Clients Robinson and Bruckman charged architect Frederick G. Scheibler, Jr. to design an apartment building that would fit into a suburban setting of private homes—now Pittsburgh’s Park Place neighborhood—and attract residents to apartment living. In response, Scheibler cloaked a large three-story multiunit building in the guise of a country house. The steep sheltering roof, timber-framed porches, and stucco surface were all traditional domestic features of Old World housing. Fred Bruckman named the building Old Heidelberg because his family had emigrated from Heidelberg, Germany; a name that resonated with Scheibler’s German heritage and reflected the Germanic inspiration of Scheibler’s design.
Scheibler modeled the Old Heidelberg after the Christiansen house (1901) designed by architect Joseph Maria Olbrich in Darmstadt, Germany. Olbrich was a founding member of the Vienna Secession, an association of progressive architects and artists in Vienna. Scheibler owned a published portfolio of Olbrich's work, and referred to it extensively in designing the Old Heidelberg, adopting and adapting Olbrich's designs for his purposes. Despite its Old World sensibility, the Old Heidelberg broke new ground. It marked a transformative new progressive direction in Scheibler’s work, and was unlike anything else in Pittsburgh, or arguably in America.
The Old Heidelberg consists of two halves joined at a party wall. Each half has six residential units and an entry and could theoretically stand alone. Windows assume a wide variety of types, sizes, and placements. If the twelve units were to be broken out of the façade and viewed independently, nearly every one would look different. Yet the façade is symmetrical and singular in gross forms. Scheibler subordinated the dual entrances and manipulated four porch towers and the roof to create this effect. The porch towers for the outer units are made largely of openwork timber; but the porch towers for the inner units are combined into a single masonry form. By their respective materials and positions, the porch towers bracket and accentuate the center of the façade. The roof accounts for much of the building’s height, and Scheibler raised it at the center to make a strong central focus. The constant white surface of the stucco walls further unifies the building. Scheibler used stucco extensively for the next few years—stucco buildings in Pittsburgh from the period are commonly attributed (and frequently misattributed) to Scheibler by default.
The Old Heidelberg displays an extensive and wide-ranging decorative program inside and out. Many elements can be traced to specific projects in the Olbrich portfolio and to work by other progressive designers, including Baillie Scott and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Natural decorative motifs such as plants and birds fill (or once filled) art-glass windows and transoms; and mushrooms modeled in plaster relief accent a two-story window bay on the facade. A mosaic tile panel, which originally featured Old World scenes, names the building at the center of the façade.
In 1908-1909 Scheibler designed four cottages for the Old Heidelberg's north end, a single cottage for its south end, and a freestanding house for an adjacent property, introducing low irregular elements to the original high-shouldered building. The complex is set back behind planted open space and recessed below street level. This siting provides a green setting and advantageous views of the Old Heidelberg, a near ideal suburban apartment building.
Pittsburgh architect Frederick G. Scheibler, Jr. (1872-1958) trained as an apprentice in a number of local architectural offices, and operated his own practice from about 1900 into the 1930s. Scheibler had few projects and few documented travels outside of the Pittsburgh region; but he became acquainted with progressive architectural ideas and languages through architectural books and journals that he found at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and/or acquired for his own library. Scheibler is best understood as a progressive architect with a modern streak who worked in parallel with other progressive architects and movements during a time of experimentation. His Pittsburgh buildings, mostly houses and small apartment buildings, are admired and prized for their creativity and fine detailing, and at times for their modernity. A photographic exhibition of Scheibler’s work was held at the Carnegie Museum of Art in 1962.