Tag Archives: architecture

France in My Pants

I wasn’t scheduled to post today, but I volunteered to do so on one condition: that I could call my post “France in My Pants.” Fortunately, our gracious editor accepted my terms, so here we are.

France in my pants, indeed.

Okay, there are pants in these books. But they aren’t my pants.

I must confess that this post isn’t really about pants, it’s about France in the late 1800s and the early days of forensics and murdering and stuff – so if you want to stop reading now, I won’t be offended. For those of you who’d like to carry on, away we go!

Eiffel's Tower

Oooh, shiny.

Eiffel’s Tower, by Jill Jonnes – Did you know that Gustav Eiffel had a swanky little apartment at the top of the Eiffel tower? He did! It was fully furnished with artwork, velvet fringed divans, and even a piano. (p. 152 and 237). And did you know that the tower had its own newspaper? It did! During the 1889 Paris Exposition, Le Figaro printed a daily special edition of their newspaper (Le Figaro de la Tour) in a tiny office on the tower’s second floor (p. 46).

This book is both a friendly romp through the history and construction of the tower and a nice general introduction to some of the Exposition’s famous visitors. Where else can you learn about the difficulties of constructing elevators that travel up and sideways at the same time? Where else can you learn about Annie Oakley’s living quarters and how Thomas Edison became an Italian count? Where else can you discover how the good people of Paris reacted to that most American of constructions, the Corn Palace? Spoiler: thumbs down (p. 125).

The tower itself was a parade of famous people – visitors included the Prince and Princess of Wales (who came even though Queen Victoria had called for a boycott of the fair), Isabella II of Spain, King George of Greece, not-yet Czar of Russia Nicholas II, and (almost) the Shah of Persia – his courage failed him on his first attempt to climb the tower, and he didn’t get far on his second visit before descending “as fast as his legs could carry him, and unassisted by any native dignity or borrowed decorum” (p. 187). Well, at least he tried.

Photographs scattered throughout the book show the early phases of the tower’s construction, which really puts the whole scale of the operation (and the Shah’s fears) into perspective.  Of course, there are the requisite images of the designers and engineers of the tower and the Exposition, but you’ll also come across a few spiffy interior shots of the exhibition halls and a charming picture of Buffalo Bill and some of his Native American employees enjoying a gondola ride in Venice (p. 278).

Note: If you’re only here for happy books, this would be a good place to stop reading.

The Killer of Little Sheperds

There’s a bloodstain on the cover, in case you couldn’t tell that this is a murdery book.

The Killer of Little Shepherds, by Douglas Starr – Catching serial killers is hard work, especially in the French countryside, especially in the late 1800s, especially when the local police departments don’t talk to each other, and especially when there are no standards for collecting and analyzing evidence. But you’ll see how science (yay, science!) overcomes all of these obstacles in this book, which tells the parallel stories of Joseph Vacher (our killer) and Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne (a pioneer in the field of forensic medicine).

Vacher was a soldier who didn’t take rejection well – he started his violent career by proposing to a young housemaid on their first date and shooting her in the face when she rejected him (p. 5). She survived; he went on to commit at least eleven murders – well, he confessed to eleven, though he was suspected of more than twenty-five (p. 148).

Lacassange,  a professor at the University of Lyon, worked with his students to compile a pocket-sized guide to pretty much every crime everywhere. His book became an indispensable tool for doctors and investigators – with its assistance, they could be sure of collecting evidence that would stand up in court (p. 45). He was also apparently the first person to use the rifling marks on a bullet to link it to a particular gun, way  back in 1888 (p.46)!

This book also contains many sensational newspaper illustrations of crime scene reenactments, scattered body parts, dramatic autopsies, handwriting samples, and a very discreet photograph of Vacher’s severed head. Something for everyone, really.

Little Demon in the City of Light

Look! It’s that shiny tower thingy again!

Little Demon in the City of Light, by Steven Livingston – Can a person be held accountable for a crime that they committed while hypnotized? That’s the underlying question in our final book, the story of the murder of Toussaint-Augustin Gouffe, a wealthy and swanky fellow done in by his intended mistress, Gabrielle Bompard.

At the time of the murder, Gabrielle was supposedly acting under the influence of her lover – con man, hypnotist, and all around creepy fellow Michel Eyraud (seriously – he was like, twenty years older than her. And while they were on the lam, he made her pose first as his son and then as his daughter).

The crime took place in Paris in 1889 (the year the Eiffel Tower opened), and Gouffe’s body was discovered in Lyon, where it was identified by Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne (the previously noted forensic medicine chap). See how nicely everything comes together? But alas, I’m still reading this one, so I’m afraid I don’t have many more details for you. So far, it’s fascinating stuff.

