Pittsburgh Master Architect Recalls His Life and Work
    Architect Tasso Kaselas

    Architect Tasso Kaselas

    If the definition of genius is one who creates unique approaches to problems, then architect and planner Tasso Katselas, a Shadyside resident for 37 years, clearly qualifies.

    Fortune magazine, in 1960, quoted Katselas speaking to a group of midwestern architectural students trying to make them see architecture’s tasks and opportunities as he saw them: “Life in architecture is a chance to intervene, to contribute—to enhance what exists by the sheer power of one’s presence and activity. I’m young enough to hope for a world where this is possible, where the ugly will no longer be tolerated. I’m old enough to know that the words economy and profit in architecture are not ugly words but necessary ones. I’m optimistic enough to see our era as one teeming with lyric possibilities. I sense a yearning …”

    Katselas, now 91, has added much design quality and variety to Pittsburgh’s environment. His masterpieces include: the Pittsburgh International Airport; the Community College of Allegheny County’s North Side campus; the Carnegie Science Center; the innovative Allegheny County Jail; and the contemporary high-rise monastery of St. Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe.

    With a master’s degree just out of Carnegie Institute of Technology (Carnegie Mellon University) in 1953, Katselas designed the former Park Schenley Restaurant in Oakland. Many Pittsburghers remember its chic modern interior. Still not a registered architect, Katselas next designed the 5100 Fifth Avenue Apartments, with the owners’ architect stamping the documents. Not long after, Katselas was the signature architect of Neville House, known for its distinctive arches on Neville Street, Oakland.

    Pittsburgh International Airport

    Pittsburgh International Airport became famous for its landside and airside terminals with a swift train connecting both. Katselas also invented an X-shaped design for docking airplanes.

    The architect is the offspring of dynamic Greek immigrant parents. His father, George Katselas, left work on the railroad to own, with his wife Dena, the White Front Restaurant (named for its exterior) and later a movie theater, The Frederick, both once in East Pittsburgh.

    George’s love of theater was carried forward by Katselas’s late brother, Milton Katselas, famed drama teacher for many movie stars. Milton Katselas founded the Beverly Hills Playhouse, an acting school. He directed Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story as well as the play and film of Butterflies Are Free and the movie 40 Carats with Liv Ullmann. Another son, Chris Katselas, of Evergreen, Colorado, is a world-traveled and successful geologist specializing in finding oil deposits. Their late sister, Sophia Katsafanas, was her architect brother’s office manager for 40 years.

    Katselas’s largest project is Pittsburgh International Airport, which he designed 25 years ago. He has been critical of Allegheny County’s acceptance of a $1.1 billion adaptation announced in 2018.

    “The new airport concept is imported from New York and Chicago architects, who plan to modify the best airport in the world with a mediocre solution and embarrassingly uncontrolled costs that will exceed the proposed budget,” says Katselas. “Pittsburgh International Airport will cease being an extraordinary building, winning awards and copied in Hong Kong and Mexico City, where I did a master plan; PIT will become ordinary. There appears to be a pervasive thought that creative solutions for major projects require out-of-town talent. You’d think they’d at least ask the architect that designed the goddam thing a question—or maybe they thought I was dead!” he laughs.

    Katselas’s father once met the Italian opera star Enrico Caruso, whose singing the elder Katselas loved. He bought a ticket and sat on a Pittsburgh stage to hear the famous tenor. Caruso subsequently invited him to dinner. George later told his sons they should actually meet the people they admired since people at the top, he said, are always lonely and are eager to meet those with a need to know them. The lesson has worked for his son. Tasso Katselas has befriended architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson, Richard Neutra, Richard Schindler, Le Courbusier, Bruce Goff, and Louis Kahn.

    Katselas has also designed some 50 private dwellings, a number of apartment towers, and several notable office buildings. His second home, which he designed—in Fox Chapel, Pittsburgh’s most affluent superb—is likely his best (and currently for sale). This home would stand out in the neo-traditional superb were it not nestled far from the road atop a hill. In it, brick piers support a concrete beam slab, and brick again supports the three vaults at the top of the house—vaults that cover three different rooms at the front of the home but loosen their grip above a two-story atrium at the house’s rear. To see it is to feel the passionate variety of his life’s work.

    Carnegie Science Center

    Katselas designed the Carnegie Science Center with a unique interior ramp (1995 photo).

    Katselas’s Neville House apartments in Oakland are superb, with a stout foundation of concrete arches enabling a façade freed from supporting itself and instead alternating a light assortment of brick and windows. His Kentucky Negley building in Shadyside advertises its skeleton by extending the concrete floor slabs that constitute each floor to provide exterior
    balconies and roof overhangs.

