Fade to Black...and Back



Those of us who grew up in the mill towns around Pittsburgh during the 1950s (and before) can remember soot covering laundry hung on clotheslines and allen snow becoming progressively grayer.  This was after the air quality had already begun to improve.  The dirty air was actually a design condition for architects:  Henry Hobson Richardson purposely avoided elaborate detail on the Allegheny County Courthouse because it would accumulate soot.  Even so, lots of Pittsburgh buildings were blackened for so long that it is easy to understand that some people thought they had been built that way.

Over the years, many of these buildings have been cleaned, especially after safe chemical methods were developed.  In fact, the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning has just undergone an exterior cleaning.  Another East End structure has undergone a less publicized but equally dramatic cleaning.  The present Eastminster Presbyterian Church in East Liberty began life as Sixth United Presbyterian in warm tones of quarry-faced ashlar.  The effect of Pittsburgh's soot can be seen by comparing the view above (ca 1900) and the one below (Spring 2007).  After clean skies stopped the darkening of walls, rain washing selectively revealed the original color.

The spectacular results of a Summer 2007 rehabilitation are seen below.

Pittsburgh recently became a Google Streets city, with photographic views of nearly every street.  Their camera car caught Eastminster during its cleaning (Should we avert our eyes?).


Shadyside Presbyterian underwent a similar process in 1991 and many members noticed exterior details not apparent earlier.


Photo courtesy of Tom Auel

One detail at Eastminster Church that was not obscured by the soot, never-the-less became apparent upon post-cleaning inspection:  At least some of the arches are not round - as would be usual for a Romanesque Revival building.  They come to a barely noticeable point, like a gothic arch.  Precedent for pointed arches in eleventh century Romanesque buildings is well established, but is unusual in the nineteenth century revival.  Unusual, but not unique, as we have seen on two Uniontown buildings in Richardsonian Gothic?

Slightly pointed arches at Eastminster Church.