Like The Killer of Little Shepherds, this book also features a fun variety of illustrations and photographs. There are quite a few fancy mustaches, the bloody trunk that once contained Gouffe’s corpse, and a very tasteful picture of his remains (so don’t read this one on your lunch break).

– Amy, friend of pants, science, and history


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National Historic Preservation Month at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

We at CLP are really excited about new places lately–our West End location just celebrated its re-opening on May 17th, after a winter of renovation, and our Hazelwood location is getting ready for its big move to the newly restored building at 5000 Second Avenue in June. But in honor of National Historic Preservation Month we–or at least I–are/am spending May being really excited about some old places too. Pittsburgh is a city with a lot of history to be proud of, and we’ve worked over the years with the U.S. National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places to make sure that some of these significant places remain for future generations to enjoy.

You don’t have to look far to find some great historic places in Pittsburgh–just check out some of the Carnegie Library’s branches! Our beautiful Main location in Oakland was added to the National Register in 1979. The building has been updated over the years, but it still retains the historic charm it possessed as the Carnegie Institute and Library. Up on the North Side, the Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny Building once housed one of the first Carnegie libraries and music halls in the United States; today it is the home of the New Hazlett Theater. If you’re looking for information on the history of these and other Carnegie Library branches in Pittsburgh, both old and recent, Main Library’s Pennsylvania Department is a great place to look, both in person and via their portion of the website. The Bridging the Urban Landscape collection, which contains hundreds of historic photographs and descriptions, is especially worth a look.

True confession that might require me to turn in my Pittsburgher Who Loves Old Places card: every December I bemoan my busy holiday season because I’ve never once managed to make it to the Allegheny West House Tour (although I swear this is going to be the year!). But if you’re like me, fear not: CLP carries several fun DVD documentaries that will help you travel in spirit to places like Allegheny West, the Cathedral of Learning (where I like to study and pretend I’m a student at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry), and the Fourth Avenue Financial District. If you’re in a book mood, check out Bob Regan’s The Bridges of Pittsburgh for information on the historic spans that help us get there from here, Melanie Linn Gutkowski’s Pittsburgh’s Mansions for some architectural eye candy, and Walter C. Kidney’s Life’s Riches: Excerpts on the Pittsburgh Region and Historic Preservation for an overview of historic resources around the area.

Pittsburgh’s history is a long, wild story of conflict and togetherness, of industrial smoke and ecological preservation, and of old and new. The city continues to evolve and change every day, and its ongoing story is written on the buildings, bridges, and homes that we preserve for future generations–and on the people who inhabit them, too. This is a month to get excited about places both old and new, and to get even more excited about what these places tell us about ourselves.



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Getting Outside in the ‘Burgh

As the newest member of CLP’s newest location, I’m keenly aware of summer’s approach as I plan our presence at neighborhood festivals, farmers’ markets, and other quintessential summer happenings. And while the writers of this blog have a welldocumented love of the out-of-doors, I haven’t seen anyone mention what I consider to be our region’s best outdoors asset: Pittsburgh offers tons of natural beauty and strenuous outdoor activity right in the city limits. So for the countryside-averse, the car-less, and the time-pressed urban outdoorspeople out there, here are some of my favorite sources for info on how to get your hike/bike/boat on in the city of Pittsburgh.

Bob Regan’s The Steps of Pittsburgh: A Portrait of a City (Local History Company, 2004)

Recent research out of McMaster University in Ontario suggests that brief, extremely strenuous bursts of activity (known as intervals) yield health benefits comparable to longer, lighter workouts. Following that logic you may be able to get a year’s worth of cardio workouts done in an afternoon by traversing Pittsburgh’s quirky city steps. Follow Regan’s exhaustive survey of city streets that no car or bike can use to take your urban hikes to new heights.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Navigation Charts for the Mon, the Al, and the O

So you’ve gone on a moonlight kayak tour, maybe paddled around the Point a little bit, and now you feel ready to explore Pittsburgh’s three beloved rivers on your own. Great! If you don’t want to bump into a bridge pile or run aground at Brunot’s Island, make a note to stop by the Main Library in Oakland and check out the navigational charts for the Allegheny, Mon, and Ohio rivers.

