Three Brutal Cities & Me

An article by Alyson Ward about the restoration of the 1973 mural at the University of Houston Student Center [] brought up memories from my past.

University of Pittsburgh Hillman Library

I began graduate work in 1966 at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences. At the same time, I was employed as Publications Assistant to the Director of the University of Pittsburgh Libraries. One of my duties was to organize the publications (finding aids in library speak) for a new library building that was being planned. A new title, Tour Services Coordinator, was added as the library approached completion. The Director, Dr. C. Walter Stone, and I realized that the new building would be such a change from the library in the Cathedral of Learning (fondly called the Tower of Ignorance by locals such as myself) that users would need more than a paper handout to find their way around. So began my career as a tour guide and trainer of tour guides.

The new library building I was to describe and promote was in a radically new architectural style – Brutalist or New Brutalist.

“Design of Hillman Library was led by Celli-Flynn and Associates who served as coordinating architects. Kuhn, Newcomer & Valentour served as associated architects with Harrison & Abramovitz acting as consulting architects to the university.[13] . . . Constructed began in June 1965,[15] and the library opened on January 8, 1968,[16] while its formal dedication was held on September 6, 1968.[17] . . . The facade consisting of Indiana Limestone alternated with rows of Max Abramovitz designed the oriel windows.[18] The building’s podium wall is intended to echo the Renaissance-style rusticated stone base of the Carnegie Library across Schenley Plaza.[19] The interior was modeled on the style of Mies van der Rohe with warm teak and black-metal framing.[19] Floor-to-ceiling windows that were placed at a bay window angle in order to be inconspicuous on the plane surface of the outer wall while still providing light.[18] . . . In 1996, architect Celli-Flynn and Associates and Kuhn, Newcomer & Valentour won the Timeless Award for Enduring Design from the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Institute of Architects for its design of Hillman Library.[20][21]” Wikepedia.

“Pitt had a major opportunity to expand its lower campus after the late 1960s, when it became clear that Forbes Field would soon be torn down. But it did it incoherently, with buildings that are so different, it is the architectural equivalent of trying to play baseball, football and hockey — all on the same field and all at the same time. Three of the buildings — Posvar and Lawrence halls and the Law School were rendered in the then-fashionable “brutalist” style, but without the sophistication that it takes to make brutalism attractive. They exhibit pretty much the worst modernist ideas of the time — overbearing, cold-feeling buildings with barren plazas between them. A fourth, the Hillman Library, has a somewhat restrained but still quasi-brutalist facade. Yet, its podium wall is intended to echo the Renaissance-style rusticated stone base of the Carnegie Library across Schenley Plaza. Inside, contradictions continue. The main floor is serene — modeled on a different modern style, that of Mies van der Rohe, with lots of warm teak, black-metal framing and plenty of light.”

Not long after the Hillman Library opened, my husband was transferred to the Gulf Oil refinery in Philadelphia. We moved first to Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, and, after our daughter was born in 1972, to Sicklerville, New Jersey.

I continued my tour-guiding career at the Franklin Mint, this time, for visitors from around the world as part of my job as Assistant to the Vice President of International Sales. I also found myself giving tours of historic Philadelphia to wives and families of visiting or relocating Gulf Oil employees.

By 1978, I was divorced and looking for the perfect place for my six-year-old daughter and me to live a new life. I made a list of all the places I had already lived and of what I had liked most about each one. That list produced the characteristics of my ideal city – mountains, water, snowskiing, a good university, good public schools, walkable, no heat and humidity, no mosquitoes, a good bus system so we wouldn’t have to own a car, etc., etc., etc. (You’ll notice that very little in this list applied to Houston in 1978.) Then I got out an atlas (no computers yet) and searched for a real place that would match my dreams. Only one location appeared: Missoula, Montana.

In July 1979, my daughter flew to her Dad’s home in Kingwood, Texas, while I took a Greyhound bus across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois – the farthest west I had ever been – and then north to Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and, finally, Montana. For someone who had been raised in Swissvale, Pennsylvania, and had spent her junior year in college in the real Switzerland, Missoula was paradise.

