Sunday, August 30, 2015

HGB Podcast, Ep. 64 - Pittsburgh's Federal Courthouse

Moment in Oddity - The Barber Surgeon

Most people think a barber is just a guy who gives a man a cut and a shave. While that is true for those living in the last two centuries, there was a time when your local barber could give you a cut and a shave and do some bloodletting and that's not because that shave got a little closer to your jugular. In medieval Europe, Barber Surgeons were the most common medical practitioners. After all, they were good with a blade. Bloodletting was a common practice at the time and it was believed that by cutting someone - or in some cases applying leeches - you could cure a myriad of ailments by getting the sick blood out. It was also believed that if all the liquids in the human body were kept in balance, a person would be healthier. Those liquids were blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. Barber Surgeons also extracted teeth, performed surgery, amputated limbs and performed enemas. Most were uneducated and learned their trade as an apprentice. The red, white and blue poles that we identify with barbers today goes back to this time. The colors signify the blood and dressings used by the barbers. The professions of surgeon and barber began to separate as we learned more and surgery became a respected profession. Can you believe there was a time when physicians thought surgery was beneath them? By 1745, the two professions were separated, but barbers did occasionally still perform bloodletting. Going to a barber for surgery, certainly is odd.

This Day in History - Kinetoscope Patented

On this day, August 31st, in 1837, Thomas Edison patented the Kinetoscope. An assistant to Edison had invented a motion picture viewer, but Edison was uninterested in the device considering it a toy. But after some time Edison thought perhaps it could help sell people on his phonograph. So he tried his best to match the sound from the phonograph up to the pictures on the motion picture viewer. He was not successful, but he decided to market the motion picture device anyway and he named it the Kinetoscope, the first ever silent moving picture viewer. Early films were made from an acidic base called nitrate, which caused the films to burn up. This meant that the movies did not last for very long. Luckily, Edison copied some on paper and some of those movies have survived up to our modern era. The Kinetoscope didn't last long though. It could only be viewed by one person at a time, so it was not conducive to showing movies to large groups of people. Thus, the Kinetoscope was soon replaced by the movie projector.

Pittsburgh's Federal Courthouse

Photo courtesy of Dan Foytik of 9th Story Studios
Pittsburgh is the original "Gateway to the West" and began as a Frontier Fort. In the 1900s, the Federal Courthouse was built in a design that leaves much to be desired particularly compared to the more interesting Allegheny County Courthouse. But the Federal Courthouse is quite interesting when considering the rumors that it is haunted. Pittsburgh is a very haunted city and this location is just one of the many spots harboring those still here in the afterlife. Join us as we explore the history and hauntings of Pittsburgh's Federal Courthouse! 

Pittsburgh is situated where the Allegheny and the Monongahela Rivers converge and at the head of the Ohio River. For centuries, the area was inhabited by Native American tribes for just that reason. These tribes were numerous and included the Iroquois, Shawnee, Lenape, Seneca, Mohawk, Wyandot and others. The Meadowcroft Rockshelter is considered to be the oldest site of human habitation in North America. When the Europeans arrived, small pox ravaged the area and the tribal populations dwindled to almost nothing. As was the case with many settlements in America, this area was settled by traders initially in 1710. By 1748, the Ohio Company, a land speculation company from Great Britain, acquired acreage in the Upper Ohio Valley. The French were already in nearby Logstown. Tensions would rise between the British and the French over the land. At one point, Major George Washington was sent to warn the French to withdraw.

The French and Indian War or Seven Years War started in 1754. The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris and the French Fort Duquesne was razed and Fort Pitt was built in its place. The Fort was named in honor of William Pitt the Elder and that is the inspiration for Pittsburgh's name. The area grew steadily and glass production began. Later, steel would become a part of the industry. Pittsburgh was built on glass and steel and by 1816 it was incorporated. Pittsburgh grew into a commercial and industrial powerhouse. That kind of growth meant that the city needed federal services and buildings.

