Pittsburgh Oakland

Pittsburgh’s Oakland section, four miles east of downtown, is a vital educational, cultural and residential district that Cather visited regularly and represented in her journalism and fiction.  Now densely settled, the district was much less developed when Cather arrived in Pittsburgh (University of Pittsburgh did not locate here until the 1920s)—a blank slate for the visions of the city’s philanthropists and planners.  Cather’s early artistic development intersected with this cultural development.

The Carnegie, 4400 Forbes Avenue, is the best place to begin a walking tour of Oakland. 412.622.3131.  http://www.carnegiemuseums.org/carnegie/   The Carnegie’s own parking garage on the east end of the complex has its entrance at the intersection of Forbes and S. Craig; metered spaces surround the adjacent University of Pittsburgh campus.

Opened in 1895, one year before Cather’s arrival in the city, this complex, comprising the Carnegie Museum of Art, Museum of Natural History, Music Hall, and Library, is among industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic legacies to the city.  Cather came here to attend exhibitions and concerts, to read and borrow books, and to write.  Note that The Carnegie Cather frequented and used as a setting in “Paul’s Case” (1905) was dramatically different from the one we see today, both inside and out.  The original building, designed by the Boston architectural firm Longfellow, Alden and Harlow, included only what is now the Music Hall (on the far right as you face the building) and behind it the Library, which then housed the art and natural history exhibits in its wings.  See Cather’s Home Monthly article, “The Carnegie Museum” at the Cather Archive for her account of the early collections.  Note: This article was mostly an introduction to a prize essay by her employer’s son, Fordham Orr).   Renovations in 1907 expanded the complex eastward and transformed the Music Hall, removing the two Italianate towers affectionately nicknamed the “donkey ears,” and encasing its original curved exterior in a rectangular foyer.  The modern wing on the east side opened in 1974.

The Carnegie Main Library (412.622.3114) is rich in materials relevant to Cather’s Pittsburgh.  The Pennsylvania Room on the third floor has the best collection of local history, including microforms of the Home Monthly, Library, and Pittsburgh newspapers.  The Music, Film, and Audio Department on the second floor has a vast collection of vertical files on turn-of-the-century topics.

Exiting The Carnegie from the carriage drive, turn left and look west past the towering Cathedral of Learning to the square, beige building beyond.  This is the former Schenley Hotel, now the William Pitt Union of the University of Pittsburgh.  Following (roughly) Paul’s steps from the Music Hall to the Schenley, continue left on Forbes, cross Schenley Dr., turn right, cross Forbes, and enter the William Pitt Union at the Forbes Avenue entrance.


To your right as you reach the ground floor is an information desk, where attendants offer guidance to the building via an informative historical pamphlet; a brief history is also available at http://www.studentaffairs.pitt.edu/aboutwpu.  From the information desk, continue to the right and note the showcases displaying mementos of Pittsburgh’s rich jazz history.


Figure 5: Caption:  “Over yonder the Schenley, in its vacant stretch, looked big and square through the fine rain, the windows of its twelve stories glowing like those of a lighted card-board house under a Christmas tree”—“Paul’s Case”

While it remains unclear why Cather gave the Schenley twelve stories (the building actually has ten floors), the grand hotel financed by Carnegie, Frick, Westinghouse, Heinz, and others certainly measured up to its nickname of “the Waldorf of Pittsburgh.”  Cather spent much time at the hotel after its opening on October 1, 1898.   Here she breakfasted with Ethelbert Nevin and Mark Hambourg, recovered from a cold in the suite of actress friend Lillie Hudson Collier, and interviewed many celebrities.  In “Paul’s Case,” Cather noted that “All the singers and actors of any importance stayed [at the Hotel Schenley] when they were in the city, and a number of the big manufacturers of the city lived there during the winter.”  In “A Gold Slipper” (1917), Marshall McCann, a minor coke baron, grabs a bite here just before his fateful encounter with Kitty Ayreshire.

