Walter L. Roberts, Black Modern Architect in Pittsburgh


Martin Aurand


Former Architecture Librarian and Archivist at Carnegie Mellon University


Regional Spotlight, Pittsburgh
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In 1958, Walter L. Roberts established Walter Roberts Associates. An article in the Pittsburgh Courier, “Architect Roberts Is Standout in His Field,” reported that a well-qualified Black architect now had his own business. Roberts told the Courier, Pittsburgh’s prominent Black newspaper, that he would specialize in institutional buildings.

Walter Roberts was a 1935 graduate of the Massachusetts School of Art (now MassArt) in Boston who subsequently attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There he was among the early students in the Industrial Design program led by Peter Muller-Munk. After he graduated from Carnegie Tech in 1937, Roberts found a position as a draftsman with the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair Corporation. He went on to work for various architectural firms and became a registered architect in Pennsylvania in 1953, about the time that he designed his first known independent commission: an office for his former professor’s design firm, Peter Muller-Munk Associates.

Robert’s first attempt to run his own business did not succeed, but he persisted. By the late 1960s, a time of complex conversations about race, power, and civil rights, changes in the political climate led to new opportunities for minority architects. Roberts reestablished his firm and a series of significant projects followed. Roberts designed the 1969 Frable Building at what is now Penn State University Greater Allegheny. In 1970, he designed the West Funeral Home to house a Black-owned business in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. In 1972, Roberts renovated a building in Pittsburgh East Liberty neighborhood into the Selma Burke Art Center (now demolished) where Burke, an acclaimed Harlem Renaissance sculptor, offered art classes, lectures, and exhibitions. Three other important projects fully revealed Roberts’s capabilities in modern design and addressed issues around employment, housing, and social services in Pittsburgh’s Black communities.

Westinghouse Electric Vehicle Plant

When the Business and Jobs Development Company sought a company to build industrial facilities that would recruit workers from Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood, the Westinghouse Corporation, a prominent Pittsburgh-based electrical products and manufacturing firm, stepped up. Roberts designed the Westinghouse Electric Vehicle Plant, opened in 1969, where Westinghouse manufactured electric utility and maintenance carts for large industrial facilities. Westinghouse recruited and trained Black managers and a mostly Black workforce to staff and operate the plant. When opened, the plant received considerable attention and was praised as a solution to an important problem: since Blacks were denied access to suburban housing near new industries, it was incumbent upon industry to build on sites in the inner city.

Westinghouse was an important client for modern design. The company hired Eliot Noyes, an architect and industrial designer, as Consultant Director of Design in 1960 to reshape the company’s design philosophy; hired Paul Rand to direct graphic design and to create the iconic “circle bar W” logo; employed architects including Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), Harrison & Abramovitz, and Pittsburgh’s Deeter & Ritchey to design modern corporate buildings; and retained designer and architect Charles Eames to create a promotional film. Walter Roberts must have been one of the first architects to work with the Corporate Design Center, founded in 1968, and joined impressive company with his project for Westinghouse. He produced a one-story steel-framed office building that cantilevers above the sloping site and joins with a much larger metal-clad plant building to comprise a handsome and economical light industrial plant.

Reed Roberts Modular Housing

During Pittsburgh’s post-World War II so-called Renaissance era, the city cleared hundreds of acres of land around Pittsburgh’s urban core for urban renewal, and successfully redeveloped much of it. However, the collateral damage was enormous, especially in the Hill District where 95 acres were cleared for an ambitious mixed-use development, but only the Civic Arena and a high-income apartment building were built. The Civic Arena (1961) was an engineering triumph that featured a retractable stainless-steel dome, but it was an alien presence in what was left of the community. The Reed Roberts modular housing, which after 1971 housed seventy low- and moderate-income families in five garden-apartment-type buildings, was just around the corner. It was an innovative attempt to improve living conditions in the Hill District.

