While some may argue that Frank Lloyd Wright is the architect most associated with Pittsburgh because of his design of the celebrated Fallingwater and others may cite Daniel Burnham because of the numerous buildings he designed for Pittsburgh, none would argue that Henry Hornbostel was the architect who not only created masterpieces in Pittsburgh but did it with unsurpassed style.
Hornbostel was born in 1867 in Brooklyn and graduated in 1891 from Columbia University with a degree in architecture. While there, he distinguished himself as a gifted student, and he astonished his classmates and professors alike with his gift for perspective drawing. His considerable talent landed him a spot at the vaunted Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France, where he studied from 1894-1897.
When Hornbostel returned to the United States, America was experiencing a period of great prosperity. The Civil War was in the past, and America was growing and establishing itself as a world power. Industrialists like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Henry W. Oliver were changing Pittsburgh into an economic powerhouse. Flush with cash, these industrialists dreamed big and looked to construct buildings that would reflect their vision. If ever a man was made for his time, Hornbostel certainly was. He was a devotee of the Beaux Arts architectural style that he studied in France. The style recalled Greek and Roman temples and featured heavy ornamentation, columns, and arches. These captains of industry were larger than life and that architectural style appealed to them.
In 1904, he and partner, John Mead Howells, won the design competition for the new school, Carnegie Technical Schools, that Industrialist Andrew Carnegie planned to build in Pittsburgh. It would eventually become Carnegie Mellon University. Hornbostel applied that grand Beaux Arts architectural style to Carnegie Tech, designing the original buildings on campus including Baker Hall with its tiled staircase, Hammerschlag Hall with its iconic tower, and the College of Fine Arts building with its sculpture niches and muraled ceilings. Hornbostel became so entrenched at Carnegie Tech, that he became the founding professor of the Department of Architectures and Dean of the College of Fine Arts.
But Hornbostel’s genius wasn’t limited to Carnegie Tech. He also designed Pittsburgh’s City-County Building, Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, Temple Rodef Shalom, Webster Hall, the University Club, the Grant Building, and the Schenley Apartments. Of the 228 designs Hornbostel created, 110 them were for Pittsburgh buildings.
Outside of Pittsburgh, Hornbostel designed the buildings for Emory University in Atlanta, City Hall in Oakland, California, and the Hell Gate Bridge in New York City. Twenty-two of his designed works are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
With the dawn of the Great Depression, Hornbostel’s architectural career slowed as many lost their wealth and architectural tastes changed, and he was forced to into public service work. He became the Allegheny County park’s director, and under his supervision expanded the Allegheny County Airport and designed South Park Golf Club. In 1939, he retired. His first wife, Martha, with whom he had two sons, died in 1931. A year later he married Mabel Weston, a teacher at Peabody High School, who was 30 years younger than him. They retired to Harwinton, Connecticut, where he died in 1961 at the age of 94.
While his career is notable on its merits alone, it is his reputation of being a bon vivant that separates Hornbostel from his peers. Sporting a neatly trimmed Vandyke beard and red string ties (rumored to be ladies’ silk garters), Hornbostel loved a good time and lived life on his terms. He was noted for driving around the city in his Packard convertible with his dog in the passenger seat. He and his first wife, Martha, introduced the Beaux Arts Ball at Carnegie Tech, where he would don elaborate costumes such as Charlemagne. He was also known for having a pet monkey. When the monkey died, students at Carnegie Tech held an over-the-top funeral for the pet, and it is believed that the monkey is buried somewhere in Schenley Park.
When he was 50 years old, Hornbostel enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in World War I, earning the rank of Major. Because being gassed was a hazard of that war, soldiers were required to be clean-shaven to be able to wear gas masks; however, Hornbostel argued with his military superiors that he should be able to keep his signature Vandyke beard. He contended that he could don a gas mask over his beard and still be safe. Major Hornbostel prevailed.
Whether it was in designing buildings, drawing in perspective, attending parties, or serving in the armed forces, Henry Hornbostel did it supremely well and with inimitable style and panache. His legacy remains in the grand buildings all around our city.
By Janice Lane Palko