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James D. Van Trump and the Stones of Pittsburgh                                                                                 Scott Silsbe




        "You die without knowing / whether anything you wrote was any good."

                                                                        W.S. Merwin



Working for a used bookstore for over 12 years, packing up personal libraries in and around the Pittsburgh area, you see things. Namely, a lot of books. Sometimes, it's books you haven't seen before—in a thorough collection of scholarly volumes on South Asian Linguistics, say, or a large U-haul's worth of rather dry university press books on 16th and 17th British History. But oftentimes, you see copies of the same books over and over again—the two volume hardcover set of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, David McCullough's Truman biography, or Annie Dillard's An American Childhood. There's a certain sensation you get when you happen upon these books in someone's library, an immediate recognition and also some unnamable feeling of, "Of course—there you are."


        One book that I've seen pretty regularly over the years is James D. Van Trump's Life and Architecture in Pittsburgh. It took a bookish co-worker to recommend it to me for me to snag my own copy of it, and it took me some time to get around to reading it, but once I cracked it, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found there. What I found was an impressive collection of essays, personal reflections, radio scripts, and even some poetry by a profoundly talented Pittsburgh writer whose work stretches out beyond the genre of architectural history and keenly personalizes the structures and buildings of a city's past and present. I quickly became a fan of Mr. Van Trump's work—and I wanted to know more about him.






        James Denholm Van Trump was born in Pittsburgh in 1908 and—with the exception of a 5-year stint in Philadelphia—was raised in Pittsburgh's East End. He attended both Carnegie Tech and the University of Pittsburgh in the '20s, studying painting, singing, and English literature. It was in the 1930s that "Jamie"—as he was called by those close to him—started to become seriously interested in architecture, specifically the architecture in and around Pittsburgh. Yet it wasn't until 1956, at the age of 47, that Van Trump published his first essay on architecture—a short piece in The Charette about the Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. A great number of essays followed, published by local journals The Charette, Carnegie Magazine, The Pittsburgher, and numerous other places. In 1964, Van Trump co-founded the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation with his friend and colleague Arthur P. Ziegler. In addition to the great wealth of architectural writing Mr. Van Trump composed from the '50s through the '80s, he also hosted a regular radio program in the '70s and '80s and even briefly had a short weekly news feature on television in the mid- to late-'70s. In 1983, in honor of James Van Trump’s 75th birthday, the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation published Life and Architecture in Pittsburgh.


        I can recall that the chief feeling that I had when I first cracked Life and Architecture in Pittsburgh was one of surprise. I'm not sure exactly what I expected the writing to be like, but I know that I didn’t expect such highly lyrical prose, such poetic flow. Here's the beginning an early essay in the book:


                New Year's Day has always been a time for new beginnings; the unknown year

                seems to stretch ahead wonderfully like a tabula rasa on which we can write as

                we will with whatever comes to hand. The days stretching ahead commend

                themselves to us as fields for exploration, voyages of discovery — not necessarily

                to far places, to perilous seas or fairylands forlorn, but to the familiar streets and

                hills of the home landscape, which seem to me, at least, as the years fly away, to

                be more infinitely marvelous, more fascinating.

                        ("Uphill and Downdale in Pittsburgh: A Night Journey at the New Year")


Beyond the surprise and delight I initially experienced reading Mr. Van Trump's lush prose, I naturally began to grow fond of his love and wonder for the city of Pittsburgh, as it mirrored similar feelings in me. "How inexhaustible is the local landscape, how mysterious, how wonderful!" Mr. Van Trump exclaims later on in "Uphill and Downdale…" And I'm right there with him.


        In 1965, as part of Van Trump's work with the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, he began writing a series of pamphlets, booklets, and books called "The Stones of Pittsburgh"—the first of which was entitled An Architectural Tour of Pittsburgh. I'm not sure exactly how many "Stones" Van Trump and the PHLF published, but over the years, I've been able to collect a few of them, including the first number and number 11—Station Square: A Golden Age Revived (1978). The Architectural Tour... is a quaint, 10-page staple-bound pamphlet that can fit in your breast pocket with a list of buildings, their architects, years of construction, and a brief note on the building's importance. Several of the entries end with a statement like, "Should be preserved" or "Must be preserved." The tour begins at the Point—with The Block House—and works its way through Downtown, to The Hill, to Oakland, Lawrenceville, East Liberty, and Old Allegheny (the North Side), to the South Side, and to a small section called "Sewickley and Beyond". At which point the pamphlet ends, with Van Trump noting, "This concludes our architectural pilgrimage for the moment. It is hoped at some future day to publish a guide to the buildings of Western Pennsylvania beyond the Pittsburgh area." It would take about 20 years, but that hope would eventually be realized.


        James D. Van Trump died in 1995, two weeks shy of his 87th birthday. The bibliography at the end of Life and Architecture in Pittsburgh runs nearly 30 pages long and doesn't collect it all, as Van Trump had about another decade of work in him. When I'm packing up collections for work now, I always keep an eye out for Van Trump and books published by PHLF and sometimes I take one for my own library. And I'm proud that the house I'm living in is one of the many in the Pittsburgh-area with multiple Van Trump books on its bookshelves.






Scott Silsbe is a writer, musician, and bookseller living in Pittsburgh. He is the author of two poetry collections—Unattended Fire (Six Gallery Press, 2012) and The River Underneath the City (Low Ghost Press, 2013).