After purchasing the Hotel in 1956, the University of Pittsburgh restored several areas of the building to their period splendor in a major, $14 million renovation of 1983.  Visitors are welcome to tour and photograph these spaces when they are not being used for meetings.  First take a look at the Terrace Room, originally used as a sunroom and public restaurant.   This was probably the ‘red Turkish breakfast room, where the palms gre is soft, even heat like that of a Polynesian summer” where Cather breakfasted with Ethelbert Nevin and Mark Hambourg.  The adjoining, marble-walled Tansky Family Lounge, originally part of the hotel lobby, gives a sense of the “tropical world of shiny, glistening surfaces and basking ease” that so attracted Paul.  Along the right wall of the Tansky Lounge is a display case filled with mementos of the Schenley’s first half century, when it hosted Presidents, most of the teams of the National Baseball League, and was the favored address of beauty queen Lillian Russell before her marriage to newspaper tycoon Alexander Moore.  Also in the Tansky Lounge is a memorial plaque to Italian actress Eleonora Duse, who died at the Schenley a few days after failing to find an unlocked stage door at the downtown Syria Mosque and being exposed to a freezing rain.  Severely chilled, the sixty-five year old Duse contracted pneumonia and died in her room at the Schenley on 21 April 1924.

WPU TV lounge

Across the hall from the Tansky Lounge to the Grand Ballroom where the Pittsburgh elite waltzed, their fancy dress reflected in its mirrored walls.  In this room in 1901 was held the “Meal of Millionaires,” the celebration marking the sale of Carnegie Steel to J.P Morgan, forming U.S. Steel.  On that occasion, a dour but wealthy collection of “iron kings” was seated around a mammoth table shaped like a cross section of a steel rail.

WPU ballroom

Paul envisions when he conjures up “mysterious dishes that were brought into the dining- room, green bottles in buckets of ice, as he had seen them in the supper party pictures of the Sunday supplement.”   Next to the Ballroom, on the Bigelow Blvd. side of the building, is the Grand Lounge, with its original 500-pound cut glass chandeliers and marble pillars; its staircase, now truncated, once led to the first-floor French Suite.

(pause to examine the hotel’s solid oak guest-room doors, now paneling the walls of the Recreation Room).  The central stairway and a single elevator provide access to the ground floor. If you visit while the university’s offices are open, take a quick trip upstairs (the back stairs are original—in those days, even the hotel’s part-owner, Andrew Carnegie, took the stairs) to Room 140. The fifth floor lounge, two flights up [?], affords a nice view of the Cathedral of Learning and Oakland.


Cathedral of Learning.  5th Ave. and Bigelow Boulevard. 412.624.6000.  The most visible landmark in Oakland and the tallest educational building in the U.S., this 42-story Gothic tower, completed in 1935, features an impressive reading room on the main floor and a series of 26 classrooms in various national styles.  Tours of the Nationality Rooms are available. http://www.pitt.edu/~natrooms/index.html

Cathedral from Sailors and Soldiers

Ride the elevator to the 36th floor and walk to the window on the left for an overview of The Carnegie, the campus of Carnegie Mellon University, and the eastern suburbs.


Heinz Memorial Chapel.  Across the green from the Cathedral of Learning. 412.624.4157.  Dedicated in 1938, this neo-Gothic jewel is the contribution of another Pittsburgh industrialist, Henry John Heinz, to the city’s cultural landscape (here fueled by ketchup rather than steel).  The 73-foot-high stained glass windows by a Pennsylvania native include images of Dante, Anne Hutchinson, Benjamin Franklin, Emily Bronte, and Emily Dickinson.  http://www.discover.pitt.edu/chapel/


Carnegie Mellon University. 5000 Forbes Ave. 412.268.2000. Founded in 1900 as the Carnegie Technical Schools, later known as Carnegie Institute of Technology. Cather’s brother Jack studied here.  The University’s Hunt Library contains some Catherania among its special collections. Carnegie Mellon University Libraries: 412.268.2446. http://www.library.cmu.edu/Libraries/


Dining options are legion in Oakland.  The William Pitt Student Union has many affordable options, from fast food to salads.  (Claim that you dined at the Schenley!)  On Forbes in the midst of the campus strip is the Original Hot Dog Shop, known locally as “the O,” justly famous for its French fries sold in massive proportions.  Closer to the Carnegie, just opposite the entrance to the Carnegie’s parking garage, South Craig St. offers a good selection of eateries.  Two are especially worth visiting:  Durante’s is an upscale, full-service restaurant (casual to formal dress), while The Star of India offers Pittsburgh’s best Indian cuisine.   Also on Craig is the Caliban Bookshop, which sometimes has Cather first editions in stock. Cather once boarded at 304 S. Craig; unfortunately, all of her boardinghouses are long gone.


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