Forty-eight hours later I had a job and an apartment. My daughter arrived in time for second grade. Long story short, I eventually bought a computer – an IBM Displaywriter – and started a company called Edit/Typit which supported us while I went back to college at the University of Montana.

The University of Montana backs up to Mount Sentinel on the east. As you approach the campus from the entrance on the west, you are looking up at the mountain. It’s a breathtaking view. [; Fox, Ballas and Barrow, “Perspective drawing of University Center and sectional of mall.,” Archives & Special Collections — Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, accessed January 13, 2014,]

“The University Center opened January 6, 1969. It was designed by the Missoula architectural firm of Fox, Ballas and Barrow and built by Missoula contractors Pew Construction. . . . The building was originally planned as an open-air mall without a roof or walls at the north and south ends. Shortly after the initial plans were approved, it was decided that without a roof and walls on all four sides the building would be unusable in the winter due to the high Hellgate Canyon winds. The plans were revised to include a roof and walls on the north and south ends. The interior space of the building has seen numerous changes over the years. . . . In 2000, the University Center underwent a major renovation for safety issues. The renovation included the installation of an interior access to the third floor. Before the extension of the elevators, visitors had to use an exterior staircase to reach the third floor. The remodeled third floor also included a theater and new meeting rooms.

In 1983, my daughter decided to move permanently to Kingwood and I decided to travel the world, starting with Prudhoe Bay and Fairbanks, Alaska, then moving on to San Francisco.

In July 1984, it was time to head east again and visit my daughter in Houston. I planned to stay only one month, then move on to other cities such as New Orleans and Miami. By 1985, I realized I wasn’t leaving the “steamy city,” so I enrolled in classes at the University of Houston.

The University of Houston’s University Center had been completed two years earlier, in 1967. Later renamed the Student Center, it was designed by local architects George Pierce and Abel Pierce as an example of New Brutalism, a “trend that affected U.S. architecture in the 1960s.” [Cite]. In the Houston Architecture Guide, Stephen Fox describe[d] New Brutalism as “[s]ectionally activated public buildings organized around collective spaces.” Fox felt that the University Center’s “engineering aesthetic – long spans infilled with repetitive wall systems and the use of concrete as a finish material – lacks the fine-grained detail needed to enliven such spaces.”  It did not, therefore, come up to the standard set by, for instance, ??? in designing the 196? Alley Theatre. []

I find it interesting that the University of Houston’s Student Center was designed by two Rice graduates. Ruth Pierce said after her husband’s [Abel Pierce] death that “the two Pierces’ mail always got mixed up, so they decided they might as well form a partnership.” “The firm traces its roots to the decision by George F. Pierce, Jr., (born 1919; FAIA 1961; TSA Pitts Award 1983) to study architecture at Rice University (born in Dallas, Pierce was influenced by the buildings of George Dahl and Mark Lemmon to turn to architecture from his earlier study of physics) and to settle there after war-time service in the Navy. After working for Nunn & McGinty and Kenneth Franzheim, Pierce went into solo practice, occupying a desk in the Montrose Boulevard offices of Walter P. Moore. Soon after, he went into partnership with Herbert Cowell and later [in 1946] with Abel Pierce (born 1909), another Rice graduate (to whom he was not related); George handled design, and Abel, with 10 years more experience, handled production.” “Abel Pierce specialized in production and George Pierce handled marketing and design supervision.”

“Founded in 1946 by George F. Pierce, PGAL, also known as Pierce Goodwin Alexander & Linville, operated as a midsized firm through the 1970s. . . . In 1959, The Office of George F. Pierce, Jr., and Abel B. Pierce, as the firm was then called, won a TSA design award for the Physics Laboratory on the Rice University Campus, the first of the firm’s eight major projects on the campus. Other TSA awards were won for the Houston State Psychiatric Institute in Houston, the First National Bank in San Angelo, the University Center at the University of Houston, Jenny Sealy Hospital in Galveston, and (in joint venture with Goleman & Rolfe) the Houston Intercontinental Airport.”2

So, somehow, my life has taken me from Pittsburgh to Missoula to Houston. In each city, I have found myself in very similar buildings – all Brutal.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *