One of Pittsburgh’s most stylistically European buildings of the early twentieth century comes from an architect who probably never traveled outside of the United States. Frederick Scheibler, a local favorite and the subject of a book by historian Martin Aurand, doesn’t significantly appear in publications outside of Pittsburgh, though probably he should.
His work, mostly apartment buildings and houses in Wilkinsburg, Swissvale, and elsewhere around Pittsburgh’s eastern border, reflects a sophisticated understanding of the best British, German, and Austrian designs of the era–an effort to bring a developing sense of Modernism to styles influenced by the Arts and Crafts, with Art Nouveau and Viennese Secessionism added for good measure. While Frank Lloyd Wright tends to monopolize discussions of this kind of architecture, Scheibler’s work also compares favorably with the era’s best.
Like many contemporary architects, he learned through apprenticeship rather than university education. A precocious talent, in 1888, he began work at age 16 in the firm of Henry Moser, followed by V. Wyse Thalman and Longfellow, Alden and Harlow. Scheibler was a natural talent whose smallest scribbles and sketches persist as stylish, architecturally evocative works, from which buildings seemed to grow naturally.
His first design, a house for himself and his wife in 1898, was accomplished from the outset. He had command of the picturesque dynamics of intersecting gables and eaves that were typical of the Arts & Crafts, even as he cleverly manipulated the three dimensional spaces and tectonic joinery beneath. His Old Heidelberg Apartments, characterized by crafted detail and white stucco surfaces beneath a sprawling composition of cottage-like roofs, echo works by C.F.A Voysey and M.H. Baillie Scott.
Highland Towers, a four-story apartment building, seemed to move away from the English countryside and toward the future through its hard edges, flat roof, and increasingly abstract ornament. On Highland Avenue in Shadyside, it might fit well in Vienna, where buildings by Josef Maria Olbrich and Otto Wagner provided clear inspiration. Scheibler’s mastery of architecture’s many elements comes through. A clever entry sequence leads to a cozy garden court above street level. The artful treatment of interwoven brick corner towers and connecting rows of shallow balconies hint at the elegant spaces within. Amazingly, many details such as sculpted fireplaces, abstract art glass, and built-in dressers remain intact in these rental units. One small advantage of Scheibler’s continuing low profile is that they are still affordable.
By Charles L. Rosenblum
Frederick G. Scheibler, Jr. (1872-1958) was a Pittsburgh architect.