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

Every community has its coming of age, when the style of its best buildings, both commercial and residential, speaks clearly, “This is the way it is going to be here for a long time.” Although Pittsburgh, the first American city to rejuvenate itself out of its dusky past – of steel and soot and smoke and smog – has employed many notable architects) from Henry H. Richardson to Philip Johnson and Michael Graves) none better personifies the city’s mature status than Benno Janssen 1874-1964).

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, a son of immigrant German parents, Janssen arrived in Pittsburgh in 1904, by way of Boston, after studying architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He joined Pittsburgh’s busy firm of McClure and Spahr, Architects, whose commissions included some of the city’s most impor­tant commercial buildings. He also became a member of Pittsburgh’s prestigious Duquesne Club the year he arrived, a stroke of good fortune traceable to his friendship with William L. Abbott, a retired chairman of Carnegie, Phipps and Company, who was the father of Janssen’s first business partner, Franklin Abbott. Because Abbott backed him, Janssen was able to show his abilities by designing the Pittsburgh Athletic Association building. It was only the very beginning of a stellar career. Janssen would always enjoy solid connections, attributable to his gentle­manly ways and his record of completing important commissions and satisfying even the most demanding of clients.

The Pittsburgh Athletic Association building, a Venetian-style limestone palazzo, built 1910-1911, added more grandeur to the resplendence of Pitts­burgh’s Oakland district, an area that has recently been designated the Civic Center. This complex, four miles from the commercial downtown district, had been enriched earlier by the Carnegie Institute which included two museums, music and lecture halls, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and the Schenley Hotel (now the University of Pittsburgh’s William Pitt Union, a student center). It was at the Schenley Hotel that singer and renowned beauty Lillian Russell had married Pittsburgh newspaper publisher Alexan­der P. Moore in 1912, and the Italian actress Eleanora Duse had died, in November 1924, shortly after giving a performance nearby.

The mastermind of the district’s rise to cultural prominence was Franklin Nicola (1859-1938), who owned a sizable chunk of Civic Center land. He built the Schenley Hotel, named for the large city park located across the street (see “Pittsburgh’s Park of a Century” by Christina Schmidlapp, Spring 1986) and Forbes field, the city’s beloved baseball park. Nicola not only convinced the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team to move from the North Side’s Allegheny River flood plain to the Civic Center, but also wooed the University of Pittsburgh from its upper North Side home to “an acropolis of learning” set on a hilly Civic Center slope that he owned.

Nicola laid out the abutting Schenley Farms and, on more sloping ground, Schenley Terrace. Schenley Farms was his upscale neighborhood, designed to attract executives and their families with its cultural features, including the Pittsburgh Symphony, then housed in the Civic Center, and the annual Carnegie interna­tional exhibitions, in addition to baseball games. Benno Janssen and Franklin Abbott were the primary architects of these fashionable residences for Pitts­burgh’s elite that echoed Cleveland’s Shaker Heights, an affluent community Nicola had known in his younger days.

Janssen’s success with the six-story Pittsburgh Athletic Association clubhouse, offering sleeping rooms, dining rooms, a seventy-five foot long swimming pool, and luxury amenities, led to the firm designing the Masonic Temple, an unusual ten-story building of classic Greek lineage resembling a large lime­stone jewel box. With wooden entrance doors twenty-four-feet-tall in a trape­zoidal frame, the structure was designed to make a strong impression yet conceal its institutional purposes. Purchased in 1993 by the University of Pittsburgh, the building is being converted to educational uses. It once housed a large first floor dining room, a basement kitchen that could serve a thousand members at a time, an auditorium, and lodge rooms. Janssen and his staff of architects designed the structure’s exterior to conceal any evidence of modernity, such as electric wiring or roof drains. Inside the front and rear walls are hidden service corridors where maintenance crews can tend the building’s utility conduits.

