’s words. Scheibler’s reference of ornament is related to what Grabill refers to as strategic. Ornamentation is strategically designed to create an aesthetic experience, and Scheibler’s structure is what Grabill would call the practical nature of architecture’s rhetorical function. The structure of an architectural design provides its practical function—sheltering human beings. Understanding the uses of ornamentation and strategy is fundamental in cultivating a deeper appreciation for architecture as a form of public rhetoric. Ornamentation/strategy is the aesthetic and structure/practicality is the function. It is important to consider what these definitions mean in terms of the everyday consumption of Pittsburgh’s architecture.

On November 27, 1955 The New York Times quoted Frank Lloyd Wright concerning the architecture of Pittsburgh and New York City. Wright said, “New York: Prison towers and modern posters for soap and whiskey. Pittsburgh: Abandon it.” Contrary to this statement, Pittsburgh is rich with architecture that is far more pleasing than prisons and advertisements. The framework that I am about to describe allows the consumer of architectural rhetoric to decipher and experience the unique flair of Pittsburgh and develop an appreciation for its style.

The following questions will serve as my framework for generating an appreciation of architecture that goes beyond casual observation—engaging with architecture as public rhetoric. The framework serves as a mechanism for evaluation. There are two types of questions the framework asks. The first set allows the viewer to consider the intention of the architect. What kind of statement is the architect making with this design? To what genre is this architect conforming? Answers to these questions allow the viewer to situate the structure in a period of time or consider it as an example of an aesthetic movement. For the second type of questions the viewer might examine the building materials that the architect chose. Are they local or imported? At what cost were the materials obtained? Do the materials represent a region, time period or economic status? Do other buildings in the area use similar materials? The answers to these questions allow the viewer to piece together Pittsburgh’s local style. In other words, the viewer might contemplate how the structural composition is unique to Pittsburgh neighborhoods. To employ this framework, viewers must take it upon themselves to conduct the appropriate research in order to discover the answers to the questions.

To put this framework into practice, I retraced a route through Squirrel Hill and Shadyside that I use when I jog. In doing so, I hoped to transform my casual experience with the environment into one that involves a deeper engagement. I am often stopped at the traffic light at the intersection of Amberson and Fifth Avenues. Bordering the south edge of Fifth, there is a wall made of cobblestones. Its location is approximately 5100 Fifth Avenue. The apartment building at this address was completed in 1960. Plans to develop this site, however, began in 1954, and a man named Tasso G. Katselas was chosen to design the building (Cannell IV.25). The cobblestone wall, which cascades with vegetation in the summer months, is easily overlooked or taken for granted. Upon researching this location, I discovered the origins of the wall. The stones used in the construction of the barrier are actually the original cobblestones of Fifth Avenue. Katselas was planning to build a wall in this location, and when he saw that Fifth Avenue’s cobblestone surface was being replaced with pavement, he made a decision to recycle the material (Cannell IV.25). Cobblestones were once a hallmark of Pittsburgh’s streets. Katselas was able to preserve a vestige of a bygone era by reusing the stones for his wall. Without considering the questions of the evaluative framework, I would have never come to research Katselas, and therefore I would not have discovered the story behind the construction of this wall. As a casual observer, I thought of it only in its practical structure—a barrier that separates vegetation from the sidewalk. The framework allows me, as the viewer, to not only consume the wall visually, but also consider the reasons behind the wall’s visual presentation. This is what Schreiber would call the ornament of the wall’s composition.

Directly across the street, stands the Negley-Gwinner-Harter House—built in 1870 by William B. Negley, a banker, lawyer and Civil War veteran. Negley was related, by marriage, to the Mellons (McKay). Edward Gwinner bought the house in 1911 and commissioned an enormous expansion that resulted in a third story and a wrap-around porch. This overhaul was not completed until 1923 (Perry). In 1963, Dr. Leo Harter purchased the mansion. In 1987, it was damaged in a fire and condemned. The house was only days away from demolition when Joedda Sampson purchased the property in 1995, and began a full restoration (Perry). Thanks to the questions of the framework, we can consider the history of the house and its significance as a historical structure. While homes like this were once ubiquitous on both sides of Fifth Avenue, only a handful remain. The Negley-Gwinner-Harter House survived thanks to the hard work of Sampson and her appreciation for historical preservation. Currently, the house is a fixture of the Shadyside home tour; each Christmas it is draped in an enormous red bow—inspired by the Cartier store in New York. In 2000, the house was added to the List of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation—Historic Landmarks.