    Ever on his mind is his own extraordinary 10-tiered hideaway in Shadyside shared with his artist wife Jane Katselas, mother of their daughters Dana, a movie-script writer, and Lisa, a producer of such films as Richard III and Mrs. Dalloway, adapted from the Virginia Woolf novel.

    Katselas has long had a passion for brick, which he sees as a strong and honest building material. He first built four contemporary houses—one was for his family—in residential Churchill Borough. The late steel executive Irving Gruber and his prize-winning artist/photographer wife Aaronel de Roy Gruber owned a Katselas contemporary split-level there, where many an art exhibition was planned.

    Tiring of the long commute from Katselas’s second house at 1616 Powers Run Road, Fox Chapel—a low-vaulted, five-bedroom, 4,400-square-foot structure of brick and poured concrete—the family moved to Shadyside so the adult Katselases could be near their work. They left behind a monument to a strongly dramatic architectural style, brutalism.

    In Shadyside, Katselas defied a strict neighborhood code, seemingly unbendable in 1980: He joined his virtually hidden house, along with its elevator and plunge pool, to the wooden rear deck of a mid-Victorian brick townhouse facing Fifth Avenue near Wilkins Avenue.

    The levels in Katselas’s house are each joined by three to six steps. A deck off the master-bedroom level was later enclosed as an exercise space. The structure, a model for building in a constricted space, was soon a cover story in Architectural Record magazine.

    Allegheny Co. Jail

    Katselas designed Allegheny County Jail to separate prisoners with differing offenses on separate floors. The jail was meant to give each prisoner a window from which to look out of the cell.

    The architect’s print-publication honors are many. In 1962 Ada Louise Huxtable showcased Katselas in the “New Talent USA” issue of Art in America along with Gunnar Birkerts and Craig Ellwood. One of Katselas’s own residences was featured as an Architectural Record “House of the Year” in 1964, alongside works by I. M. Pei and Richard Meier; his Rovida House attained the same honor in 1974. His East Hills Park Apartments were among that publication’s “Apartments of the Year” in 1970, as were his Allegheny Commons East apartments in 1974. A 1975 issue of Campus Architecture features the Community College of Allegheny County complex he designed alongside campuses by Paul Rudolph and Harry Weese. His design for St. Vincent’s Monastery deserves a place in any accounting of the best modern religious architecture. Even his low-income housing work displays consistent experimentation within often-limited budgets.

    Today, dapper Katselas, five feet eleven inches tall, is recovered from a second hip replacement. Find him on weekday mornings at his office, TKA Architects, Inc., 4951 Centre Avenue, Shadyside. He is no longer affiliated with the firm; his last act was contributing to Oakland’s Marriott Residence in Oakland, rising across Forbes Avenue from Magee-Women’s Hospital of UPMC.

    Katselas is still loyal to an 18-year-old Mercedes Benz CLK 425. He orders his suits, made of Zegna and Armani fabrics, from a tailor in Mexico. The architect also owns a house and apartment, both of which he designed, on Culebra, an island off eastern Puerto Rico.

    Besides being an accomplished architect with strong opinions, Katselas is also a connoisseur of the carefully turned phrase. Years ago, he introduced Nana Mouskouri (the popular singer of Greek songs, now 83) before the well-remembered International Poetry Forum. Katselas referred to the singer as “loved by one man (her husband) and cherished by seven (her musicians).”

    Abbot’s Chapel

    Among Tasso Katselas’s favorite designs is the Abbot’s Chapel at St. Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe.

    The architect also has a strong lyrical side, often seen in his work, which can also be bluntly masculine. Katselas recently formulated his credo: “Architecture is an all-consuming passion to solve life’s problems with creative spatial clarity; a relentless search to imagine design with truth that captures space and beauty in the reality of the built form.”

    “You have said it all,” he quotes his longtime friend Samuel Hazo, International Poetry Forum founder and former poet laureate of Pennsylvania. Surely Frank Lloyd Wright would have found favor with this belief as well.

    Katselas is also known for his stormy side, having rejected memberships in national and international honorary architectural organizations. He has long said he will not accept standards that have come to treat architecture as a business full of compromises he thinks are overwhelming.

    “I cut my own path. I’m sure those who disagree with me will visit my grave, to make sure I am dead,” he laughs. Architectural groups and individuals have responded, disputing his contentions both publicly and privately. Still, Katselas has not wavered, mostly allowing his buildings and how they were designed to comply with their uses to speak for themselves.

