Carnegie Tech began in 1900 as a modest trade school where laborers could acquire skills to earn promotions in their jobs at the mills. By 1916, though, it had grown a full-fledged palace of fine arts to house the fruitfully co-existing fields of art, architecture, sculpture, drama, and music.
Carnegie Technical Schools did not even grant degrees in its first years. Andrew Carnegie imagined that it would fill a gap between high schools and universities, the latter of which he often found impractical and elitist. But he had already published essays about his love for the arts in Triumphant Democracy, and historical currents colluded to make him the patron of a School of Applied Design, which was later renamed a College of Fine Arts.
Carnegie Tech had applied arts courses from the beginning, but they were mostly trade-oriented pursuits such as sign painting and costume making. Architecture, on the other hand, quickly took on a leading curricular role, primarily because of Henry Hornbostel. In 1904, the architect won the competition to design the original campus buildings, a role through which he also became the first Professor of Architecture and Dean of the School of Applied Design. He started a university level curriculum in architecture from the outset. Meanwhile, student enrollment in all fields surpassed expectations, and certificate earners in mechanically-oriented technical fields lobbied for the ability to earn degrees in engineering and physics. In 1912, Carnegie Technical Schools became Carnegie Institute of Technology and started granting degrees across its curriculum.
The campus continued to expand, fulfilling the architectural vision by which Hornbostel had first won his job. As part of his 1911 revisions, he proposed putting the School of Applied Design at the high point of the campus’s east end, where an administrative building had originally been intended. His design was a grand Renaissance Revival palace, one that he would bring to completion with a highly distinctive collection of instructional murals, sculptures, and architectural details.
Brooklyn-born Hornbostel studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, so he was steeped in the Greek, Roman, Renaissance and Baroque designs that the school famously took as its models. However, like the best of his contemporaries, he was interested in blending those influences with a sense of the technology and innovation his own time. In his mind, the classical and contemporary could combine effectively. That’s why Tech’s Hamerschlag Hall is both a temple and a smokestack.
So even though the College of Fine Arts is much like the Villa Borghese, but it has some bits of New York skyscraper and world’s fair exposition hall thrown in as well. A few elements come recognizably from architecture textbooks, others emerge directly from Hornbostel’s imagination.
The building is unique for its curricular combination of five arts. (Painting and sculpture are now combined as one, and design takes its place as the fifth art). It also combines them with some spatial drama. Grand halls on the first floor connect a concert hall and unconventional oval-shaped theater. Music occupies the mezzanine level, with architecture and art spaces on the second and third floors respectively. Despite many alterations over the years, the building retains much of its original organization.
Its decorative program means it is still a museum and teaching tool as much as a classroom. Plaster casts of important sculptures from the Metropolitan Museum in New York fill the niches of the Great Hall, and plans of ancient and medieval buildings are inlaid with terrazzo in the floor. On the ceiling, a mural gathers images of great works of architecture, interspersed with images of composers and dramatists. Hornbostel’s selections include well-known classics of the builder’s art, with some unusual personal favorites as part of the collection as well.
The five sculptural niches on the building’s façade are a culminating element. Hornbostel imagined that they would represent Medieval, Greek, Roman, Renaissance, and Eastern styles of architecture. Talented but mercurial sculptor Achille Giammartini completed most of two niches before abandoning the project. The niches were brought much closer to completion in the late 1990s.
In a building full of illustrations of historical buildings, the construction details are invariably novel and unprecedented. Study the past, Horbostel says in his architecture, but pursue your own sense of originality as you build.
By Charles L. Rosenblum, Ph. D.
Henry Hornbostel (1867-1961), a Brooklyn native, designed 110 buildings in Pittsburgh -- which accounts for nearly half of his designs over his lifetime. Hornbostel was classically trained in architecture in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
Although his work is evident throughout the city of Pittsburgh, he was also known to be a whimsical public figure, often
sporting a red bowtie and carrying a cane. He served as Allegheny County’s director of parks in the 1930s.