Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

There was much to build in a growing industrial city like turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh, and many of the important architectural com­missions went to Frederick J. Osterling, a versatile designer, a respected businessman and a prominent – if occasionally controversial – architect. But when Osterling received that commission of which all archi­tects dream, it resulted in the sudden zenith and decline of his architectural career, dis­puted professional claims, a lawsuit, and a hint of scandal-and two extraordi­nary buildings for Pittsburgh.

Frederick J. Osterling (1865-1934) was born in Duquesne, Pennsylvania, and trained as an architect in the Pittsburgh office of Joseph Stillburg. Fol­lowing a study tour of Europe, Osterling established his own office in Pittsburgh in 1888 and experienced immediate suc­cess, winning his first major commission, the Allegheny High School, in competition. He established his professional reputation with structures such as the Times Building (1892), Arrott Building (1902), and Colonial Trust Company (1902), all located in Pitts­burgh’s prestigious Fourth Avenue financial district, and with a succession of important schools, churches, residences, and institutional and industrial buildings. His clients included the prominent Pittsburgh businessmen and industrialists of the day. He designed the “Greenlawn” residence of H. J. Heinz, churches in Loretto and Braddock (and possibly a residence) for Charles Schwab, and the West­inghouse Air Brake Company plant and office building in Wilmerding for George West­inghouse. He was also favored for county and state work, designing the opulent court­houses for Washington and Luzerne counties and the Western Pennsylvania Institute for the Feeble-Minded at Polk in Venango County. He en­tered but did not win the highly publicized – and politicized – design competi­tion for Pennsylvania’s State Capitol.

Osterling was master of many architectural styles, selectively drawing from the eclectic stylistic currents of his time for the wide range of building types that he was called upon to design. He designed with a strong hand, and his buildings were or­dered, assertive and often slightly over-scaled. His work reflected the aspirations of his clients and the energy of the burgeoning industrial land­scape. Each design was the appropriate, threatening to become the monumental. The high level of Osterling’s achievement was manifested when he published a portfolio of his major projects – the Works of F. J. Osterling, Architect – in 1904.

In the early 1900s, Osterling served as County Architect for Allegheny County. In this capacity his work included a new Allegheny County Morgue, sympathetic addi­tions to the Allegheny County Jail and a proposal to add two stories to the Allegheny County Courthouse. The last gave rise to the first major controversy of Osterling’s career. A storm of protest arose because the courthouse (1884- 1888) was the masterwork of Henry Hobson Richardson, one of the greatest of Ameri­can architects, and many did not look kindly upon “vandal­izing” the building. The plan was roundly attacked by the local Bar Association, the Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Institute of Archi­tects, the Pittsburgh Architec­tural Club, as well as arts organizations in Philadelphia and New York. Although the Allegheny County Commis­sioners had pushed forward the proposal, it was ultimately dropped, but Frederick J. Osterling’s name appeared on the drawings, and he likely felt much of the sting of the public outcry.

From 1904 to 1915, Osterling maintained a steady practice, as indicated by his projects published in The Builder, a local architects’ journal, and those listed in the Pittsburgh Architectural Club exhibition catalogue of 1907. The Com­monwealth Trust Company Building (1907) and the Hotel Cape May (1908) in the New Jersey seaside resort were high-water marks. Neverthe­less, the buildings and the clients grew less numerous and less spectacular than be­fore. This was a result, perhaps, of the controversy over the courthouse, and also of increased competition from architect newcomers such as Palmer and Hornbostel and Janssen and Abbott, firms that received their share of the major Pittsburgh area commis­sions that previously had gone either to Osterling or to Alden and Harlow. In 1915, however, Osterling obtained a very important job. Almost twenty-­five years before he had re­modeled “Clayton,” the home of industrialist Henry Clay Frick (1849-1921) who was variously the owner and oper­ator of twelve thousand coke ovens, Andrew Carnegie’s right-hand man, the villain of steel management during the Homestead Strike, the survi­vor of an assassin’s bullet, an art collector, a real estate spec­ulator and, of course, a prized architectural client. Frick’s other large Pittsburgh projects, the Frick Building (1901-1902) and the William Penn Hotel (1914-1916), had gone to D. H. Burnham and Company of Chicago and Janssen and Ab­bott respectively. But in 1915 Frick turned back to Osterling with the commission for the Union Arcade, a speculative retail and office building (which later became the Union Trust Building and is now ingenuously called the Union Trust Building at Two Mellon Bank Center). The Arcade was to be the centerpiece of Frick’s real estate empire, occupying an entire city block between the Frick Building to the south and the William Penn to the north.