    Gerard Damiani, architect and associate professor at Carnegie Mellon’s College of Architecture, observed that Katselas’s local success “created a lot of tension in the community with other architects, who may have been jealous of what he was doing. I don’t think other architectural practices in the region at the time stepped up to the work he was doing. They didn’t have the ability to do that.” Damiani praises Katselas for, across a vast range of commissions, never losing sight of the mission of architecture to uplift, noting, “You go to a Tasso building and you feel what architecture should be about.”

    Katselas family’s second home

    The Katselas family’s second home, a five-bedroom, 4,400-square-foot house in Fox Chapel, is a monument to contemporary architecture’s brutalist style.

    Of his county-jail design Katselas says, “It was a bitter success. I interviewed prisoners beforehand and was proud of how each inmate has a view of the outside world from his cell. The big problem today is overcrowding, but the ‘POD’ design that allows grouping prisoners according to the seriousness of violations and the educational program that gives prisoners another chance at life remain as positives.”

    Regarding another important design, Katselas says: “With the Pittsburgh International Airport, I had to fight hard to get the ‘X’ design of the airside terminal and the double road around the whole project. Dick Thornburgh wanted to do something significant to cap his being governor of Pennsylvania. He found the money to do the road. The airport opened in 1992, cost $1.2 billion, and came in on budget. I understand the need for changes. The airport’s role is not what it was 25 years ago. I dictated the structure of PIT in a series of drawings and brought in the experts. I challenge these experts and invite them to participate in the creative journey of architecture.

    Basically, what I do is design—a lonely, personal task. Then I consult with the various technical experts to bring my ideas into existence,” explains Katselas. He expands on his view of the entire process: “The design process must include the engineer and the builder. The engineer becomes a translator. I watch the music of his mathematics establish, evoke my form. I confuse, argue, deny, embarrass, and frustrate him. I force him to be bound up in the total process. The contractor becomes a machine spinning out costs, labor, schedules. He is an archer of efficient motion, empirical method—of approach and execution. As the last hurdle, he must want what has been drawn, and love the doing.”

    Recollecting his pet hates, Katselas notes: “A building has to be moral. I have fought against the immorality of building wood structures that are four and five stories tall. They represent minimum compliance with regulations and ignore the inherent shrinkage of the material. I have no way to be combative except to say something is ‘immoral.’ Man is difficult to deal with. We face the nadir of our times today. There is no sense of place or creed. Money is the only consequence.”

    He recalls some of his favorite stories. “I invited Frank Lloyd Wright to my class at Kansas State University when Milton Eisenhower was its president. Wright condemned the university’s board for selecting the university’s architects and their buildings. He said, ‘This is the kind of problem that is solved by a few first-class funerals.’”

    Later, Wright invited Katselas to monitor a meditation chapel Wright had designed for Fallingwater, the house above the waterfall. “It was suggested by Liliane Kaufmann, wife of Edgar J. Kaufmann, the department store owner,” Katselas recalls. “But Wright failed to offer any payment. I drove from Kansas to his office in San Francisco to get the job. And there still was no payment. Mrs. Kaufmann passed away while I was en route back to Pittsburgh. So that was my last experience with Wright.” The chapel was not built.

    Katselas was also present in the garden of Alfred M. Hunt, secretary and vice president of Alcoa, when Hunt asked his friend, architect Philip Johnson, to replace Hunt’s parents’ Shadyside mansion with a new house. Hunt wanted the design to retain his parents’ grand tiered library designed in Old World style by Janssen & Cocken, Pittsburgh’s foremost eclectic architectural firm.

    Johnson, then the elder statesman of American architecture and, at the same time, its most provocative member, said, “Alfred, I am not a remodeler.” Johnson, with John Burgee Architects, would later co-design PPG Place. Hunt’s commission for an aluminum-clad house went elsewhere.

    Katselas has enjoyed writing and privately publishing six hardbound reflections on life he calls Personal Intersections, each numbering about 120 pages. They contain a lifetime of observations and stories. And he plans a seventh. You can still find his story in the Post-Gazette online about how he designed his first successful commission in 1954. The Park Schenley Restaurant on Forbes Avenue, Oakland, gave way to Pitt’s Hillman Library.

    Perhaps the architect will include this tale. For 33 years Katselas and his wife owned a 90-foot sailboat, a ketch with three masts; they sailed around Greece in it on autumn visits.

    “When Jane said Greece had become a ‘hotel for tourists,’ I gave the boat to the captain who had been in charge of the boat all that time. He couldn’t believe it and he began to cry. And Jane started to cry and then I did!” It was a tender way to say farewell to Greece.

    Donald Miller, who lived in Shadyside in the 1950s, is a former Post-Gazette art and architecture critic (1966-99). His seventh book is Lafayette: His Extraordinary Life and Legacy. He and his wife Bette live in Naples, Florida.
    Some Photos by Greger Erickson, others provided by Tasso Katselas