The massive tower of East Liberty Presbyterian Church rises above almost everything else in East Liberty, even competing with the Highland Building. The design is by Ralph Adams Cram, arguably America’s greatest Gothic architect.
[Update: A kind correspondent (see the comment on this article) reminds Father Pitt that he really ought to link to the theater's Web site. He also reminds us that there are two good Ethiopian restaurants within a short walk of the theater, which is as good a reason as anyone needs to visit East Liberty.]
This little gem of a theater in East Liberty has been beautifully restored for live stage shows. It’s named for two of the East Liberty neighborhood’s most famous sons: movie star Gene Kelly and jazz composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn.
Daniel Burnham designed many of the most distinguished buildings downtown. East Liberty, which once called itself the “second downtown,” is the only other neighborhood in the city with a Burnham building. It’s far from his biggest work in Pittsburgh, but the Highland Building is an elegant design that has been left shamefully derelict. Now that East Liberty is rapidly reviving, there are plans for a luxury hotel here, which would be a fine second use for a building that desperately needs to be loved.
Like everything else in the central business district of East Liberty, the Highland Building is a short walk from the East Liberty Station on the East Busway.
Franklin Toker, the architectural historian, says this may be, per square foot, the most expensive church ever built in America. Ralph Adams Cram (who may have been America’s greatest Gothic architect) designed it, and it was built with enormous donations of Mellon money, which is why locals know it as the Mellon Fire Escape. It dominates East Liberty from every angle. Above, a view from the south over the rooftops of East Liberty; below, the great central tower.
The Highland Building is East Liberty’s only proper skyscraper. One cannot apply such a romantic name to the Stalinist housing blocks built all over the East End to warehouse the poor in the 1960s—excrescences that are now being blown to bits one by one, and high time, too.
Designed by Daniel Burnham, the Highland Building uses the classic base-shaft-cap formula that always produces a balanced-looking building. It’s a national treasure, for the simple but sufficient reason that every building by the great Burnham is a national treasure. Pittsburgh is blessed with a larger number of Burnham buildings than any city outside his home of Chicago, and most of them are treated with the respect they deserve. This one, however, is not.
This picture of the Highland Building was taken years ago and found on an old archival disc:
The thing has sat vacant for years, prey to vandals and vermin. But that’s about to change. According to the Post-Gazette, the Highland Building will see new life as a hotel. It’s too early to celebrate: deals can fall through, money can dry up, and projects can always be abandoned. But it looks as though one of our most undeservedly neglected buildings may have found a new life at last.