Judging Buildings

When I first saw this building from a distance, its rooftop ornamentation made it stand out from its surroundings. I didn’t have time to investigate on that trip, but my curiosity was peaked. I built up a story about the long history of this building that I surmised started out as a produce terminal in the 19th Century.

Six years later, I walked past the building on my way to my hotel. I was surprised to see it was a public library. It seemed unusual for a former marketplace to be converted to a library. As soon as I checked-in, I hurried back over to explore this unique building.

Despite entering immediately into a narrow, angular, white hallway, I held onto my belief that it was an old building. The hallway felt odd in that narrative, but I quickly forgot that feeling once I emerged into the main lobby with its high ceiling and sparkling white marble floors, counters, and walls. I found a directory and decided to make my way to the map room several floors above. This “room” turned out to be a corner in an open floor plan. The corner featured one row of computers and a full-service counter. Unable to browse a collection of maps, I made up a research question and asked the staff if they had maps to help. While one librarian looked in the back room for hard copy maps and another showed me their digital resources, our conversation ranged from how awesome maps are to the history of the building.

I was surprised and embarrassed to learn that the library was built in the 1990s. The rooftop sculptures of owls stand out so much in part because they were designed for a taller structure; the final floor of the library was cut from the project due to the financial crisis. I suggested it was nice that the designers included such details as the sculptures and marble countertops. The librarian pointed out that the marble was faux and did nothing to alleviate the industrial feel of the building.

Looking again, beyond the cleanliness and sparkle of the space, I noticed the low ceilings and uniform bright white light throughout the open floor plan. I also noticed the distortion of the wooden escalator enclosure. The proportions would have been better balanced if the enclosure reached twice as high to the next floor.

This discussion with the librarian made me question my default reactions to the space. My initial reaction of excitement for a unique example of adaptive reuse changed to awe when I thought that a new building, open to the public, incorporated expensive historical material. But this reaction did not match reality any more than the first. Both assumptions blinded me to the cramped spaces with migraine inducing lighting. This experience also taught me that it isn’t just the material that matters. Incorporating the materials, whether faux or real, while leaving out the related historic design elements such as natural lighting and high ceilings does not lead to a better building.

I came away with a better appreciation for my neighborhood library branch that combines modern materials (such as curtain wall windows and bamboo flooring) with thoughtful design. From the outside, I cringe at the modern angular look, but inside it is a warm and welcoming space. Apparently, the lesson of never judging a book by its cover applies to buildings, too. Never judge a building by its facade.

Pittsburgh’s Bragging Rights

I mentioned previously that I totally geek out over maps.  I recently came across a fascinating “new” map called The “Z” Atlas & Map of Pittsburgh, PA, and Mount Oliver, PA.  I am adding it to the Sanborn Maps and GM Hopkins Maps as a go-to for studying the changes Pittsburgh went through in the 20th Century.  The “Z” Atlas was published in 1952.  There are two things about this map that caught my eye as setting it apart from others during my initial perusal.

First, in the street index, it identifies which streets have unusual addressing.  Pittsburgh is known for some unique addressing situations.  For example, there is a block where houses built before WWII have 1300 numbers and the ones built after WWII have 1400 numbers, even though they are intermixed.  This atlas shows that the post WWII houses were built after 1952 because the address numbers on that street weren’t wonky yet.

Second, this map claims that “Pittsburgh has more streets than any City in the World. You will find EVERY ONE of them in this ‘Z’ Atlas and Map!”

“Preposterous,” I said, when I first read that claim.  Pittsburgh’s land area is small compared to other large metropoles.  It does not make Wikipedia’s current list of the 150 largest US cities by land area.  Without digging into census data, I assume that many of the old cities (ex. New York City, Chicago, Cleveland), if not most of the 150 listed, likely were of a similar size in the 1950s as today.  How could it be possible for Pittsburgh to have more streets than these cities that are significantly larger?

