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Sauer Buildings Historic District



The Sauer Buildings Historic District (607--717 Center Ave.) is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document that was submitted to the National Park Service for acceptance of register status; the district was placed on the register in 1985. Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.

The Sauer Buildings Historic District is an "eccentric" complex of structures strewn across a wooded hillside site. It includes an original house and carriage house, a three-story apartment building, five additional residential structures, secondary structures, and a system of roads and walls which ties the complex together. Of ten primary constructions, one is Significant, eight are Contributing, and one is Non-contributing.

The Sauer Buildings Historic District is located on a hillside site overlooking Aspinwall Borough and the Allegheny River. Buildings and landscape features are strongly oriented toward the south to take advantage of the view. The complex lies west of Center Avenue and north of the Pa Route 28 expressway which sliced across the lower portion of the original site. The terrain is highly uneven, and has been made suitable for development only by way of a network of retaining walls and a complex drainage system.

The earliest buildings on the site, located toward its northern limits, are the Sauer house (625) and a carriage house (717) of c. 1900. Both are Contributing structures constructed of buff brick and designed in a staid turn-of-the-century manner. The Sauer House is American Foursquare in form, with projecting Victorian oriels and a looping Colonial Revival front porch--a later addition. The carriage house is distinguished by its stepped side parapets. But the original carriage entrance on the north side, which remains in outline, was filled-in when the building was converted to residential use.

Both of these structures have alterations in the eccentric manner of design which characterizes the remainder of construction on the site. This design approach involves highly irregular floor plans and massing; construction primarily of concrete and concrete block; planar facing of jagged stone slabs joined by at least three different styles of prominent mortar joints; a variety of fenestration and roof types; and seemingly random disposition of terra cotta decorative elements. Interiors feature extensive stonework and accented fireplaces. There is a mixture of Classical, Gothic, Romanesque, and early Modem flavors; but the overriding manner is personal and eccentric and cannot by stylistically categorized.

The district's one Significant structure best expresses the Sauer Buildings' unique architecture. The Heidelberg (617) apartment house is a thorough remodeling of a former chicken coop. The first two stories were built in 1928-30, and a clerestory-like third floor was added somewhat later. The building is an irregular polygon in form, with jutting entries and chimneys. It has no stairs; it takes advantage of the sloping terrain in such a way that each floor's apartment is accessible from ground level. A garage runs the entire width of the building's ground floor with openings at each end.

The Heidelberg has concrete floors, and walls faced with slabs of jagged stone. A fringe of stone occasionally overhangs the eaves. Mortar joints are flat, raised, or daubed. A pointed arch entry and broad open fenestration are found on the south facade, but openings tighten-up on the other sides. The roof is partly flat and partly hipped with tile. Decorative terra cotta includes a lion mask, a relief of Benjamin Franklin, and a free-standing eagle.

On the interior, walls (and even some ceilings) are stone on the first floor, partially stone on the second, and all plaster on the third. Apartments feature pointed-arch doorways and accented stone or tile fireplaces.

Other Contributing buildings echo and reinterpret the Heidelberg's themes in varying degree. The Tower cottage (619) of c. 1940 is equally exotic. It also features a through garage which virtually comprises the ground floor. The main entry leads directly into a spiral stair tower which rises to upper level living areas and is topped on the exterior by battlements. A low clerestory lights an extra-height living room paneled in dark wood. The rather boxy exterior belies the complex floor plan of tightly inter- locking rooms. A broad front window is overhung by a jagsawn wooden canopy, and decorative metal panels enliven the west side.

A hillside building which originally served as an office (623) has garages below and an upper story, set back in echelon fashion, which was extended in a compatible style in the 1950s.

Two Contributing structures were independently owned and constructed, but are likely of Sauer's design: a blockish structure (607) with a cantilevered curved porch, and a bungalow (615). The Non-contributing structure is a modern two-unit construction (617A. C) built above partially pre-existing garages and trellises in the 1950s. It does include some stone facing, but is clearly the product of a different approach to design.

A grouping of secondary structures and the collective landscape features are also considered to be Contributing elements. Secondary structures on the site include a stone and brick barrel-vaulted smokehouse topped by a gazebo, a simple garage, and a distinctly Gaudiesque mailbox. All structures are linked by looping brick-paved roads, walkways, and flights of steps. Stone retaining walls and fencing carve the terrain.

The major wall unit at the south end of the site encircles a large open green. It is partially of laid stone and partially of faced stone, with large protruding buttresses, blocks of terra cotta, iron fencing, and an overlook spanned by a pointed arch with inset tile initials and dates. The Sauer Buildings Historic District includes multiple properties and rental units, and rambling landscape elements. A number of structures have been lost to highway construction. But the complex still forms a single image as a unique fabric of construction woven into the hillside.

