With Mellon family philanthropy as a driving force, a neighborhood Presbyterian Church turned into a cathedral sized structure that America’s most revered church architect considered to be his best work. The Mellon family connected with the land-holding Negleys in 1843 when Thomas Mellon married Sarah Jane Negley.
Church-going but not necessarily avid Presbyterians, the Mellons attended the services, which had been held in a schoolhouse in the 18-teens. By 1930, the church on the current site was the sixth structure in the congregation’s history. However, at the onset of the Great Depression Richard Beatty Mellon and his wife Jennie declared their intention to build a cathedral sized church to honor their mothers and recognize Presbyterianism in western Pennsylvania. The $4 million eventual budget would be $66 million today.
Local wags called it the Mellon’s “fire escape,” as though a church might save the family from a heated afterlife. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon was drawing criticism in the Depression for his draconian economic policies and refusal to enact fiscal stimulus. And yet simultaneously, his brother Richard Beatty Mellon undertook a one-family public works program in Pittsburgh. Mellon funds also underwrote the Cathedral of Learning and the Mellon Institute, not simply useful educational amenities in impressive piles of stone, but also job generators in the depths of the economic crisis.
East Liberty Presbyterian is a campus, not simply a church, with chapel, garth and a four-story office building that could be a university academic department. It houses a men’s shelter, as well as a music hall, basketball court, and duck pin bowling alley. The church is the central focus with a 300-foot spire, which draws from Spanish Gothic stylistic sources, even as it hides its steel and concrete structure.
Some admirers pick out individual features such as its Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, stained glass by Charles Connick, and sculpture by John Angel. But the real hallmark is Cram’s architecture, which adds French and English influences to the Spanish in a convincingly erudite blending that was the architect’s trademark.
The Boston native appeared on the cover of Time magazine on December 13, 1926 as America’s leading architect making churches and academic buildings in Gothic style. Here, the 202-foot-long nave is actually a moderate 75 feet in height, but it was Cram’s favorite nonetheless.
“Of all the churches I have built, this is my masterpiece. This has been the most profound spiritual experience of my life.”
By Charles R. Rosenblum, Ph. D.
Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942) was an architect focused mainly on the Gothic style.