If the Frick Building could be advertised as the “Finest Office Building in the World,” the Union Arcade also rated superlatives. It claimed to be the world’s largest arcade, and its ground area was said to be unsurpassed among office buildings in the United States. It was a massive building with two hundred and forty retail shops and more than seven hundred office suites. The four arms of the arcade, two of which rose four stories high, met at the building’s center in a ten-story rotunda topped with a stained-glass skylight. Galleries of milky-white terra cotta, mosaic tile ceilings and an elaborate lighting scheme created an opulent interior. For the exterior, Osterling de­signed a lacy terra-cotta can­opy and twin Gothic towers which transformed an other­wise blocky mass into a grand and graceful architectural showpiece.

The Union Arcade’s high­-shouldered form and ornate steeply-sloping roof were reminiscent of a Flemish Gothic town hall. Plausible design sources may have in­cluded the town halls of Brus­sels and Louvain, and Brussel’s Maison du Roi. A published account, possibly supplied by the architect, declared that the building “cannot claim as its prototype any particular edifice of the Old World, [but] inspiration was drawn from the Hotel de Ville of Brussels and from some of the wonderful old cloth halls of France and Be­lgium.” Pittsburgh architec­tural historian James D. Van Trump has noted that this “manner of building … was an expression of an especially rich burgher culture,” and that its use in a modern industrial city was not inappropriate.

The Union Arcade project was initially assigned to Pierre Liesch, a designer in Oster­ling’s employ and a native of Luxembourg, in February 1915. Liesch later took credit for the Union Arcade’s overall form­ – including the distinctive steep roof. He claimed that Osterling at one point questioned his original high roof design and had shown an alternate set of sketches to Frick and a com­mittee of experts. They had suggested – this much is docu­mented by a letter transcript­ – that a high roof would improve the design, and thus purport­edly vindicated Liesch’s origi­nal scheme. Liesch’s statements have prompted historians, including Van Trump, to question the legiti­macy of Osterling’s credit as the building’s designer. In­deed, Liesch’s Northern Euro­pean roots may explain the Flemish Gothic concept; but Liesch had left Osterling’s employ by June 1915, and the design was clearly finished and executed by Osterling and his other assistants. In the architectural profession, it is not at all unusual or inappro­priate for design work contrib­uted by an office assistant to be attributed to the employing architect or firm. Liesch had reason to emphasize his role as his statements were made in testimony as a hostile witness in a lawsuit. But Osterling is properly the architect of record.

The Union Arcade’s Gothic vocabulary was not at all for­eign to Osterling. He had traveled extensively in both the United States and Europe. He had used Gothic detailing in a commercial structure as early as the Daub Building of 1897. And he had published a de­sign for a Gothic skyscraper city hall in The Builder in 1909. Gothic was part of the contem­porary architectural scene, having become an accepted style for the modern American commercial building. Some of the inspiration for the Union Arcade’s Gothic design and substantial realization in terra cotta doubtless came from Cass Gilbert’s then recently completed and widely cele­brated Woolworth Building (1910-1913) in New York, and perhaps also from his Gothic and high-roofed West Street Building of 1905, which was well-published in national architectural journals.

Constructed between 1915 and 1917, the Union Arcade proved to be a great success, garnering for both the struc­ture and its architect much acclaim. Despite the praise, Frick and Osterling were left at total loggerheads after a diffi­cult client-architect relation­ship. Complaints surfaced during the building’s construc­tion, particularly from the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company and the American Bridge Company (which pro­vided structural steelwork), criticizing Osterling that his office was tardy and incom­plete in the provision of detail drawings and other necessary information. Frick claimed that these problems accounted for the fifteen month delay in the building’s completion, and withheld final payment of Osterling’s fee. Osterling had billed Frick the standard mini­mum fee of three percent of the project cost, or $321,325, but received just one payment of forty thousand dollars and brought suit against Frick’s estate for the balance. In the judgement of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County in the case of Osterling vs. Frick, issued m 1921, Osterl­ing was awarded $109,406.25 in legitimate claims, of which he forfeited $40,000 specifically for delays, and $5,106 for his failure to audit certain ac­counts. He was not held re­sponsible, however, for delays attributable to changes in the building program. Osterling appealed this judgement, but it was upheld by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, West­ern District, in 1925.

