Did Our Chapel Have a Skylight?


Drawings made in the late nineteenth century to win building design commissions and to publicize existing buildings are small works of art.  Some architects and their draftsmen specialized in producing these pen & ink renderings and were often identified as ”delineators.”  Among the most talented were D. A. Gregg, Harvey Ellis, E. Eldon Deane, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue and Charles D. Maginnis.  Some were responsible for the architectural design and the rendering, others were responsible just to make the design as attractive as possible.  Using only black ink lines on white paper, the best delineators could make a drawing sparkle.  For a number of years, their work graced such periodicals as The American Architect & Building News.

Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, the architects of Shadyside Presbyterian Church, provided an excellent example of such renderings.  It is a perspective view of the church and chapel within a stylized context of Amberson Avenue and Westminster Place.  (The lovely Shingle Style manse to the left of the church was never built.)  The delineator did not sign this drawing, but it is in a hand similar to Gregg’s.  This depiction is in such close agreement with the built structure, that it must have been produced near the time of completion of construction, probably for publication. 


Pen & Ink Rendering of Shadyside Church (Enlarged)

The presence of what appears to be a skylight in the roof of the chapel has long been somewhat puzzling.  There is no evidence on the chapel today of such a feature.  Since the main church was completed in 1890 and the chapel in 1892, one might speculate that the rendering was done in the interim, and the skylight was removed from the final plans.  However, the rediscovery in Shadyside’s archives of an old photograph gives evidence that eco-friendly, natural lighting may have been used in the chapel.

Close inspection of the image reveals a faint but definite rectangular outline on the chapel roof, in the precise location of the skylight in the rendering.  The photograph is not dated.  However, the height of the trees implies it was not taken immediately after the buildings were finished.  The absence of the 1908 chapel extension to the north indicates an earlier time than that, perhaps around 1900.


Early photo of Shadyside Church with chapel (Enlarged)

Skylights were in use in the late nineteenth century, especially on industrial or mill buildings.  Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge's mentor H. H. Richardson had a skylight in his private design office. Given a propensity to leak, though, why would one have been chosen for the chapel?  The architects’ specifications call for the buildings to be fitted for both gas and electric lights.  Given Pittsburgh’s sooty atmosphere, perhaps a skylight was for supplemental illumination.*  The building proposal calls for the chapel main floor to comprise a single large room, with movable dividers.  A skylight would be effective in such a space.


Detail of chapel showing skylight

Why and when was the skylight removed?  Pure speculation here:  electric lighting improved and roof leaks were a concern leading to replacement with slate during the 1908 extension of the chapel.  This little mystery is part of the unfolding of the history of our landmark buildings at Shadyside Presbyterian.

NOTE:  Further evidence of the existence of skylights on the chapel was found during Shadyside's Building Community construction project.

*  Smog may not have been so strong a consideration on the Lord’s Day.  The Masons held a convention in Pittsburgh in 1898.  Visitors were urged to include a Sunday during their stay in the city.  As many mills ceased operation on the Day of Rest, the skies cleared of the usual bituminous coal smoke, affording good views of Pittsburgh.

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