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Duquesne Club's art has reflected the city's power and history

Saturday, March 09, 2002

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

Behind the pink granite walls of a very private Downtown building hangs a secret stash now revealed.

"The Art of the Duquesne Club" is the first comprehensive catalog of its paintings and decorative arts, with a special section detailing how the club's architecture and interiors evolved along Sixth Avenue.

The 136-page hardbound book won't be coming soon to a bookstore near you, however; it was published for members only. Copies will be available at local libraries.

Founded in 1873 and fueled by several generations of Pittsburgh's industrial power and wealth, the Duquesne Club is a local institution with national significance -- and not just because it placed first in 1997 among America's 10,000 private clubs in a survey of those who manage and govern them. In the meeting and dining rooms of this formidable bastion of bigwigs, many a deal with national and international implications has been sealed.

Through the years, the club's art collection has reflected that history, as well as the conservative, academic tastes of its members. It comprises predominantly Western Pennsylvania industrial, urban and rural landscapes, European views and Western scenes, which complement the club's lush, traditional interiors.

Otto Kuhler's 1934 etching of the magnificent George Westinghouse Bridge, with its central arch framing the Edgar Thomson plant, captures two of the industries that made Pittsburgh great: steelmaking and bridge building.

Westinghouse himself is represented in the collection by a portrait, along with likenesses of many of the club's presidents and prominent early members, including Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and brothers Andrew and Richard B. Mellon.

Andrew Mellon donated an 1889 painting by Francis David Millet, a Massachusetts native who studied at Harvard and abroad and went down on the Titanic. In depicting a scene from a Washington Irving book, "History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker," Millet painted himself as a colorful, mustachioed character popular with the ladies. It hung in the dining room where Frick took his lunch; in 1897 he wrote to Millet that "it is a pleasure to be able to see your cheerful countenance."

The catalog was written by University of Pittsburgh art and architecture professor David Wilkins, whose notes include where artists have exhibited as well as their major awards and collections in which they are included.

"The daring industrialists and innovative businessmen ... liked art that demonstrated training, skill and discipline; they avoided 'experimental' artists," Wilkins writes. While the Duquesne Club collection includes works by several artists who exhibited in the Paris Salons, for example, "there are no works by artists who exhibited in the more radical, alternative exhibitions sponsored by the Impressionists in Paris."

Wilkins singles out Charles Russell's 1915 oil painting, "When Shadows Hunt Death," as the club's most important work. It depicts two cowboys scrambling to conceal themselves from a war party of Indians who, traveling on a ridge, cast shadows on the opposite cliff.

And Wilkins rightly regards the club's 10 paintings by 19th-century Pittsburgh satirist David Gilmour Blythe as "a treasure of national significance."

An earlier catalog, published 15 years ago, listed all of the club's paintings, prints and sculpture, but not interiors or decorative arts. This book focuses on the most important artworks and on acquisitions since 1986.

It is a project of the club's Art Society, formed in 2000 to bring a deeper knowledge and appreciation of art to club members. One of the society's primary goals is to raise funds for new acquisitions and to inspire more members to give or bequeath works.

While most works were and continue to be donated to the club, others were acquired through purchase by a now-defunct Art Association. In recent years, however, opportunities to purchase works came and went because funds were not available.

The Art Society's first acquisitions are Doug Cooper's "McKees Rocks Bridge," a large charcoal mural, and William C. Wall's "River Landscape" of 1849.

The society is an offshoot of the club's Art and Library Committee, which in 1999 embarked on a five-year conservation program led by Christine Daulton, who describes the collection as being "in quite good condition" and details her work on it in the book. Architect Lucien Caste, the Art Society's president, explains how the art is now better illuminated with projected lights.

The story of the club's architecture begins with its first president, John Howland Ricketson, a Massachusetts-born lawyer who joined a Pittsburgh law firm in 1860. Two years later, he married Clementine Garrison and was soon recruited by his father-in-law to join the Garrison Foundry, of which he later became president. A strong civic leader, he was "possessed of unusual power of eloquence," as one Pittsburgh history described him, and was a frequent host and master of ceremonies for city events.

Ricketson's role in bringing Henry Hobson Richardson, his former Harvard classmate, to Pittsburgh -- and promoting him for the job as designer of the county courthouse and jail -- has been documented by Margaret Henderson Floyd in her 1994 book on the work of Longfellow, Alden and Harlow, a successor firm to Richardson and architects of the Duquesne Club. (In a footnote in the back of the book, Floyd notes how Richardson's enormous personage strained the springs of Ricketson's carriage near to failure as he drove him around town in the early 1880s.)

After Richardson's death in 1886, Frank Alden, who was supervising the courthouse project, formed a practice with Wadsworth Longfellow and Alfred Harlow. The Duquesne Club was their first commission, and its interior "set an opulent standard that would become the fashionable model after 1889 for the mansions that were erected by its members," Floyd wrote. It also led to the architects becoming the premier firm to Pittsburgh's moneyed class at the turn of the 20th century.

In "The Art of the Duquesne Club," lawyer Bruce Wolf reports how the building changed as it expanded from the original structure to include a 1904 addition by Rutan & Russell. While the facade appears to have been simply, if deftly, extruded along Sixth Avenue, the interior changes were dramatic, with dark, Romanesque-style details giving way to lighter, classical ones.

The club grew again when an adjacent rear property was purchased in 1929; Janssen & Cocken designed the U-shaped, 12-story brick addition, which is not seen from the street. Its focal point is one of the club's best features (and its most enchanting place to dine) -- the interior courtyard with fanciful Romanesque, balconied windows and carvings. A winter photograph shows how much visually richer it was -- if less usable year-round -- before being roofed over in 1957.

Who wants to munch their macaroons at a snow-topped table?

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