Court testimony showed that initial contracts called for the terra cotta company to complete detail drawings it­self, but that the detail draw­ings for structural steel and stonework had been Oster­ling’s responsibility. These drawings, and Osterling’s approvals of the contractors’ shop drawings, had often been delayed. He struggled to meet virtually all of the deadlines and requirements of the job, which, because of the nature of the building, included the production of an enormous number of drawings. Expert evidence suggested that the architect should have had at least ten assistants for a project of the scale of the Union Ar­cade. However, Osterling­ – who always practiced with only a few permanent employees – had had only three or four assistants, who also attended to the office’s other projects. All evidence suggests that this failing was largely a function of Oster­ling’s exaggerated sense of economy, a trait that inevitably led him into much trouble and litigation, yet enabled him to become a self-made millionaire.

The Union Arcade was designed while Osterling’s offices were located in the Commonwealth Trust Com­pany Building. He had previ­ously worked out of the American Telephone and Tele­graph Company Building (which included his mono­gram among its exterior de­tails) and the Times Building. He had designed all three buildings. It was (and remains) common for an architect to occupy space in a commercial building of his own design, to serve as a handy exhibit of his work. In 1917, however, upon completion of the Union Ar­cade, Osterling went a step further, forsaking the Com­monwealth Trust Company Building, and erecting a small private office and studio build­ing, a most uncommon profes­sional and architectural phenomenon.

Osterling built on a narrow lot at 228 Isabella Street on Pittsburgh’s North Side, just across the Allegheny River from the downtown district. This site had been occupied as a residence by Philip and Ber­tha Osterling, Frederick’s parents, from about 1880 to 1890, and was listed as Fred­erick Osterling’s home address from 1882 to 1892. Then known as 81 Isabella Street, Allegheny City, it was located near the site of Philip Osterling’s plan­ing mill and lumberyard. Fre­derick Osterling formally acquired the property from his widowed mother in 1921, about four years after the con­struction of the Office and Studio Building.

Osterling’s project involved at least a new facade and inte­rior arrangements, but likely incorporated portions of the former family rowhouse. A published account hailed the result as a “wonderful example of modern compactness, and a structure of rare beauty and symmetry.” The facade dis­played Gothic motifs, by­products of Eclecticism, within an open composition that owed something to the more progressive architectural cur­rent of the day. The interior featured a ground floor work­shop and an upper-level parlor and office that overlooked the workshop through a row of large windows. A small “castle-like turret” – actually an arced wall with a plaster finish scored to look like stone­ – extended into a small inner court that functioned as a light well.

The image of Osterling peering out from his upper­-level office at a downtown Pittsburgh to which he had contributed mightily, or into the two-story space of the workshop and down upon the drawing boards of his drafts­men, is highly evocative. But the building’s facade is the architect’s most suggestive statement.

The Office and Studio Building’s brick facade is all but enveloped by a two-story window-wall that illuminates the tall space of the workshop. Gothic tracery of carved lime­stone clusters above the en­trance door, and forms a frieze across the top of the window­-wall that is highly reminiscent of the terra-cotta canopy that crowns the Union Arcade. The window-wall’s grid of small glass panes echoes the Union Arcade’s many-windowed elevations, and its vertical mullions, which branch into the tracery above, correspond with the Union Arcade’s tall sandstone piers. (This conver­gence would have been even more striking had the Union Arcade been built, as was originally planned, with all terra-cotta facing above the first two stories, so that its piers would have appeared continuous with the decorated canopy.) The stone foundation of the Office and Studio Build­ing features broad windows with rounded upper corners, as does the Union Arcade’s two-story granite base. The buildings are different in scale, finish and materials, and the Gothic motifs are not identical. However, the facade of the Office and Studio Building is clearly a willful adaptation and restatement of the Union Ar­cade in miniature.

Osterling’s reasons for the creation and the design of the Office and Studio Building are subject for speculation. Histo­rians have suggested that the facade of the Office and Studio Building was erected as an experiment to test the Gothic motifs which climaxed the Union Arcade; however, this is precluded by the 1917 date for the Office and Studio Building given in a 1922 biographical essay on Osterling, a date supported by city directories which list Osterling’s Isabella Street business address begin­ning only in 1918. Clay models of the Union Arcade’s terra­-cotta canopy were, in fact, made and approved in August 1915. Terra-cotta construction was completed at least by January 1917. No mention of the Office and Studio Building appears in the voluminous court testimony about the construction of the Union Arcade.

