There are still too many endangered landmarks in Pittsburgh, in spite of a strong local preservation movement. This one is probably doomed. All that has saved it so far is that it would cost a good deal of money to tear down, and the revival of central East Liberty has not reached this part of the neighborhood yet. As much as it would cost to tear down, it would at this point cost much more to restore, and for what? No church would spend that kind of money, and it is really suitable for no other use.
The cornerstone is dated 1857, but that comes from the older and smaller church that preceded this building. The Rev. A. A. Lambing in 1880 described that building thus: “The church, situated on Larimer Avenue, is of brick, about 75 feet in length by 40 in width, and has a tower rising from the centre in front to the height of about 100 feet…. The church, though neatly finished, lacks the leading characteristics of any particular style of architecture.” The plaque below has the data for this building:
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.