In 1913, at the downtown district’s lower Fifth Avenue and Market Street, Franklin Nicola built and named for himself an Italianate office high-rise designed by Janssen. Covered in striking blue and white terra cotta tiles of Renais­sance design, the structure has long been called the Buhl Building. Even though today it is in need of major interior restoration, most of the original tiles are in excellent condition. The six-story tower is expected to survive Pittsburgh’s proposed demolition and rebuilding of the Fifth Avenue and Forbes Boulevard shopping core.

But even the persuasive Nicola could not convince America’s coke manufactur­ing tycoon Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919) to erect a grand apartment complex resembling the French Royal Chateau of Versailles on Frick Farms, a large tract across Oakland’s Fifth Avenue from the Pittsburgh Athletic Association. Except for a Janssen and Abbott colored drawing, executed in 1916, which hangs in the chancellor’s office in the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, there is no other evidence of this proposal. The Cathedral of Learning, a forty-two-story, neo-Gothic university headquarters­ – called a “giant keep-off-the-grass sign” by Frank Lloyd Wright – rose on the site of Frick Farms in 1926.

No one knows why Frick, a devotee of classic French design, did not embrace Nicola and Janssen’s glorious apartments scheme, but perhaps it was because Frick had already erected three major buildings center-city Pittsburgh: the Frick Building, the Union Trust Building with its indoor shopping arcade, and the William Penn Hotel, now named the Westin William Penn (see “A Grande Dame Named William Penn” by Marianne Lee, Spring 1991).

The twenty-two story William Penn Hotel was designed in two phases, twelve years apart, by Janssen and Abbott, from 1914 to 1916, and by Janssen and Cocken, from 1928 to 1929. By 1916, Henry Clay Frick, like his former partner Andrew Carnegie, was more interested in philan­thropy and cultural enrichment than in amassing more personal wealth. Frick’s attention had turned to acquiring masterpieces for his New York mansion, now the internationally acclaimed Frick Collection. Nevertheless, he could not help but be impressed with the William Penn Hotel that on a single day of its construction employed seven hundred and fifty workers. When completed the hotel contained one hundred and fifteen miles of electric cord and employed a staff of eight hundred. Its magnificent Renais­sance-style ballroom on the seventeenth floor was intended to be the city’s great community center, and it remains among the city’s most elegant public rooms. Janssen lost his argument to locate the ballroom near the ground level, and he needed to add twelve elevators to provide access to it. During the construction, Frick himself maintained an office nearby, high in the Oliver Building, to oversee the rising structure. Characteristically, he cautioned his lieutenants to “do very little talking and keep your eye on the ball,” the very credo of his own personal success.

It was not long before Benno Janssen engaged the attention of Richard B. Mellon (1858-1933) and Andrew W. Mellon (1855-1937). The enormously influential brothers were titans in Pittsburgh banking industry, as well as founders of the Aluminum Company of America, Gulf Oil Corporation, and Koppers Company, among other industrial giants. Janssen may have met the Mellons at either the Duquesne Club or the suburban Oak­mont Country Club, highly regarded for its challenging golf course. Janssen joined them for golf at the Oakmont where he won the men’s senior championship in 1938. Out of this relationship would come Janssen’s masterpiece, Mellon Institute for Industri­al Research, a neo-Graeco Parthenon, which he designed late in his career.

Part of Carnegie Mellon University since 1967, the Mellon Institute for Industrial Research was formed by the Mellons to investigate problems within the fundamental and applied natural sciences. It also served to stimulate research, train scientists and, certainly not the least, create advantages for industry. The large building is surrounded by sixty­four limestone columns, believed to be the largest pillars ever turned from single blocks. Each column measures thirty-six and a half feet high. The design of the structure – based on the Parthenon in Athens, a world symbol of civilized thought in a birthplace of scientific inquiry – was intended to promote not only a relationship between science and industry but also a new glamour for science comparable to that which had traditionally accompanied the arts. The Mellon Institute, with its Italian marble floors and four hundred aluminum doors evokes a feeling of magnificence. “The metal of choice throughout,” Janssen wrote in 1936, “is aluminum, produced by Alcoa, a Mellon property.” No expense was spared on building, which was erected at a cost of ten million dollars during the Great Depression.