Then it hit me.  It is possible by the same token that makes it possible for Pittsburgh to have more bridges than any other city in the world, more steps than any other city, and the steepest paved street in the world: topography.

Pittsburgh’s many hills, ravines, cliffs, and rivers mean there are few long streets and many short streets.  Maybe after all, Pittsburgh did have more streets than any other City in the World in 1952.  Reading more of the “Z” Atlas, it elsewhere explains that Pittsburgh had over 6,000 streets at the time of the map’s publication.  That number does include the numerous “paper” streets that were surveyed and mapped, “but never built or even marked in the dirt.”

Many of these paper streets still exist today causing headaches for the City and its citizens, but some have been vacated and turned over to private ownership.  Between that and the rise of mega-cities since the 1950s, I won’t say that Pittsburgh can still claim more streets than any other city.  A quick Google search showed that the question of what city has the most number of streets is not as well discussed as what city has the most bridges.  Perhaps a more ambitious person than myself could run an analysis to see whether Pittsburgh still has more streets than any other City in the World.  (Don’t forget to count the step streets!)

Maps are Awesome!

While talking with someone recently, we discovered we shared a seemingly rare love of maps.  Maps are truly awesome and useful tools and not just for figuring out how to get from one place to another.  Maps provide insight into what a place looks like, giving clues about the layout and geography of a place you’ve never been.  Street names and other labels can hint at the history of the place.  Historical maps show what a place looked like in times past.

I have used maps several times to help me with writing my blog and there are many more times when I should have gone to a map first. As I mentioned in the first Heth’s Run Bridge post, the G.M. Hopkins maps on Historic Pittsburgh are probably my favorite resource for Pittsburgh.  Heth’s Run Bridge presented many puzzles that the maps helped me understand.  I realized yesterday that I probably should have gone to these maps first when wanting to figure out which bridge remnant I saw from the Fort Duquesne Bridge (see June 19’s post).  While writing that post, I did a search on the internet, but came up with nothing.  The G.M. Hopkins maps came to the rescue, although there are two possibilities for which bridge the remnant belonged to.  The first possibility I found on the 1900 map.  This one was called the Union Bridge.  By 1929, the Union Bridge was gone and another bridge connected the Point to the North Side.  This one was called Manchester Bridge.  This bridge was demolished in 1970, by which time the Fort Duquesne Bridge was built (see June 19th post).  I made a few other discoveries about Pittsburgh while looking at the 1929 map.  First, Penn and Liberty avenues used to come straight through to Water Road which ran along the northern shore of the Monongahela River.  Today these avenues stop much further inland.  The second major discovery was that Point Park already existed in 1929.  It was significantly smaller than it is today, but it is there.

Google Maps helped me with identify the buildings near Lambeth Bridge (see June 28th post) that I didn’t take the time to stop and investigate while I was walking the bridge.  Several of the buildings I was able to identify from labels that Google Maps conveniently placed on the map.  The Parliament View Apartments weren’t labeled, but using Google Maps’s other wonderful feature–Street View–I was able to find a sign on the building identifying it.

The image leading this post is of another highly convenient map.  On my recent trip to Cleveland, I arrived Downtown 2 hours before the person I was visiting finished work.  We arranged to meet at their place of work, but I was only familiar with two or three of the streets in downtown Cleveland, and the meeting place wasn’t on any of them.  I had just decided to use my skills of logic to find it (which would have been feasible in this case as one of the cross streets was a numbered street and the other was called Lakeside) when I came across this map on a street corner.  It turns out that these maps are posted regularly around downtown Cleveland, which I thought was very considerate of the city.  It made the city feel like it welcomed visitors with open arms, engaging them in being engaged in the city.  Even though I had a plan for finding where I was going without a map, I prefer being safe rather than sorry, so I took the easy way out and used the map to figure out where I was supposed to end up.  I also used it to plot out how I could spend the time I had until my friend got out of work to cross at least one of Cleveland’s bridges over the river Cuyahoga.  I ended up getting distracted from this goal, but that is a story for another day….(see July 9 post)….