Despite their seeming ephemeral character as figments of an architectural imagination, the Sauer Buildings continue to serve a functional purpose as rental housing. They require constant maintenance and repair, but are in generally good condition.

The Sauer Buildings Historic District consists of a personal and eccentric project of a locally important Pittsburgh area architect, Frederick C. Sauer. Sauer first built a house and outbuildings for himself on this land in c. 1900. But beginning with the remodeling of his chicken coop in an eccentric mode in 1928-30, a complex of buildings and landscape features in like mode gradually took shape and was progressively added to by Sauer until his death in 1942. Collectively the buildings and landscape features represent eccentric architecture of the early twentieth century and the personal creative impulse of their designer.

Frederick C. Sauer was a German immigrant-architect and builder who established a Pittsburgh office in 1884, and practiced locally for many years. He was a prominent, prolific, and rather prosaic designer. His houses, churches, and schools were competent, Eclectic, and representative of their time and place; but essentially uninspired. St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic Church, St. Stephen's Roman Catholic Church, Latimer School, all in Pittsburgh, are perhaps his most notable buildings. The original house (625) and carriage house (717) at The Sauer Buildings are typical of his commissioned work.

Sauer, and his family, moved to the suburban Allegheny River town of Aspinwall in 1898 and established his residence on his Center Avenue property. Sauer became very active in real-estate development in Aspinwall, founding the Aspinwall-Delafield Land Company in 1904, and is credited with a major role in developing the town. But in later years, his primary activity and "labor of love" was The Sauer Buildings.

Beginning at least by 1928-30, when the former chicken coop was rebuilt and expanded into the Heidelberg apartment building, Sauer gradually turned his hillside property into an architectural fantasy. Existing buildings were rebuilt. Sew constructions of Concrete and concrete block were assembled. Stone was quarried from the site and applied in jagged slabs. Miscellaneous pieces of used or surplus terra cotta were acquired and casually used as ornamentation.[1]

Sauer's buildings, aside from his own house; were utilized from the outset as rental properties. But Sauer sold small land parcels along Center Avenue in 1926 and 1933 for private homes. The houses (607, 615) built on these properties share the stone facing of the other structures. They represent the most Modern (607) and most pedestrian (615) poles of the district's later buildings. Sauer's hand was quite capable of designing both, and he was the likely architect, but his authorship is not documented. Reportedly they were built by independent contractors. They were not strictly part of Sauer's personal domain, but they are definitely part of the unified image of the complex.

The exact chronology of the Sauer Buildings is unknown. But it is known that work in Sauer's eccentric mode continued until the architect's death in 1942. Only one Contributing building is thought to be less that 50 years old – the Tower College dated by Sauer's son as ca. 1940.[2] Some landscape elements and building alterations may also be less than 50 years old. But the same basic aesthetic established in the Heidelberg of 1928-30 was continued in all later construction and there is very little to distinguish the newest work from the oldest. The significance of the district was established more than 50 years ago.

Sauer's aesthetic is a product of the freedom in the architectural climate of the post-Victorian period, but is also in a sense, timeless. Sauer continued to use Eclectic stylistic elements at the Sauer Buildings in abstract or fragmented form. And some features — concrete construction, clerestory window bands — reveal Modernistic tendencies. But as an exercise in stylistic freedom, Sauer's mode of design was firstly personal and creative. Rather than conforming to contemporary architectural fashion, it shares one spirit with eccentric construction throughout the world. The architecture of the Sauer Buildings lies somewhere between the accomplished "fantastic" architecture of an Antonio Gaudi, and the backyard grotto of an idiosyncratic amateur builder.

Perhaps it was Sauer's technical school training as a stone cutter, brick layer, and carpenter which many years later inspired him to this work. Perhaps, as James D. Van Trump has suggested, it was his Germanic character which produced a life which was in part the model of efficiency and business, and in part a romantic vision. Clearly, Sauer's work at the Sauer Buildings was diametrically opposed to that with which he earned his livelihood. Spontaneity replaced discipline.

Ultimately, the value of the Sauer Buildings Historic District lies not so much in its design quality, which soars at times and falters at others, but in its special character as a realized architectural vision.

  • Allegedly, prisoners from the nearby Allegheny County Workhouse provided much of the labor; it has even been suggested that three different prisoner masons produced the three different mortar joint treatments found on the Heidelberg. But it is known that Sauer did much of the work at the site with his own hands.
  • Letter from Frederick Sauer to James D. Van Trump, 2/3/63.

School District: Fox Chapel Area

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Street Names: Center Avenue

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