There is a common theme in Pittsburgh that is well demonstrated in the Historic Landmark registration for Emmanuel Episcopal. It notes that the relative poverty of the church prevented any updating of it, so to go into it today is to visit it at the dawn of the 1900s. While poverty generally is the cause of decay, in this case, it worked to preserve the site for future generations.
Emmanuel Episcopal is a small parish on Pittsburgh’s North Side, technically in Allegheny West. It still houses an active parish today, but what makes it most unique is the architecture. Designed by H. H. Richardson, founder of the Richardsonian Romanesque style of architecture, it stands as a strange combination of traditional church architecture and innovative design. The first striking thing about it is the choice to use red bricks instead of the common stone. Large cut stone churches are the norm in the area, and a church just one block away is another H. H. Richardson design in that material. Instead, in 1884, with a budget of $12,000, a very simple design was erected. The bricks are well designed with interesting detailing as well.
The first striking thing most people notice is that the walls curve in from the base. Then, as one gets higher up, the bricks begin to slope outward. The latter feature is both distinctive and unintentional. For engineering reasons that weren’t known at the time, the walls began to slope outward under the pressure of the roof after Richardson’s death. Fortunately, this stabilized and the structure is sound. Also interesting is the relative simplicity of the design. It is a peaked roof with slate tiles, descending out to a rectangular parish area and a semicircular apse. The windows are simple stained glass, and the single floor interior has exposed beams and simple woodwork. The wood truss system is particularly beautiful, especially over the apse. The back of the church has a beautiful marble altar and mosaic, with organ pipes on a wooden frame partially obscuring the rest of the apse. There is also a balcony, but it is only accessible from outside
Currently the church hosts a community reading program, bible studies, and a weekly jazz night. Most of the parishioners are locals drawn into the unique building by location and because of the close-community feel of the small parish. The church is a national landmark, and students of Richardson’s style who come in to Pittsburgh to admire the elaborate courthouse downtown should look into stopping at this tiny church just a mile away. As a side mission, see if you can find the church building on display in the model train exhibit of the Carnegie Science Center, also on the North Shore.