Photo courtesy of Dan Foytik of 9th Story Studios
Andrew W. Mellon was the Secretary of the Treasury in the 1930s. He was from Pittsburgh and allocated funds towards the building of a new Federal Courthouse in the city. Trowbridge & Livingston, a New York architectural firm, was hired to design the building. Construction began in 1931, but a strike stopped the work until the following year. The building is in the Stripped Classical style. Most federal buildings in the 20s and 30s were built in this style and the name says it all. These buildings are stripped of anything fancy or ornamental. The Federal Courthouse does have two limestone eagles on either side of the entrance. The Stripped Classical style was popular with Fascist and Totalitarian regimes and fell out of favor after World War II.

The Federal Building has two distinct areas. The front part of the building is four stories and housed postal facilities and is built from a steel frame covered with granite. The rear area rises to eleven stories and contains courtrooms, jury rooms and other offices and is built from limestone. The building was originally built over the railroad tracks that have since been removed. The tracks helped facilitate the delivery of mail. The interior of the building contains doors and window frames made from bronze and aluminum. The south lobby is covered in Alabama pink granite, the floors are gray marble and the walls are decorated with rope and garland designs. The first floor contains a groin vaulted, terra-cotta ceiling with gold-leaf trim. Groin vaulting is when rounded curves that form a barrel vault come together at right angles. The rest of the courthouse has floors covered in terrazzo and walls of marble wainscot.
Photo courtesy of Dan Foytik of 9th Story Studios
The building was officially opened in 1934 to fanfare, which was a way for the government to get people excited about the economy and hopeful about the future since the Great Depression was in full swing. Major postal operations were moved to another building in 1983. The building was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1995. Extensive renovations and modernizations were done in 2002. One interesting factoid is that the building contained what were referred to as "sneakways" on the postal levels. They were suspended above the floors between the walls and a postal inspector could fit in there and spy on workers through a narrow slit. He would be making sure that no one was opening envelopes or stealing mail. Workers never knew they were being spied upon.

Gerald Joseph Weber attended Harvard University and then received his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. In 1964, President Lynden Johnson nominated Weber as a judge for the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. In 1976 he became Chief Judge and served until he went into semi-retirement in 1988. He passed away in 1989 from cancer. Judge Weber was incredibly smart and no nonsense. He loved a cigar and smoked up to six of them a day. And he loved being a judge at the courthouse. Perhaps that is why he has never left. Many claim that his ghost roams the halls to this day. During renovations, contractors repeatedly saw apparitions of Judge Weber walking the fourth floor hallways still wearing his black robes.  One worker claimed that the figure asked him, "How's it going?" and then walked away. Later, he recognized the man in a picture on the wall. It was the portrait of Judge Weber.

The elevator seems to be haunted by the Judge as well because it will stop on the fourth floor and the doors will open even though no one is inside the elevator. The Judge's courtroom was on the eighth floor though, so is it possible that someone else is here at the courthouse as well? If you ask the cleaning staff, they believe there are several haunts in the place. Much of the cleaning staff have had experiences on several floors including the ninth and first floors and also the fourth floor. One employee has heard her name called out by a disembodied male voice. Doors open and close on their own on the ninth floor and a cleaning lady claims that the spirit of the former director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is in the building as well.

The building's maintenance inspector has had experiences. The fourth floor is always dark and carries a spooky air to it and he claims that he feels cold drafts on that level all the time. No windows are ever open when this happens, but it is an older building. The basement creeps everyone out with its strange passageways and massive pipes snaking about the entire area. One judge did indeed die in the Federal Courthouse. Judge John McIlvaine had a heart attack in 1963 and died on a couch outside the courtroom on the sixth floor. Is he the one that the cleaning people sometimes feel swish by them?

The Federal Courthouse is your typical federal building in a typical large city. The idea that it may harbor some sticking around in the afterlife does make it unique. Is it possible that disembodied judges still roam the hallways? Is Pittsburgh's Federal Courthouse haunted? That is for you to decide!

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