Originally the main entrance and still the centerpiece of the vast Carnegie establishment in Oakland, this three-storey open space is decorated with murals by John White Alexander depicting the Apotheosis of Pittsburgh. Most museum visitors ignore them while hurrying on past to the dinosaurs, but the mural group is actually one of the museum’s great artistic treasures. It’s worth spending half an hour in the Grand Staircase picking out the details, like the faces of the damned in the billowing smoke.
This is the most breathtaking single room in the Western Hemisphere. That statement is likely to provoke some opposition, but Father Pitt is willing to defend it.
In the late nineteenth century, many museums collected plaster casts of the great monuments and sculptures of the past. The casting preserved the minutest details of the surface in three dimensions, so that a museum visitor can study every chisel mark on a famous Romanesque facade without having to hop on a steamer and travel to Europe.
In the twentieth century, the cult of originality persuaded most museum curators that these plaster casts were worthless. Almost all the great collections were broken up and thrown out. Only three of them remain in the world, and only one of them—this one—is still in the space that was built to house it, never having been shuffled from one wing to another or stored for years under a highway overpass.
Now, at last, some of the more enlightened art historians are beginning to understand the value of the casts. Here a Pittsburgher can study the whole history of Western architecture from Egypt to the Renaissance without so much as crossing the Monongahela. But even more important is the fact that these casts are more than a century old. The twentieth century, with its corrosive pollution and horrendous wars, was more destructive to ancient monuments than any other century. But here we can see exact replicas of these monuments as they were before all the corrosion and destruction. This collection is a unique cultural treasure, worth crossing a continent or an ocean to see.
The Hall of Sculpture was built in imitation of the interior of the Parthenon, with marble from the same quarry that supplied the marble for the famous Athenian temple. It was intended to house the Carnegie’s collection of plaster casts of famous sculptures, some of which still adorn the balcony, and some of which have been moved to the Hall of Architecture. On the floor below, staff are hanging transparencies from clotheslines. Why? We’ll find out when they’re done.
Old Pa Pitt has mentioned before that the columns surrounding the Mellon Institute in Oakland are supposedly the tallest monolithic columns in the world. But how big are they? For perspective, here is a woman sitting in front of them and talking on a cell phone. Can you spot her? Click on the picture to make it much bigger.
This splendid old church may look a bit prouder than the ordinary Catholic parish church, and it has every right to its pride: for a little more than a decade, it was the cathedral for the Diocese of Allegheny. In 1876 the rapidly growing Diocese of Pittsburgh was split, with Allegheny (then an independent city) as the seat of the new diocese. It was a bad plan from the beginning: Allegheny had all the wealthiest parishes, but Pittsburgh was generously allowed to keep all the debt. The shockingly un-Christian infighting that resulted ended only in 1889, when the Diocese of Allegheny was suppressed. But a Catholic diocese isn’t that easy to get rid of, and there is still a titular Bishop of Allegheny. He lives in Newark, where in his day job he is auxiliary bishop of the diocese there.
St. Peter’s is just across Arch Street from the National Aviary, a short walk from the North Side subway station.