'Boyd's Hill' depicts a world of work in 1892 Pittsburgh
A Post-Gazette Christmas Day tradition: the story of a winter-scene painting
December 25, 2011 10:00 AM
Westmoreland Museum of American Art
In January 1892, when Martin B. Leisser painted "Boyd's Hill," there was no more picturesque city in America than Pittsburgh for those who liked their landscapes rugged and billowing with smoke. But where was Boyd's Hill, and what buildings, exactly, are we looking at? The answers may surprise.
Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh
The cupola or belfry of Hancock School, on the right side of Webster Avenue, appears in this September 1912 photograph taken during the "hump cut," when Grant's Hill was excavated to make the area level with surrounding streets. The building in the right foreground was part of the St. Mary's school and church complex.
By Patricia Lowry Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
We bring this story to you, in the sixth year of a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette tradition, to mark the blessings of the season and to wish our readers every happiness.
Boyd's Hill is one of those old Pittsburgh names that has fallen by the wayside, ever ready to trip up even native Pittsburghers. Ask for directions to Boyd's Hill and we'll merely gape at you, something our ancestors never would have done.
"Boyd's Hill" is the name of Martin B. Leisser's small painting of the rocky promontory we call the Bluff. The son of a South Side immigrant glass factory worker who became the dean of Pittsburgh painters, Leisser was 46 when he painted it on Jan. 4, 1892. It was among the first works he produced here after more than five years of living and working in Europe, most recently in Munich, where he had studied two decades earlier.
For the sixth consecutive year, the Post-Gazette features a winter-scene painting on the cover of the Christmas Day newspaper. This year's painting was selected by PG publisher John Robinson Block and executive editor David Shribman during a recent visit to the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg.
In the painting, a woman -- or is she still a girl? -- pours a bucket of coal ashes onto the snow, maintaining a path to the row house. A man, hunched against the cold, carries firewood, perhaps, next to the horse-drawn wagon. Because this is Pittsburgh before the turn of the last century, the domestic tableau is set against the industrial architecture, dramatic topography and smoky atmospherics that so captivated and inspired the city's artists. This is no winter wonderland. "Boyd's Hill" is a painting about work.
Almost 120 years later, it's also a painting about evolution and loss. Everything we see in "Boyd's Hill" has vanished, save for the land in the foreground.
The Bluff was first known to settlers as Ayres' Hill, named for a British engineer who promoted the idea of building a fort there, after the demise of Fort Duquesne, because of its commanding views. But when John Boyd took his own life on the hill, he unwittingly gave his name to it.
Henry Brackenridge, lawyer and Pittsburgh Gazette co-founder, had enticed Boyd to come to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia in 1786 to assist Brackenridge's struggling partner, John Scull. During his time at the paper, Boyd also tried to establish Pittsburgh's first lending library, but the project was dropped for lack of interest.
Ella Chalfant, who wrote about Boyd's intestate passing in her 1955 book on early wills in Allegheny County, suggests that Brackenridge oversold Pittsburgh and that the reality of life in a small frontier town didn't measure up to his descriptions.
We may never know what motivated young Boyd. Inscrutably -- he gave no reason -- John Boyd left his Water Street office one day in the summer of 1788 and climbed Ayres' Hill to hang himself.
The painting isn't easy to read, either. At first glance it seems to show, at the top of the hill in the background, Duquesne University's Old Main administration building, which for many years had a cupola. But that interpretation collapsed under research. The cupola in the painting didn't match Old Main's, and Old Main stood taller and more solitary on the Bluff in those days. Comparisons of early maps and photographs on the Historic Pittsburgh website indicated the hilltop background building more likely would be a school or other institution in the Lower Hill. If Boyd's Hill was the foreground, as increasingly seemed to be the case, the logical terminal view was the nearest hillock, on the undulating Lower Hill.
"Boyd's Hill" is a small painting, about 10 by 13 inches. While he painted the foreground with precision, recording even the standing seams of the row houses' metal roofs, Leisser defines the background hillside buildings by their snow-covered roofs with a flurry of loose brush strokes. Yet the schoolhouse cupola stands out, and Pittsburghers of 1892 would have recognized the building by its profile. We, however, are left to play detective.
Possible candidates gleaned from maps were compared with photographs of historic school buildings. Franklin School at Franklin and Logan streets was a massive Richardsonian Romanesque castle with two round corner towers flanking two tall square towers -- the sort Andrew Carnegie called "donkey ears" on the Carnegie Institute building in Oakland, and ordered them removed as part of its expansion. Scratch Franklin; it was nothing like the school in the painting.
Moorhead School -- also known as the Eleventh Ward Public School -- seemed a possibility. The school was at the corner of Enoch and Granville streets and next to St. Bridget's Church. In the painting, the cupola-topped building is close to a building with spires or turrets. But in a 1931 aerial photograph of the Lower Hill from the roof of the Grant Building, Moorhead and St. Bridget's, seen faintly in the distance, don't seem to match the buildings in the painting.
Historic photographs of Hancock School, an 1874 Italianate building at Seventh and Webster avenues on the fringe of Downtown, reveal it had the distinctive cupola and deep cornice of the building in the painting, and there was a Roman Catholic church and school complex a few doors away. Both were located on Grant's Hill, the beloved promenade and picnic spot that, as the city grew, devolved into the topographical inconvenience known as the hump. Both buildings, located between where the U.S. Steel Tower and Civic Arena are now, gained height when the ground beneath them was cut away in the 1912 "hump cut." Eureka? Maybe. The elevation and buildings have changed so much, it's hard to know precisely what view Leisser would have seen and where on Boyd's Hill he would have seen it from.
On 1889 and 1900 Hopkins maps of the Bluff, no buildings have a similar footprint and relationship to each other as those in the foreground of the painting, but it was a rapidly evolving area around the turn of the 20th century, and structures may have come and gone without being recorded on maps. Then as now, the western end of the Bluff had steep drops in elevation between streets as they stepped down to Forbes, a landscape feature evident in "Boyd's Hill."
Boyd's Hill turned out to be a good place to make brick using clay and shale, both of which were abundant there. Stones, perhaps recently excavated or dumped for industrial use, cover part of the painting's foreground. Several brick makers operated on the Bluff, including the Cawley & Briley factory at Shingiss and Logan streets on the western end. Is the small brown building with the big smokestack associated with a brickworks? And what is the structure behind it, which seems to rise up from the street below? Leisser has left us with more questions than answers.
"Such a little painting to contain so much history!" said Westmoreland Museum chief curator Barbara Jones. "It is really great to have another set of eyes scrutinize these paintings because when that happens, new information inevitably comes to light. I had never gone beyond the assumption that the cupola in the distance was that of Duquesne University."
The Westmoreland acquired "Boyd's Hill" in 1984 from a Boston gallery that had purchased it at auction; its earlier provenance is unknown. "Boyd's Hill" is on view now as part of the museum's ongoing exhibit "Born of Fire: The Valley of Work," curated by Ms. Jones.
"His paintings are gentle, meticulous, refined in tone and feeling," wrote the Pittsburgh Bulletin Index in 1935. The prolific Leisser still was painting and living on Ridge Avenue, where his attic studio literally was crammed to the rafters. He kept at it until shortly before his death in 1940, at age 94.
"It's no accomplishment," he told the Bulletin Index. "One simply feels grateful to be permitted to go on."