Originally the East Liberty Market, this grand structure was designed by Peabody & Stearns, architects of the Joseph Horne department store downtown and the iconic Custom House Tower in Boston.
Franklin Toker suggests that, per square foot, this is the most expensive church ever built in America. It was built with Mellon money, so it is sometimes called the Mellon Fire Escape by locals who see it as an atonement for the sins inevitable on the way to becoming the richest family in America; but the congregation prefers the nickname “Cathedral of Hope.” The architect was Ralph Adams Cram, who could easily be called America’s greatest Gothic architect, and the Mellons gave him free rein and an unlimited budget. The result was Cram’s ultimate fantasy Gothic cathedral, whose massive central tower dominates the skyline of the neighborhood. To the left, in the distance, we see the Highland Building.
Opened in 1914, this splendid little movie palace, renamed for two of East Liberty’s biggest stars, is now a venue for live performances. The architect was Harry S. Bair, who designed several theaters in the area and also designed the old Dormont Municipal Building, which is now the home of the Anne Gregory bridal shop.
From the Pittsburgh and Allegheny Blue Book, 1899-1900. The Liberty Market was brand new when this ad ran. It failed as a retail market, but soon began a long association with the automobile industry that left it with the name Motor Square Garden. In 1988 it was redeveloped as a shopping arcade; once again, it failed as a retail space, and now it is known to most Pittsburghers as the headquarters of the local AAA affiliate. The building, currently having some restoration work done, looks almost exactly the same now as it did in 1900.
For those who wish to appreciate the details of the carriage trade lining up in front of the building, old Pa Pitt has provided an enlargement of the picture from the advertisement (click on it to make it very much bigger).
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.