Eyewitness 1917: Union Trust Building opened to rave review

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The new owner of the Union Trust Building has plans to bring back what Post-Gazette reporter Mark Belko characterized as "the grandeur of the iconic Grant Street building."

His May 15 story described what an affiliate of The Davis Companies, based in Boston, hopes to do in renovating the 11-story Downtown landmark.

When it opened in May 1917, the state-of-the-art building known then as the Union Arcade became the Golden Triangle's prime office and retail space. Stories about the completion of construction filled a 12-page special section in The Pittsburgh Gazette-Times on May 31, 1917. Reporter R.J. Farrell could not find enough adjectives and historical references to describe the "New Shopping Center of Pittsburgh."

Channeling 19th century travel writer Bayard Taylor, Farrell wrote that the multi-story shopping arcade was comparable to a Baghdad bazaar without the unpleasant smells. Were Taylor to visit Pittsburgh, the Gazette-Times reporter wrote, "he would see the magnificence he could so well appreciate without any of the deteriorating accompaniments of those older places where scenery made up for sanitation."

Henry Clay Frick, the coke-and-steel magnate, was the developer of the Union Arcade. His "latest contribution to the advancement of the city in the progress of which he has so long been a factor ... is a wonder," the newspaper story said.

The new commercial center was built on land at Fifth Avenue and Grant Street that had been home to the city's first and second versions of St. Paul's Roman Catholic Cathedral. "If we separate the thought of religion and that of industry or business, it must be confessed that the temples of religion have no mean successor in the temple of commerce," Farrell's story said.

Architect Frederick J. Osterling designed the structure in a Flemish-Gothic style that called to mind town halls and medieval guild buildings in France and Belgium. A sidebar story in the Gazette-Times said the Union Arcade did "not have as its prototype any particular edifice of the old world [and] inspiration was drawn from a number of them."

When it opened, the arcade had eight acres of space to house 238 retail stores on its first four floors and hundreds of offices above.

The news stories and contractors' ads emphasized that no expense had been spared. The Interior Marble and Tile Co. installed $200,000 worth of Italian Tavernelle-Clair, gray Tennessee and Alabama marble throughout the structure. That contract would be worth about $3.6 million in modern money.

Extensive use of another then-common building material was described in a half-page advertisement. National Lead & Oil Co. reported that 70,000 pounds of its white lead, produced in Pittsburgh, had been mixed into 4,200 gallons of Dutch Boy interior wall paint. "That is enough paint to single-coat both sides of a three-foot fence completely circling our entire city," the company boasted.

"It is a thing of wonder," Farrell wrote of the Union Arcade, "that there should be and could be set down in the heart of one of the most utilitarian of cities ... such a pile wherein art and utility are so amazingly and so happily combined."

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. See more stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.

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