Janssen and his three children – Benno Janssen, of West Palm Beach, Florida, and A. Patton Janssen and Mary Patton Janssen, both of Charlottesville, Vir­ginia – won many golfing awards. The architect was a member of six country clubs and designed one, Longue Vue Club, built between 1922 and 1924 in the Pittsburgh suburb of Penn Hills . Sited on a dramatic ridge above the Allegheny River, it was a dream come true for its founders, several of the area’s million­aires, including Pittsburgh mayor and lumber executive Edwin V. Babcock, Westinghouse Air Brake Company president A.L. Humphrey, and Weirton Steel Corporation’s owner, Ernest T. Weir. It was known in its easy years as the “millionaires’ chili.”

Although he was a brilliant designer in eclectic styles of architecture, it proved to be Longue Vue with which Janssen launched his most characteristic (and readily identifiable) residential style. With a nod to the English architect Sir Edwin L. Lutyens (1869-1944), Janssen based his somewhat simpler plans on England’s grand Cotswold Hills houses, or “Cotswold cottages.” He was not alone in his approach to architecture during this period, the years of prosperity between World War I and World War II. Janssen’s residential work is sometimes compared to that of Mellor, Meigs and Howe in Philadelphia, which catered to the carriage trade of the fabled Main Line. It was in Philadelphia that Janssen found his most illustrious collaborator, Samuel Yellin (1885-1940), a master of wrought­-iron decoration (see “With a Hammer for a Pencil” by Ray Pilling, Winter 1987). Janssen and Yellin worked together on projects for twenty-five years. Yellin’s last gift to Janssen, a lantern, hung above the front door of Janssen’s retirement manor in Charlottesville, Virginia. “I have never seen anything I liked better & it is a work of art,” Janssen wrote on October 8, 1940, to Yellin.

In Janssen’s Longue Vue structures, massive forms of stone or brick support steeply pitched roofs tiled with delicately colored Vermont slate above gabled ends. Large rectilinear chimneys loom skyward. Eaves are narrow and walls hold steel and glass casements. Longue Vue’s distinctiveness includes its narrow, gray stone courses, made possible because the stone quarry was but a half-mile away. Undulating roofs were laid over heavy mesh to suggest the romantic past. And voussoirs, wedge-shaped stones radiating from keystones, rise above windows, the clubhouse’s only exterior decoration.

While making additions to two of Pittsburgh’s oldest department stores, Kaufmann’s and the Joseph Home Company, Janssen befriended the wealthy and charismatic Edgar J. Kaufmann (1885-1955). Educated at Yale University, Kaufmann was interested in good design, and he made it part of countless projects throughout the store. He asked Janssen to design a house in what would soon become Fox Chapel, a posh wooded Pittsburgh suburb about twelve miles northeast of the department store. The department store magnate often drove across the Washington Crossing Bridge that had been designed by Janssen and Cocken and constructed between 1919 and 1924, on his way to and from Fox Chapel. Built by the County of Allegheny, the bridge soars above the Allegheny River, linking Fortieth Street, in Pittsburgh’s Arsenal district on the southeast bank, to Millvale, on the northwest bank. Janssen gave great credit to his second partner, William York Cocken Jr., who had arranged the contract for the bridge, the only city commission the firm ever undertook. The bridge, a combination of art moderne and neoclassical details, carries the shields of the states on its railings and commemorates young George Washington’s hazardous crossing of the Allegheny River in late December 1753.

Janssen filled Kaufmann with his ideas about architecture and about the towers of Carcassonne, which the architect had seen in France during his student years. The house he designed for the Kaufmanns, La Tourelle, built between 1924 and 1925, was named for its romantic little tower, an exaggerated conical roof covering a small circular vestibule. A stone courtyard is flanked on one side by a cluster of three steeply gabled, dark red brick elements: the main house, the servants’ wing, and the garage with the chauffeur’s apart­ment – later Kaufmann’s painting studio – above. The main house contains a large, low-beamed living room with seven narrow French doors, a raised dining room, a kitchen, and a pantry. The second floor contains three bedrooms with Gothic-style cove ceilings, and Liliane Kaufmann’s sitting room. A backstairs suggests that there was supposed to be a hidden entrance.

