Behind velvet-draped doors, even right in front of visitors’ noses, are beautiful spaces born from Carnegie Museums’ first expansion that many Pittsburghers have never seen or simply rarely take the time to notice.
The Green Room. The Red Room. The Founder’s Room. The President’s Office. The Music Hall Foyer.
You won’t find these spots on a regular tour of Carnegie Museums’ historic Oakland facility. But when Andrew Carnegie opened his expanded Institute in 1907, each played a major role in welcoming, entertaining, and impressing the foreign dignitaries, famous politicos, and hundreds of Pittsburgh civic and business leaders who came to celebrate the retired steel mogul’s latest and arguably most magnificent gift to Pittsburgh.
At 9:45 a.m. on April 11, 1907, it was in the Founders Room that Andrew Carnegie received the VIP guests arriving to help him dedicate his expanded Institute (called “Carnegie Institute” or “The Carnegie” until the mid-‘90s, when Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh became independent entities). Located in the front of the Oakland facility at the Carriage Drive entrance—named that because carriages would pull into the half-circle driveway to drop off their passengers—the ornate Founder’s Room made up for in grandeur what it lacked in size. With its red, white, and green marble floor, walls and ceiling hand-painted in intricate baroque detail, alabaster chandeliers, and stately, high-backed leather chairs, the room was a throw back to the great receiving halls of the Italian Renaissance—and that was exactly the effect architects Frank Alden and Edwin Harlow wanted.
“Andrew Carnegie wanted his expanded Institute to represent Pittsburgh’s glorious presence on the world stage,” explains Bob Gangewere, a Carnegie Museums historian and the ultimate tour guide of the Oakland building (his book about Carnegie Museums and Library will be published in 2008).
Gangewere notes that, after the 1907 dedication, Carnegie would use the Founder’s Room on his visits to Pittsburgh, the last of which came in 1914 when Carnegie attended the annual Founder-Patrons Day celebration. Decades later, the room would be parceled into office space; not exactly what its designers had in mind.
The Founder’s Room returned to its original glory in 1988, after a complete remodeling and restoration, which included the return of eight of its original chairs and the original alabaster chandeliers. Today, Carnegie Museums uses the Founder’s Room for meetings and special museum events; occasionally for exhibition space (“The Incomparable,” the world’s largest flawless diamond, was displayed there under tight security during the 2003 Gem and Mineral Show); and also for private rentals.
But there’s no question to whom that rarely seen room will always belong. Repeated all over the Founder’s Room’s ornate ceiling, in gold plating, is the letter “C.”
Gentility, Grace, and Lots of Marble
Directly across the foyer from the Founder’s Room is the President’s Office, first occupied in 1907 by William Nimick Frew, president of Carnegie Institute from its founding in 1895 until 1914. Contrary to the modern tradition of placing leaders on the top floor of a building, out of sight and easy access, the President’s Office at Carnegie Museums has always been within greeting distance of visitors.
Louise Carnegie’s favorite portrait of her husband, painted by New York artist Theobald Chartran in 1895 (and given by Henry Clay Frick in 1896), still hangs in the President’s Office today. And legend has it that every Carnegie Museums president, including David Hillenbrand today, has used the same Victorian roll-top desk said to be owned by Andrew Carnegie. The horse-hair sofa in the office is also an artifact from his day.
The Oakland facility’s other great products of the 1907 expansion reflected not only the growing internationalism of Carnegie’s Pittsburgh but also the great gentility and promise of the time.
The most opulent of all of the new spaces was the Music Hall Foyer, with its elaborately carved and gilded 45-foot ceiling and huge columns of green Tinos marble from Greece. Carnegie’s architects wanted a sumptuous marble hall to rival the Paris Opera House Foyer, and succeeded. “Teams of Italian craftsmen set up shop in this room,” Gangewere says. “They cast the various details of the garlands and the elaborate baroque detailing, covering much of it with gold leaf.
“At the time, making plaster versions of things was a respected part of architecture,” he explains. “It was high art, and wasn’t yet frowned upon by museum purists. And it was a highly-skilled task.”