Louis Fineberg’s 3 Rivers on 2 Wheels (Mon Quixote Press, 2002)

The spandex-clad diehards will likely always consider Oscar Swan‘s Bike Rides Out of Pittsburgh to be the ultimate statement on rides in the area. But as the title implies, Swan’s routes all take the most direct path out of town. For those of us who prefer to stay within a quarter mile of a good restaurant, cafe, or library branch, Lou Fineberg (scroll down a bit after the click) keeps you in the neighborhoods with his excellent 3 Rivers on 2 Wheels. Just be sure to cross-reference your ride with a current map at Bike Pittsburgh’s website. The Pittsburgh cycling infrastructure was nowhere near where it is now when Fineberg penned the guide ten years ago.

Toker1Franklin Toker’s Pittsburgh: A New Portrait and Buildings of Pittsburgh (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009) and Buildings of Pittsburgh (University of Virginia Press, 2007)

When you’re hiking out in the wilderness you might take along a field guide to help you identify birds, plants, and whatever else you might encounter out there in nature. When you’re hiking in Pittsburgh, give yourself a little cultural context by bringing along these guides to architecture and the history of the built environment of Pittsburgh. Toker, a popular professor at Pitt and architecture historian of national renown, uses buildings as a jumping-off point for an examination of the cultural, economic, and political history of Pittsburgh. And just as you might hope to spot a yellow-bellied sapsucker on a hike in the Allegheny Forest, you can get a similar thrill by spotting a Scheibler, a Burnham, or a Kahn where you’d least expect them to be.

Part of the joy of getting outside in the city is discovering new favorite places right in your neighborhood. You can’t always plan these discoveries–I found one of my favorite secret running route connectors when my street was blocked by a festival and I needed to get my groceries into the fridge before the ice cream melted–so the most important thing is to just get out there.

Do you have a favorite outdoor spot in the city? If you do, please mention it in a comment for others to discover!


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ISO: 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom home

Preferably with large windows, hardwood floors and enough room in the kitchen for two cooks.  I don’t think that’s too much to ask, is it? 

It’s not as if I’m looking for a cantilevered house built over a waterfall, or an 8,000-acre estate in the mountains of North Carolina with grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmstead.  I don’t need a house with a séance room and a host of secret passageways; in fact, the fewer secret passageways, the better.  And who wants to clean 61 bathrooms?  Not me.  Nor do I do windows.

And while I can appreciate historic homes of all sorts, no one famous needs to have lived in or visited my [as-yet-undetected] house before, whether a founding father or a king.  I certainly wouldn’t complain about an apartment in a building inspired by marine life and bones by one of my favorite architects, but truly my sights are set in a more practical, and local, realm.

Lastly, I may be a bit of an environmentalist, but I’m realistic enough to know that my chances of finding an earth housestraw bale construction, or a home made entirely of scrap and salvaged materials to rent within the City of Pittsburgh and closely-neighboring boroughs are pretty darn slim.  Nor am I ready to go off the grid at the moment, not too likely anywhere I’m looking.  I’ll just keep exploring the latest options here at the library until life takes me somewhere I would never expect.



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Pittsburgh and belonging.

Flying back into Pittsburgh after a week with family in the SF Bay Area is always a wistful homecoming.  Wistful because there is definitely something to be said for being able to stop at Mom or Grandma’s house for dinner any day of the week; homecoming because there is something about the kind of magnetic combination of land, architecture and people here in Pittsburgh that has kept me here for 20 years. 

It is something that relates to that combination that I want to tell you about today:  the Pittsburgh Architects and Pittsburgh Architecture files here at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Main.  There are two things that make up the files, an index, which looks like a card catalog, and the clippings files, which are in several filing cabinets.  The list of topics that appear on the index cards is listed on our web site.  Each card has either a listing of where you can find more information about the architect, building or neighborhood, such as in local architectural periodicals or local newspapers on microfilm, or it will indicate that there is a clippings file. 

You never know what you might find in a clippings file, although it may seem obvious that there are newspaper clippings.  There might also be a flyer or brochure from a house tour, an architect’s resumé, or better yet, photos or floor plans of a home or building from an old magazine.  (I’ll never forget seeing the floor plan for one of the mansions in the North Side that is now a part of CCAC.  It must have taken an army to clean a house like that!)

These two files, plus our amazing collection of architecture books, complement the huge number of resources available in our Pennsylvania Department.  What’s available in there could be the subject of many, many postings, but I just want to mention that they, too, have a clippings file to trawl through, as well as the Western Pennsylvania Architectural Survey.  The WPAS was a survey done in the ’30s of structures built in Western Pennsylvania before 1860, and it contains photographs and field measurements of those buildings.

I think that knowing some of that architectural history is what makes me feel like Pittsburgh is in my bones.  I’m inviting you to come to the library and explore these resources for yourself.  It’s a treasure trove to discover.



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