The living room at La Tourelle is enriched with linenfold paneling of Dutch red oak and a massive limestone fireplace. Before the pegged floor was laid, Yellin forged all of the house’s ironwork, after running a flue up the fireplace chimney. He charged thirty-six thousand dollars for his medieval-style medley of creations, including an intricately studded front door, staircase railing, benches, and radiator grilles. An iron bed made for the owners was a actually a copy of the blacksmith’s own bed. The Kaufmanns lived at La Tourelle for fifteen years before moving to a suite at the William Penn Hotel and spending weekends and special occasions at Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural master­piece on Bear Run in Fayette County.

At the time his house was being built, Edgar J. Kaufmann asked Janssen to design a new center for an organization that was close to his heart, the Young Men and Women’s Hebrew Association, in Oakland’s Civic Center. This building, designed in Italian Renaissance style, was equipped with a swimming pool, gymnasium, and ball courts and has a fine balconied auditorium with a beauti­ful coffered ceiling. The structure survives today as the University of Pittsburgh’s Bellefield Hall.

Seeking to make a lasting mark in the world, Kaufmann traveled to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship in Spring Green, Wisconsin, where his son had visited for several months in 1934. Kaufmann gave Wright a thousand dollars to complete the architect’s Broadacre City model, which was later displayed at Kaufmann’s store. He then asked Wright to design a house at his wooded retreat along Bear Run, and after that to design his office at the store. Work commenced in 1936 on Fallingwater, which has become an internationally acclaimed architectural icon (see “Cur­rents,” Summer 1999). Members of the American Institute of Architects have voted it the most influential house of the twentieth century, and architectural historians hail it as “Wright’s most imaginative solution for a residential commission.”

Benno Janssen had never designed a country retreat, and he had no liking for Wright’s designs or for the innovative materials – concrete, steel, and glass – that Wright incorporated in his buildings. In fact, Janssen and Wright found many points to criticize in each other’s works. During a visit to La Tourelle, Wright criticized its design, although mercifully he made the comment to Edgar Kauf­mann jr. over cocktails and not in the presence of the elder Kaufmann or his wife.

In 1929, after completing a Floren­tine-style palazzo as headquarters for the Phillips Gas and Oil Company in Butler, Janssen went on to design Elm Court, also in Butler, a splendid forty-room Tudor-Gothic estate resembling an English abbey. The owner, the company’s chairman, Benjamin Dwight Phillips, would later become part owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates with entertain­er Bing Crosby.

Janssen, who had visited Haddon Hall in Derbyshire and many stately country houses in England, fired Phillips’ anglophile imagination with what he, as an architect, could do. College­-educated and heir to an immense fortune established by his father, Phillips was proud of his English ancestry. He loved nature, hunted small game, and collected stamps and jade. With a keen eye for beauty, he wanted not only a handsome place of business, but also a beautiful house. And so rose Elm Court, an estate of nearly ten manicured and highly landscaped acres nestled in a hillside. The gardens received several pages of photographs and a map in The Treasury of American Gardens, whose authors wrote, “A touch of Elizabethan England has been brought to America in Elm Court.”

The manor house alone – described as “a romantic Tudor Gothic fantasy”­ – contains more than seventeen thousand square feet of living space! Its exterior is punctuated by no less than twenty-nine gables and enough stone chimneys to suggest the roofscape of an English village. The house is constructed around a sunken courtyard containing geometric walkways and an octagonal fountain. Elm Court’s gently monastic mood reflects Phillips’ interest in the Christian church, to which he belonged and to which he richly gave. He wanted a grand house, he told his architect, but not a palace. During construction, however, Phillips com­plained about the spiraling expenses of building the house. Janssen’s project architect, Roy Hoffman, commiserated with Phillips. “Yes, sir, that’s true,” he said. “But you’re getting a lot of house.”