Jal-Donn Modular Buildings supplied the modular units, which were constructed with steel structural members and steel paneled walls. Complete with kitchens, bathrooms, carpeting, electricity, heating units, and balconies, the units were trucked to the site and lowered into place by giant cranes. Roberts oversaw site design and development, designed auxiliary spaces, and was credited as the architect. His exact role as a designer is somewhat unclear, however, since Lewis Downing, an architect at Jal-Donn, played a key role. Yet Roberts was well equipped to consider design at many scales and prefabricated housing is arguably industrial design. Overall, the housing was conceived in the same light industrial spirit as the Westinghouse plant. Roberts may have been involved with shaping the Jal-Donn product. But as the first modular housing in the city and the first installation for the newly organized Jal-Donn, Reed Roberts was an experiment. The development was a drop in the bucket toward addressing the community’s need for affordable housing, and it was not very popular with residents. Reed Roberts was demolished in 2012, at roughly the same time that the Civic Arena bit the dust.

Hill House Center

The Hill House Association was formed in 1964 from a merger of three preexisting agencies to deliver integrated social services to the Hill District community. By 1971, there was an ambitious plan to build a new facility to deliver numerous services in one place under one roof. Walter Roberts’s expansive Hill House Center was the boldest and most sophisticated large building of his career. The Center’s exposed superstructure is composed of glue-laminated wood, which Pittsburgh’s Koppers Company was heavily marketing at this time. Widely spaced pairs of slanted wood piers rest on exposed steel connectors and concrete feet and carry massive horizontal wood beams overhead. The piers and beams frame two stories of program spaces, with a cavity between the floors that carries mechanical systems. The same laminated wood that formed the exterior superstructure contributed to the atmosphere of the interior.

The assertively modern Hill House Association building offered a new image for its parent organization, and announced that a disadvantaged neighborhood could boast sophisticated modern design—even in the shadow of the Civic Arena down the hill. Its construction was hailed as a “breakthrough in black capitalism” since in this, as in other projects, Roberts teamed with Black contractors. When the Center opened in 1973, it was called a “’Supermarket’ social services center” and an “ultramodern [version] of the old-fashioned settlement house.” The Hill House Center served the community for almost fifty years, but in 2019, the Hill House Association dissolved for financial reasons and sold the center. The new owners pledged to continue the building’s history of service in the Hill District community.

In the early 1970s, Roberts seemed to be riding high. Architectural Record magazine published articles on the Westinghouse Electric Vehicle Plant and the Reed Roberts modular housing. The Hill House Center was equally worthy of attention. A 1973 promotional booklet for the firm illustrated Walter Roberts Associates’ projects and noted a “special emphasis on institutional, industrial and public works structures for the inner city.” At the same time, however, Roberts was under increased scrutiny, and his firm was blackballed by the City of Pittsburgh in early 1972. Roberts’ experience feels racially charged. Howard K. Graves, a Pittsburgh architect who came to know Roberts at about this time, acknowledges institutional racism, then and now, and notes that windows of opportunity for minority architects are spotty and tend to close quickly. Yet Roberts’s experience may have had personal, political, and professional aspects. An ambitious middle school project yielded an accomplished building but did not end well for the firm. Walter Roberts Associates ceased operations in the late 1970s.

According to Graves, Roberts had a modern philosophy of design that favored the detailing and assembly characteristic of light industrial buildings, and understood how this approach could inform other building types. This was arguably a translation of industrial design thinking into architecture. Roberts’s approach shaped his best projects including the Westinghouse Electric Vehicle Plant and the Hill House Center. Roberts was a successful and versatile architect who combined a high standard of modern design with a commitment to Pittsburgh’s “inner city.”

About the Author

Martin Aurand is the former Architecture Librarian and Archivist at Carnegie Mellon University. He is the author of two books published by the University of Pittsburgh Press: The Progressive Architecture of Frederick G. Scheibler, Jr. (1994), a study of a turn-of-the-twentieth-century Pittsburgh architect; and The Spectator and the Topographical City (2006), a study of land and city in Pittsburgh. He is also a contributor to Imagining the Modern: Architecture and Urbanism of the Pittsburgh Renaissance published by Monacelli Press (2019). This text is adapted from the author’s longer text on Walter L. Roberts.


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Pittsburgh's Modern Milieu Part Three
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