Today, sitting at the end of the huge, rectangular hall is a statue of Andrew Carnegie, created by John Massey Rhind, the same Scottish-American sculptor responsible for creating the bronze statues of Bach, Shakespeare, Galileo, and Michelangelo seated outside the limestone building, facing Forbes Avenue.
“Carnegie, who sits on a throne at the end of the Foyer, was put there to survey the masses as they came into the Music Hall,” Gangewere notes.
A century ago, 1,000 light bulbs in electric chandeliers, still uncommon in the great public buildings of the day, were testament to the power of electricity and the genius of Pittsburgh inventor George Westinghouse. The flag posts that still line the upper
balconies of the magnificent foyer today often displayed the flags of the many foreign dignitaries who graced the museum for the annual Founder-Patrons Day. “In the spirit of Carnegie himself, the leaders of the Institute would continue to invite world leaders to come and talk to a Music Hall packed with Pittsburgh’s leaders about international trends,” Gangewere notes.
Until 1910, Carnegie Music Hall was home to the Pittsburgh Orchestra, now the Pittsburgh Symphony, so thousands of visitors regularly frequented the Hall and its new grand Foyer for musical performances, special events, and museum galas. And when they did, men and women each had their own room—as was customary—in which to relax, smoke, and socialize.
Women retreated to a ladies lounge, now referred to as the “Green Room” because of its sage-green painted walls and green marble columns, located off the Foyer balcony. Today, the room is used most often by the Women’s Committee of Carnegie Museum of Art, as well as for Carnegie Museums Board of Trustees meetings. Men withdrew to a basement area called the “Red Room” because of its red marble. There, they’d most often smoke cigars and talk politics.
While the Green Room is for the most part the same as it was in the days of Andrew Carnegie, the Red Room has been parceled into studio space for art classes. Remnants of the space as it was—namely, some of the red marble and the coffered ceiling—still remain.
Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth”
In the speeches of Andrew Carnegie, honest labor was a person’s most sure-fire ticket to success. And the man who employs others, and then shares the profits of his business with the masses, was following Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth.”
In pictures, not words, that gospel according to Andrew is painted on the walls of Carnegie’s museum, another product of the 1907 expansion. Most visitors never notice it, however, because they’re usually in transit, up or down the marble steps of the museum’s “Grand Staircase,” when they’re passing the 69 painted murals that make up The Apotheosis of Pittsburgh.
The murals are worth a second look.
Painted by only one man, John White Alexander, from 1905 until his death in 1915, the wall murals at one time greeted museum visitors as they walked in the former front entrance of the building (those doors are now closed off).
The Grand Staircase, inside the old entrance, remains as grand as ever. Most visitors now walk its marble steps to reach the Museum of Natural History’s third-floor exhibition halls. Others use the majestic staircase as the perfect fairytale setting for wedding nuptials or, at least, a great photo op. No doubt, they have no clue what the murals are saying around them.
Gangewere has recounted the epic story of The Apotheosis (or “glorification”) of Pittsburgh more times than he can count.
The lower level of murals depict “laborers at work in the steel mills; the real world,” he explains. “But they don’t look like Pittsburghers of the day. It’s a romanticized version of labor, which was typical of the mural artists of the day.
“Above those murals, the smoke from their labor rises up in beautiful clouds, and the female spirits take over and rise up with the clouds, and bring the fruits of labor to the black knight wearing steel armor, who is seen ascending to heaven to his just reward, as the spirits play the trumpets.”
You guessed it. That black knight looks an awful lot like Andrew Carnegie.
Gangewere continues: “At the top level are the ‘marching masses,’ marching towards the goals that would have been pictured in the final panels.” Alexander died before he could finish those murals, which Gangewere sites would have depicted Carnegie’s noble quartet of literature, music, art, and science—“the four motifs in the statuary outside,” he points out.
Gangewere notes that the murals show “Carnegie’s vision of laboring people producing wealth that is transmuted into culture and beauty.”
And while, 100 years later, some still take issue with parts of that vision, the culture and beauty of Carnegie Museums’ 1907 expansion could never be disputed.