Except for the Mellon Institute, for which money had seemed no object, and Oakland’s neoclassic Twentieth Century Club encapsulating in limestone an earlier clubhouse – as Michelangelo had done with a palace on Rome’s Capitoline Hill­ – Janssen, like Wright, was frequently thwarted on projects proposed during the Depression years. Janssen’s plans for a new Pennsylvania Railroad headquarters in Pittsburgh were turned down, although his firm was paid handsomely for its efforts. On the other hand, the firm, because of Janssen’s friendship with Alcoa chairman Arthur Vining Davis (1867-1962) – they and their wives often played bridge at Janssen’s house – designed an art moderne powerhouse with Gothic­-style windows for a huge multi-dam project still in operation in northern Quebec Province. The powerhouse was the firm’s only international job.

Not long after completing a house with a Jeffersonian portico in the Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley, and a private library for Alcoa president, Roy A. Hunt Sr., and his wife Rachel, a book collector, at their Georgian-style resi­dence, Elmhurst, in Pittsburgh’s tony Shadyside section, Benno Janssen retired. With his wife Edith and children he moved in 1938 to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he designed Boxwood, a two-story stone house. In his study, which he called the “Pittsburgh Room,” Janssen exhibited photographs of his buildings, often telling guests how and pleased and amazed he was by having been able to accomplish so much.

Janssen’s property abutted the Farmington Country Club, where he often played golf. The clubhouse’s large parlor was designed by Thomas Jefferson who, in Janssen’s later years, had become his favorite architect. Janssen gave his large personal collection of architecture books to Jefferson’s beloved University of Virginia, although the best record of his firms’ drawings and photographs remains in Pennsylvania as part of the architectural archives of Carnegie Mellon University.

His name may not be as well known as that of Frank Lloyd Wright, nor Elm Court as famous as Fallingwater, but Benno Janssen played so pivotal a role in the building of Pittsburgh that his legacy cannot be ignored. During his leadership, his firm had attracted national and international attention with the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research and the Alcoa powerhouse in Canada. But perhaps his most selfless gift was his sharing of talent to build the houses in which the everyday drama of life was played out. For Pittsburghers, his residential commissions became the world’s stage. Ever gracious, always courtly, and unfailingly generous, Benno Janssen would appreciate a gentle applause of recognition.

 

For Further Reading

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

Lornnt, Stefan. Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City. Garden City, N.Y.: Double­day and Company, 1964.

Miller, Donald. The Architecture of Benno Janssen. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University, 1997.

Smith, Helene, and George Swetnam. A Guidebook to Historic Western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991.

Toker, Franklin. Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait. State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986.

Van Trump, James D. Life and Architecture in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Landmarks and History Foundation, 1985.

 

Donald Miller retired in July 1999 after forty-three years, thirty-three as art and architecture critic, with the Pittsburgh Post­-Gazette. As a senior editor he continues to contribute reviews and articles. He is writer and publisher of The Architecture of Benno Janssen (1997). His most recent book, Aaronel: The Art of Aaronel Derry Gruber, published by his firm, Centaur Editions, honors a distinguished sculptor and photographer who is Pittsburgh’s most widely exhibited artist. The author is now collaborat­ing on Tiffany Desk Treasures, a survey of twenty-two bronze desk sets produced by the Tiffany Studios between 1896 and 1938. Earlier books are Organic Vision: The Architecture of Peter Berndtson and Malcolm Parcell: Wizard of Moon Lorn (see “Malcolm Parcell, The Master of Moon Lorn,” Summer 1994).

 

Edward Massery is a self-employed national architectural photographer based in Pitts­burgh. He has been commissioned to photograph many buildings and structures by architects and architectural firms. His work enriches The Architecture of Benno Janssen and a book entitled Saint Bernard Church, Mt. Lebanon, Pa.