William Penn Snyder House
The William Penn Snyder House (852 Ridge Ave.) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nominations document.  Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
The William Penn Snyder House is on the northeast corner of Ridge and Galveston Avenues on Pittsburgh's north side. It was built in the eighteenth century style of the late French Renaissance. The exterior displays the simplified classicism of the early twentieth century while the interior is rich with ornate wood, plaster, and stained glass work. The architects were George Orth and Brother.
The William Penn Snyder House occupies its entire narrow, city corner lot. It is three stories, on a rusticated basement which contains a carriage entrance, a garage, and a ballroom in the style of Louis XVI.
On Ridge Avenue, the house is five bays wide. The wide center hall entrance is crowned with a projecting lintel supported by a console. It has a low metal balustrade which creates a small balcony. Each first-story window has a similar "balcony" at its base. Windows on different floors are different sizes and are accompanied by consoles. The windows on the end bay facing the street corner have been filled with stone. Each end bay consists of colossal coupled and fluted Ionic pilasters on a base, pedestal, and plinth. The entablature consists of a scored architrave, a plain frieze, and a corona with modillions. Above the balustrade is a shallow coping course.
The Galveston Avenue elevation is ten bays. The window, cornice, and balustrade motifs generally repeat those on the front facade. Two windows are blue and white stained glass.
The insurance company's 1948 addition is a simplification of the exterior design of the original house.
As the building is entered from Ridge Avenue, a short corridor leads to the lobby, from which the third floor ceiling can be seen. The smaller original reception room has been slightly altered; one sliding door and the original wall covering which has been replaced. The plastered ceiling of that room consists of ornate floral circular patterns. The original dining room has been altered slightly. False doors have been installed in several places to balance functional ones. A vault in one of the corridors originally contained a pipe organ. Opposite that space is the breakfast room. Nearby are the former butler's pantry and family kitchen.
The second and third floors of the Snyder residence housed many bedrooms, dressing rooms, servants' quarters, and large bathrooms. They have been converted to company uses.
The basement houses the ballroom, with a mezzanine floor and balcony overlooking it. The original parquet floor of the ballroom has been replaced.
The driveway, originally protected by iron gates, is now enclosed.
The only sweeping change made in the Snyder house was in lighting. With the exception of the two crystal chandeliers in the basement, all the original light fixtures have been replaced.
The William Penn Snyder House is a good example of a sensitive adaptive use. The house was built in 1911 at a cost of $450,000 for William Penn Snyder (1862-1920), a wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist of that time. Snyder was associated with Henry W. Oliver in developing the Lake Superior iron area; he was also the owner of the Shenango Furnace Company.
The William Penn Snyder House was among the last mansions built along Ridge Avenue, then lined with the homes of Pittsburgh millionaires. The house served as the Snyder residence until 1921. It was vacant until 1930, when it was acquired for use as regional office of what is now called the American General Life Insurance Company of Delaware.
The insurance company made every effort to maintain the original state of the Snyder home, both in interior and exterior detail; for example, care was taken to build the addition of Hummelstown brownstone acquired from a defunct quarry.
The original building contained several modern conveniences which were rare in a private residence of that time. They include a garage in the lower level, an early form of air-conditioning, and push-button elevator.
The William Penn Snyder House is particularly interesting for Pittsburgh as the City's sole and very late example of the small town palace, built closely and ingeniously on a tight city lot. The basement treatment particularly proclaims the advent of the modern age. It deserves preservation as a social, commercial, and artistic document, preferably as part of a small millionaire enclave. Transitional documents in the evolution of the large American house are not often found extant in such a degree of "purity."
Van Trump, James D. and Ziegler, Arthur P., Jr., Landmark Architecture of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, 1967, p.134.