A Gift of Belief, edited by Kathleen W. Buechel

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

A Gift of Belief
Philanthropy and the Forging of Pittsburgh
edited by Kathleen W. Buechel
University of Pittsburgh Press, 480 pp., hardcover $40

American urban history offers numerous examples of families who, having made their fortune, departed for more refined locales, leaving environmental and social ruin in their wake. The most prominent example of that phenomenon was the Rockefellers of Cleveland. A few cities claimed small numbers of entrepreneurs who remained rooted in their communities and dedicated to their improvement — the Eastmans of Rochester, New York, notably among them. Far rarer was a city that claimed a legion of elites who dedicated a portion of their fortunes to the improvement of local environmental and social conditions and who cultivated the arts and education. In this latter category, Pittsburgh is a standout.

Kathleen Buechel, who bridges the careers of philanthropic foundation director and university professor, has given Pittsburgh its due recognition. As editor, and as a contributor, Buechel has provided a detailed, thematically comprehensive and linked set of essays on the story of Pittsburgh philanthropy. Her fluid introduction recounts the “geography” of giving, where virtually every part of the city benefited from the generosity of such families as Buhl, Heinz and Mellon, to list only three.

Though Pittsburgh philanthropy sprung from a variety of motivations and took on many forms, a sense of moral mission, often grounded in religious belief, drove benefactors to promote the common good. The devoutly Lutheran Heinz family dedicated themselves to various charitable endeavors even before they had amassed their fortune. Meanwhile, the Mellons heeded the injunction of their patriarch, Thomas: Work where you live, live where you work. Imbued with a Presbyterian sensibility that the fortunate must act as stewards of God’s creation, the Mellons ultimately made Pittsburgh a global center of higher education and saved its citizens from air and water pollution after World War II.

A Gift of Belief is a story that needed to be told.

Kenneth J. Heineman
Angelo State University