Just a few yards down the street, and across Amberson Avenue, is Shadyside Presbyterian Church. The proposal for the structure was completed in 1889, and construction began in 1890. The church was built with Beaver County Sandstone, a resource abundant in the Pittsburgh area, and it is sometimes known as Homewood Sandstone. In 1890, there were several local mines that produced this type of sandstone. By the 1960s, the stone was almost entirely black—thanks to the soot in Pittsburgh skies. The church was chemically cleansed in 1990 in order to restore its original color (Engleman). Shadyside Presbyterian is closely connected to other structures in the Pittsburgh region. The design is similar to Allegheny County Courthouse both stylistically and proportionally (Engleman). It is interesting to consider the implications of similarities between a religious and civic structure. Employing similar styles in the design of a church and a courthouse demonstrates the congruent reverence for the law and institutional religion. One might argue that the reverences for the two converge. Ultimately, the building is a rich piece of Pittsburgh’s history thanks to its visual presence as well as its building components, which have a local significance.

The wall at 5100 Fifth Avenue, the Negley-Gwinner-Harter House and Shadyside Presbyterian Church are situated within 200 yards of each other. Considering their unique histories, and how they relate to the Pittsburgh area, the viewer can possess a better understanding of the architectural character specific to the region. While I have chosen these three examples due to their close proximity and their especially fascinating histories, the houses on the surrounding streets are rich with character as well. Pembroke Place, Westminster Street, St. James Street, Devon Road, Wilkins Terrace and all of Murdoch Farms make for a great tour of Pittsburgh’s architectural flair. It became evident early in my investigation that the beauty of these neighborhoods is derived from the plethora of styles that blend to create a melting pot of aesthetic. 5100 Fifth Avenue is a midcentury apartment complex, The Negley-Gwinner-Harter House is Second Empire and Shadyside Presbyterian Church is Romanesque. The juxtaposition of three distinct architectural movements makes for a rich visual experience—especially considering that an observer can see all three at the same time. Uncovering their origins and relationship to the city enhances the experience of their consumption as public rhetoric.

Upon using my framework to evaluate architecture as a form of public rhetoric, I have come to a few conclusions about the process. First, questions are valuable in establishing the strategic and practical purposes of architecture. They assist in uncovering unique histories of the buildings and their locations. Unfortunately, detailed records do not exist for each site, and therefore uncovering information is sometimes challenging. Additionally, much of the information I found was not on the Internet. In fact, this paper owes a large debt to a class taught at the University of Pittsburgh in 1978 called Experiencing Architecture: Focus On Pittsburgh. I found the textbook for this course—a book written by the professor specifically for the class—is the Frick Fine Arts Center. Without a resource like this, I would not have been able to engage with the rhetoric of the architecture in such an effective way.

There is plenty of information concerning large architectural works, such as skyscrapers, theaters or hotels. For this reason, I chose to focus on a residential neighborhood where the information would not be about large public structures, but rather intimate residential settings. While the information about my area of interest was more difficult to obtain, I found it more enriching due to its obscurity. The framework allowed me to uncover details about structures that are unique because they were not only specific to Pittsburgh— they were also specific to the neighborhoods where I explored. As opposed to reading about a skyscraper in a Wikipedia entry, I had to use my own observations to decide which pieces of the landscape I would research in order to interpret the rhetorical functions of the setting.

In 2009, Russell Crowe lived in Pittsburgh while working on a film and he said, “Nobody ever talks about the beauty of the architecture in Pittsburgh – the churches, the steeples… It’s just gorgeous.” Crowe and I disagree with Frank Lloyd Wright. In my attempt to demonstrate that Pittsburgh should not be architecturally abandoned (as Wright suggested), I discovered that the framework is applicable in any scenario where a person wants to engage architecture as a form of rhetoric. Though I constructed the framework using Scheibler (who is primarily a Pittsburgh architect), his distinction between ornament and structure is useful anywhere. Pittsburgh gets a bad rap in the media because of people like Frank Lloyd Wright, but this project allowed me to uncover the storied past behind the city’s residential construction and write about the value in appreciating those details.


Cannell, Gillian C., and David G. Wilkins. Experiencing Architecture: Focus on Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh: U of General Studies, U of Pittsburgh, 1978. Print.

Engleman, Timothy C. “Shadyside Presbyterian Sandstone.” Shadyside Lantern. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2015. <>.

Grabill, Jeff. “The Work of Rhetoric in the Common Places: An Essay on Rhetorical Methodology.” JAC 34.1 & 2 (2014): 247-67. Print.

McKay, Gretchen. “Gwinner-Harter House Finds a Buyer.” Gwinner-Harter House Finds a Buyer. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette, 25 May 2002. Web. 25 Feb. 2015. <>.

Perry. “: Fifth Avenue Palaces Part I.”: Fifth Avenue Palaces Part I. Above Bellefonte, 30 June 2011. Web. 25 Feb. 2015. <

Wright, Frank L. “Of His Own Choosing; AN AMERICAN ARCHITECTURE.” Ed. Edgar Kaufman. The New York Times 27 Nov. 1955: n. pag. Print.

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Volume 7, Fall 2015