While looking for a new home in 1997, contractor and manufacturer Howard and Kathleen Eisner found a beautifully wooded lot, sloping up from the road with a remarkable though neglected Modern house near its upper edge. “Our first thought was to tear it down and build something new,” explains Howard Eisner, a contractor. The previous owners had abandoned it, and it was in terrible shape, with leaking roofs, foundation problems, and out-of-date electrical and mechanical systems.
But the house’s appeal was still apparent, even in a state of disrepair. Its ambitious structure projects dramatic concrete cantilevers outward from brick walls and piers. The spaces inside and out willfully intermingle, combining luxurious openness with dramatic overlooks.
“My wife fell in love with it,” Eisner explains. And well she might. Though hidden by years of relative obscurity as much as by Fox Chapel’s thick woods and hills, the house is the one that architect Tasso Katselas built for himself and his family in 1964. “I’m a window manufacturer, so I knew Tasso,” says Eisner. “I knew he was a poet in concrete.”
Today at age 88, Tasso Katselas has sold his architecture firm, but it still bears his name and credits him as an ongoing design consultant. He is a continuing brand identity as well as active talent. Some argue, though, that his earlier days were some of his best. He earned two architecture degrees from Carnegie Tech in the 1950s. “Pittsburgh was a prosaic little town,” he recalls. “I broke the mold and attracted the attention of some free thinkers.”
Almost immediately, a remarkable string of ambitious works issued forth from his drafting board. The Neville House Apartments, the Kentucky Negley Apartments, and the Highland Towers, all in Pittsburgh, were early and adventurous uses of concrete in Modern residential design. These found their way onto national and international magazine pages. The booming economy and technology-based optimism of Pittsburgh’s metal and chemical industries put a frequent national spotlight on the city’s architecture, and Tasso was a favorite son.
Today’s popularity of Mid-Century Modernism has a selective memory, praising the dematerialized, steel and glass works from Mies van der Rohe, Richard Neutra, and Pierre Koenig. But LeCorbusier, particularly in his era of the brick walls and shallow masonry arches was an important influence on Tasso (“Tasso.” Like “Mies” or “Leonardo.”) Specifically, Corbusier’s Maisons Jaoul served as a stimulus for the design the Katselas House, while the cross-shaped plan, central fireplace and brick piers of early Frank Lloyd Wright works are a visible source as well. Yet Tasso takes these familiar inspirations and reconstitutes them as something clearly his own.
This house was selected for the annual Record Houses issue of Architectural Record magazine, which was and still remains one of the more prestigious awards for residential architecture, a feat precious few other Pittsburgh houses or architects have accomplished. The publication called it “the most intricately sculptural” of the houses for that year.
Also significantly, the Katselas house also contains much of the DNA of Katselas’s best projects of the era: buildings at St. Vincent College, CCAC, numerous of which were also widely published and praised in their day.
On the heels of this building and its siblings, Tasso became more successful, and he took on larger and larger projects, but these did not necessarily bolster his reputation. He designed seemingly most of the county’s public housing, in which his design talent, though still apparent, seemed to be spread dismally thin. His housing tower over Penn Avenue in East Liberty was widely reviled. Cheers accompanied its demolition a few years ago. Likewise, his county jail was excoriated in the pages of Architecture magazine, “guilty of an urban crime,” they said. Even works such large and prominent works as the Carnegie Science Center and the Pittsburgh International Airport have failed to excite critics the way his earlier building did.
To make matters worse, the brick and concrete style of his house and many other earlier buildings tends to be recalled as “Brutalist” architecture. In fact, the original term “New Brutalism” referred to the beton brut or raw concrete of Le Corbusier or the primitivist art brut of Jean Dubuffet. These aimed for architecture and art that sought the bare essence of things, to embrace the timeless present by exposing rather than hiding raw materials. That may seem pleasantly naïve now, but it was progressive at the time, and Tasso’s house is one of the best of the genre, as Architectural Record affirmed.