Looking at architectural gems in our midst

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Each new generation of architects redefines what makes a building or landscape modern, says Albert M. Tannler, one of Pittsburgh's authorities on this subject and author of a new guidebook about modern landmarks built here during the 20th century.

Having initially studied for the ministry before becoming an archivist and historian, this Scranton native is a kind of architectural evangelist, always ready to educate anyone about our region's distinctive buildings. Since 1990, he has served as director of historical collections for the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

His fifth book, due out Thursday, is "Pittsburgh Architecture in the Twentieth Century: Notable Modern Buildings and Their Architects." It's concise, thoroughly researched and filled with well-composed images by Louise Sturgess, who also served as editor.

The 276-page book, priced at $14 through December only, focuses on 80 buildings, structures and landscapes built between 1903 and 1999. Although there are a handful of private homes, most buildings are visible from the sidewalk. There are four excellent maps: Pittsburgh's North Side and North Hills, the East End, South and West, and Downtown, which can be used for a self-guided tour.

Pittsburgh lacks an example of work by such well-known architects as Frank O. Gehry or Zaha Hadid, but it is home to the world's first aluminum-clad skyscraper, built for Alcoa between 1950 and 1952. The city also can boast of Swan Acres, the first modern subdivision built in 1936 in Ross plus the first Usonian house in Pennsylvania, located in West Mifflin and designed by Cornelia Brierly and Peter Berndtson, students of Frank Lloyd Wright.

And if you haven't heard of Titus de Bobula from Budapest, well, the life of this Hungarian, who designed churches in Braddock, Carnegie and Munhall, is quite a saga. In 1910, he married Eurania Dinkey Mock, a niece of the wife of industrialist Charles M. Schwab, president of Bethlehem Steel. After Schwab said he would like to throw de Bobula out a window, the architect sued the industrialist unsuccessfully in 1919. In 1923, de Bobula's arrest in Hungary for trying to overthrow the government made the front page of The New York Times. Then, he went to work with the Serbian genius and inventor Nikola Tesla.

Mr. Tannler worked in Chicago in the 1960s and remembers architects' reverence for Mies van der Rohe, a German modernist who had served as the last director of the Bauhaus school. "Mies was alive and he was God," he recalled.

The architect's only work in Pittsburgh is Duquesne University's Richard King Mellon Hall of Science.

Also pictured in the book is the late, lamented Civic Arena, its silvery dome and walls demolished in 2012. Dedicated in 1961, its 415-foot-wide dome, the widest in the world when built, had a retractable roof. The Sports & Exhibition Authority of Pittsburgh, which pushed to raze the arena, provided $30,000 toward the cost of the book.

"When we decided to demolish the Civic Arena, we wished to take certain actions to acknowledge the importance of the building. We recognized that this was an example of an important modern building," said Rosemary Carroll, special legal counsel for the authority.

A thoughtful epilogue, written by Charles L. Rosenblum, an adjunct assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, examines 21st-century buildings, including the acclaimed David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Phipps' Center for Sustainable Landscapes and the new Tower at PNC on Wood Street.

Mr. Tannler will make some remarks about his book at 6 p.m. Thursday at Carnegie Museum of Art, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. A reception will follow. To register for the event, call Mary Lu Denny at 412-471-4808, ext. 527, or send an email to marylu@phlf.org. Registration deadline is Monday.

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

Correction (Posted Dec. 16, 2013) An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect time for Mr. Tannler's remarks.

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