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Postcard book a link to our past
By Staff Writer   - 04/29/2009

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

More Info on This Book: Pittsburgh: 1900-1945

By page 92 of Michael Eversmeyer's "Pittsburgh 1900-1945," I was crying. It was the Rittenhouse Hotel that sprang the leak.

I had already mourned the loss of many of the buildings that came earlier in the book -- the Allegheny City Markethouse, the Jenkins Arcade and the "new" Wabash Depot to name a few. But the Rittenhouse was new to me. Unfortunately, it was old at a time when old was awful -- the mid-60s. We have only become a little more vigilant about preserving our fine old architecture since.

This book of historic postcards, just published by Arcadia Publishing, is a record of what Pittsburgh looked like during its most dynamic years.

Mr. Eversmeyer, an architect and preservationist, wrote in his introduction that he began collecting postcards about 10 years ago when his wife, "determined that I should have a hobby, presented to me on my birthday an album and a stack of postcards." He added to the collection, focusing on the years that interest him most. Postcards became all the rage in the early 20th century. Americans mailed a billion postcards in 1913.

Because he worked for years as the city's historic planner, Mr. Eversmeyer said the buildings were all familiar to him; but the cards showing people clustered in groups, attending sporting events and pointing to the city from perches along Grandview Avenue were particularly interesting, he said, because they show the way we lived and how people used their public spaces -- "very much like we do today."

I asked him to pick one building from the bunch to describe as a particularly sad loss. He cited one in East Liberty, where his current focus is: He is writing a proposal to the state nominating the core of East Liberty as an historic district.

"A particularly damaging loss was the East End Savings and Trust Building" at the corner of Highland and Penn Avenues, he said. It was razed in 1970. A one-story branch bank sits there now. "It was so prominent. You really had a sense that you were in an important commercial district. It gave a real urban character and quality to the streetscape. One story buildings just don't do that."

This book has added another layer to my belief that preservation is a hallmark of a great society. We're a good society; we still have a wealth of buildings in which our grandparents and great-grandparents lived, did business and enjoyed themselves.

But if we had even 20 of the great buildings we sacrificed for urban renewal, Pittsburgh would be a mecca for architecture buffs worldwide. We would be beyond compare with any other city in the country except perhaps New York.

No one goes to Rome to see the new buildings, and great new buildings are celebrated because they will be historic landmarks someday, such as the Guggenheim in Barcelona and the Sydney Opera House.

On page after page of this book of postcards, descriptions of Gothics, Beaux Arts and Victorians gems precede the epitaph, "demolished in the mid-60s during urban renewal." The '60s were a great time for social change, but they wreaked havoc on the marvelous specimens of our built environment.

Most of the views offered in this book are between 1905 and the 1920s. The chapters begin with bridges and rivers, succeed to Downtown, the North Side, the South Side, the Hill, the Strip, Lawrenceville, Oakland, East Liberty and the East End. The final chapter shows people at pastime sites, including Luna Park -- a amusement park, and Forbes Field, the 1909-1970 home of the Pirates, both in Oakland; Lake Elizabeth in Allegheny Commons Park on the North Side, and McKinley Park in Mount Washington.

The book is being sold by local retailers and on the website www.arcadiapublishing.com, the site for more information about this and other books of historic Pittsburgh photos.

Buy It Now: Pittsburgh: 1900-1945 $21.99

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