Louis A.S. Bellinger is buried in a modest military grave on an Allegheny Cemetery hillside about 30 feet away from the grave of Negro leagues baseball star Josh Gibson. Although Bellinger was an architect and Gibson was a sports legend, the men’s stories intersected long before they ended up neighbors in Allegheny Cemetery. In the 1930s, Bellinger designed Greenlee Field, the Hill District stadium where Gibson played as a member of the Pittsburgh Crawfords.
Each man made indelible contributions to Pittsburgh history, yet only Gibson’s grave appears in tourist guides and is marked by wayfinding signs inside the cemetery.
Best remembered for designing the Hill District’s New Granada Theater, Bellinger was Pittsburgh’s only licensed Black architect for more than 25 years, the entire time that he practiced here. Though Bellinger cut a path through 20th-century Pittsburgh that extended beyond architecture, historians and historic preservationists have reduced Bellinger’s life to laundry lists of the jobs that he held and the buildings that he designed.
As the New Granada Theater redevelopment inches toward completion, it’s time for a closer look into Bellinger’s life story.
Louis Arnett Stuart Bellinger was born in 1891 in Sumter, South Carolina. He was one of 10 children of George and Florence Bellinger. His father was a self-employed carpenter. Many of his uncles, cousins and kin by marriage also worked in the building trades. Construction — building things — seemed to be in their blood.
The Bellingers have deep ties to South Carolina’s Low Country. They had been enslaved by the Middletons, owners of a large Charleston plantation that is now a National Historic Landmark. The extended Bellinger family includes Middletons and among their ranks are religious and civic leaders, entrepreneurs, educators and at least one politician (and former Tuskegee Airman) — Earl M. Middleton, who was a state legislator in South Carolina.
Louis Bellinger grew up in Charleston and graduated from Avery Normal Institute, the city’s first Black high school. He moved to Washington, D.C. and graduated from Howard University in 1914.
After a brief teaching stint in Florida, Bellinger moved to the Philadelphia area and in 1915 was living in Camden, New Jersey. By that point, he was already on the faculty of Allen University, an HBCU (Historically Black colleges and universities) in Columbia, South Carolina.
In 1916, he married Ethel Conner, a music teacher who grew up in New Jersey. The couple was living in Bellinger’s rented Camden home when he enlisted in the Army during World War I. In 1917, a Camden newspaper reported that Bellinger had been sent to the “Reserve Officers Training Camp for Colored Citizens” in Des Moines, Iowa. Bellinger served just three months as a lieutenant before being discharged.
Things took off when Louis and Ethel Bellinger moved to Pittsburgh in 1919.
Within a decade, several of his family members had joined the Great Migration and were living here. George Bellinger probably came north looking for work, and by 1920, was again in business for himself as a general contractor. Brother Walter Bellinger was in Pittsburgh by 1926 and working as a carpenter. After embracing Islam, as Saeed Akmal, he helped to build Pittsburgh’s Black Muslim community.
Louis and Ethel moved into a Hill District apartment. In 1921, Bellinger became a registered architect and the next year he hung out his shingle in a rented Fifth Avenue office.
Unfortunately, Bellinger’s files and personal papers weren’t saved. Only fragmentary clues to his architectural work survive, such as trade journal announcements and brief newspaper articles.
The New Granada Theater and Greenlee Field may be Bellinger’s best-known local commissions. He designed the theater in 1927 and the stadium in 1932. A dozen years before the Greenlee Field commission, Bellinger designed and built the Hill’s Central Amusement Park, the short-lived stadium that rivals Greenlee Field for the title of the city’s earliest Black-owned and operated professional sports venue.
They were among several institutional and commercial buildings that emerged from his drafting table. Bellinger also designed a Masonic home in Linglestown, Pennsylvania, a new interior for the Rodman Street Baptist Church in East Liberty, a mixed-use building at 2801 Wylie Ave. for the Mutual Real Estate Corp., and a publications building (“Book Concern”) for a Philadelphia A.M.E. church.
During the 1920s, Bellinger built his architectural practice as well as his social capital among Pittsburgh’s growing Black entrepreneurial elite. City directories and newspaper articles show that he employed at least one draftsman in his office. He also bolstered his undergraduate education by taking architecture classes and an industrial management course at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University).
As his practice grew, Ethel pursued the arts as a music promoter and teacher. In 1929, she graduated from Duquesne University’s school of music. Two years later, she opened a music studio in the Francis Street home that her husband had designed. Ads published in the Pittsburgh Courier show that she was teaching piano and choral conducting.
The Bellingers lived well and were firmly entrenched in Pittsburgh’s Black social circles.
By 1926, Louis was comfortable enough to throw his hat into the Republican state representative primary in Pittsburgh’s First District, which included Downtown and the Hill. He had been working in the city architect’s office since 1923, in addition to running his private practice. Bellinger was also a popular organizer for Howard University alumni events, hosting prominent faculty members and other alumni on their visits to the city.
Bellinger lost the 1926 primary. He also ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1930 and 1932. His 1932 campaign ads published in the Courier touted him as a “real Republican” and urged voters to “send an architect to Congress.”
Facing hard times
The political losses weren’t the only setbacks the Bellingers faced.
In 1925, Bellinger was a shareholder and depositor in the failed Steel City Bank. He rebounded and by 1928, the couple had saved enough money to buy a lot at 530 Francis St. Bellinger designed a three-story apartment building and borrowed heavily to construct it. Louis and Ethel lived in a second-floor unit and it’s where Ethel had her business.
In 1930, their mortgage lender foreclosed on the Francis Street building and it was sold at auction. The couple rented their apartment but by July 1931, they had stopped paying rent and were evicted.
The Bellingers moved a few blocks away to 3071 Centre Ave. where they rented another apartment. Ethel reestablished her music studio there and the couple lived in the Centre Avenue apartment for the rest of their time in Pittsburgh.
Bellinger’s refusal to let go of the family home without first being taken to court demonstrates a side of his personality that might have impacted his career and legacy. Newspaper and court records show that Bellinger could respond forcefully in situations where he felt threatened.
In 1929, Bellinger was indicted and tried for aggravated assault and battery. According to the indictment, Bellinger beat Isaac Cohen “on the face with his fist,” giving Cohen a black eye. A jury acquitted Bellinger but forced him to split the court costs with Cohen.
More than a decade later, Bellinger — then working as a city building inspector — was arrested in what today might be called an episode of road rage. Bellinger and a streetcar construction company superintendent got into an argument in Downtown Pittsburgh after Bellinger accused the man’s workers of getting mud on his car. The case was dismissed.
Bellinger’s brushes with the law are a stark contrast to his otherwise benevolent and civic-minded accomplishments.
Though his work appeared in at least one exhibition in 1928, the architect won little recognition during his lifetime. He became a member of the American Institute of Architects in July 1945. Less than one year later, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Presbyterian Hospital on Feb. 3, 1946. He was 54 years old.
Ethel soon left Pittsburgh and moved to Philadelphia where she lived in a row house with her sister. She remarried in 1952 and died in 1977.
The couple had no children and left no ties to Pittsburgh beyond Bellinger’s surviving buildings and his legacy as the city’s first licensed and practicing Black architect.