Perhaps Frederick J. Oster­ling anticipated great profes­sional rewards from the Union Arcade project that would have justified the implied prestige of an independent office and studio building, as the building’s facade repre­sented a deliberate attempt to capitalize on the Arcade’s popular acclaim. An advertis­ing booklet for the Arcade declared it to be “the most talked of and easily distin­guished edifice in Greater Pittsburgh.” It is probable that the rhetoric reflected reality. Surely the attributes that in­spired such notice could also benefit the setting for the professional practice of the Arcade’s creator. No prospec­tive client entering Osterling’s office could fail to be reminded of the architect’s major achievement.

Conversely, the building may have symbolized the retreat of a 52-year old archi­tect from a triumphant but stressful project and from active involvement in profes­sional life in downtown Pittsburgh – a sentimental acknowledgement of profes­sional accomplishment. Or the move to a renovated family­-owned property may simply have been an escape from the expense of downtown rental space, a matter of economy for a parsimonious man; and the facade simply a spontaneous result of Osterling’s current stylistic interests.

Whatever the motivation, the move did not benefit the architect’s practice; in fact, he executed little work following the Union Arcade. Known projects that must have issued from the Office and Studio Building include only a house in Spartensburg, South Caro­lina, for Osterling’s brother-in­-law, a 1926-1927 addition to the Colonial Trust Company build­ing that Osterling had origi­nally designed in 1902, and a 1930s scheme for a river-front boulevard, although there surely must have been others. The lingering effects of the Frick lawsuit and other litiga­tion doubtless kept some cli­ents away. Court testimony surrounding Osterling’s estate indicates that anti-German sentiment affected the family, and perhaps the practice, during World War I. Both testimony and family lore record that Osterling grew progressively deaf after about 1915, a condition that he blamed on the haggling over the Union Arcade. John Axtell, Osterling’s grand-nephew, has said that Osterling “must have been a difficult man to do business with … I imagine [him] as an increasingly eccen­tric and self-absorbed person in those years …. ” The Office and Studio Building appears to have culminated a distin­guished career, rather than giving it new vigor.

Nevertheless, Osterling maintained a professional listing in the Pittsburgh city directory, and continued to use the Office and Studio Building until his death in 1934, upon which it became part of his substantial estate. The build­ing achieved a certain promi­nence, albeit of dubious merit, when Osterling’s will was contested by Martha O. Aber, who claimed to be the archi­tect’s wife (he had not previ­ously married) and described a “love nest” in the basement of the Office and Studio Build­ing. Sensational photographs published by local newspapers revealed that the basement had a living room, a combined kitchen/bar/dining room, and a bedroom, well-suited for trysts. Testimony indicated a long-term relationship, and provided some evidence for an informal wedding ceremony. Contradictory testimony, and evidence that Aber had previ­ously claimed to be the wife of another deceased man, re­sulted in the denial of the claim after weeks of titillating press coverage.

The scandal eventually died out, and the Osterling Office and Studio Building, obscured by a massive warehouse, soon became lost to sight and memory and remained only a surprising facade in a deterio­rating neighborhood. It survived a succession of com­mercial occupants and whole­sale clearance of its immediate surroundings, but was redis­covered by Axtell in 1982.

The Union Arcade’s public image has been secure since its construction. It has repeatedly been named Pittsburgh’s most popular building, and stands resplendent after a recent rehabilitation. Coincidentally, Osterling’s Office and Studio Building underwent rehabilita­tion at the same time, and its restored facade is itself a strik­ing presence, particularly when seen from across the Allegheny River. Recent press coverage of the Office and Studio Building again focused on its taste of scandal. But its true worth lies in a broader significance.

Frederick J. Osterling’s Office and Studio Building is not unique. But architects only infrequently design buildings for their professional use, and few such buildings are part, of the landscape. As a rare early twentieth century example of an unusual building type, it stands as a significant artifact of historic architectural prac­tice. And it also marks, how­ever ambiguously, in unison with the Union Arcade, a particular time and stage of Frederick J. Osterling’s career, and eloquently reflects mo­ments of triumph and of weak­ness in the professional and personal life of a prominent public man and architect.


For Further Reading

Kidney, Walter C. Landmark Architecture: Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh History and Land­marks Foundation, 1985.

The Union Arcade Building. Pittsburgh: 1916.

Van Trump, James D. Legend in Modern Gothic: The Union Trust Building, Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, 1966.

Works of F. J. Osterling, Archi­tect. Pittsburgh: 1904.


Martin Aurand is architectural archivist for the Carnegie Mellon University Architecture Archives, Pittsburgh, and author of numer­ous nominations to the National Register of Historic Places, in­cluding one for the Osterling Office and Studio Building. He is currently co-writing a book on Pittsburgh architect Frederick G. Scheibler, Jr.