America in the first decade of the 20th Century had become a country of almost limitless potential. Strong and rich, it was filled with such boundless vitality that nothing was believed too big to handle, no problem was beyond solution. Hard work, faith and native ingenuity would overcome any challenge. Perhaps nowhere in America was this believed more fervently than in Pittsburgh.
The Pittsburgh of the early 1900s had become the nation’s most powerful industrial metropolis, America’s hearth and forge. It was a city, they said, that knew the value and the meaning of work. And work it did, night and day, turning out steel, building bridges, boring tunnels, making roads, generators, boilers and locomotives – the whole of Pittsburgh seemed to be working, building, and always growing, except for one area lying on the edge of town that stood aside from this never-ending noise, smoke and commotion.
Even as late as 1909, the area that had become known as Schenley Farms was still remarkably rural. Fields of grass and farmland and great tracts of wooded land, bare hills and pastureland were still the predominant features of an area that was only a handful of miles from the downtown bustle. Yet, imperceptibly, the Schenley-Oakland area was changing. While the Carnegie Institute had stood austerely alone in the Schenley District since the 1890s, the Schenley Hotel now took its place on the skyline. Schenley Park lay to the south with the mansions of the steel barons to the east. Though still barely noticeable, rural Oakland was becoming enclosed.
In 1904, a developer bought the last large open tract of land left in the district, the Schenley Dairy Farm, from which the area originally took its name. Frank Felix Nicola, however, was no mere real estate entrepreneur. He was a developer with a grand vision and a man with the driving ambition and resourcefulness to clothe his dreams in reality. Nicola was destined to play a crucial role in the evolution of Oakland.
Persuading Mary Groghan Schenley to sell him the farm tract had proven a difficult task, made more tedious by the fact that Mrs. Schenley lived permanently in Europe. Yet the necessity of making repeated business trips overseas engendered in Nicola the seed of an idea that would eventually dominate his entire business and private life.
It was during his foreign travels that he observed how the parks, museums, the universities, restaurants, the hotels, the social clubs and art galleries - often all found within walking distance of each other – formed the core of a city’s cultural community. A mutually beneficial relationship had evolved among all the elements, thus creating a synergistic whole that was infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.
Could the Schenley Farm-Oakland area be made to serve the same function in Pittsburgh? What were its special advantages? Topographically, its flatness would make the construction of various large buildings feasible. Oakland already possessed, in the Carnegie Institute and Carnegie Technical School, two of the key artistic and educational edifices a cultural community would need; it had a park, a hotel, wide streets, unpolluted air, a quiet, refined rhythm and superb access to downtown area. Why should Oakland, Nicola wondered, not become the new cultural, social, educational and residential nucleus of Pittsburgh?
In 1908, Nicola invited 40 businessmen to the Duquesne Club to consider a new project he had in mind. If Oakland was to become the cultural center of Pittsburgh, it would need, besides libraries and universities, theatres, hotels, art galleries, and institutes, a place where, in the words of the Pittsburgh Press, “a sound mind in the sound body” could be cultivated. Nicola was proposing the establishment of PAA.
The reaction must have been encouraging, because by the end of the evening, some 20 of those present pledged their support. From that point on, things moved rather rapidly. By October, incorporation papers had been drawn up and on Christmas Eve, with 1500 members on it roll, The Pittsburgh Athletic Association was granted a charter. The PAA was born.
The Founder of PAA
It was said when he died in 1938 that Frank Nicola, for almost half a century was Pittsburgh’s leading real estate developer and promoter. Certainly it was his determination and forethought that led to the establishment of the Pittsburgh Athletic Association.
Frank Felix Nicola was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1860. His father had been a lawyer and sheriff of Cuyahoga County. Finishing school early, young Frank Nicola went into the lumber business and when he reached 24, came to Pittsburgh with $200 to start up a wholesale firm. During the next 15 years, Nicola built thousands of homes for steel and mine workers, a hotel called the Mayfair and in 1898 he erected the Schenley Hotel (which is now the Student Union for the University of Pittsburgh) the exterior of which was preserved as a fine example of Pittsburgh early architecture. By 1901 he and Henry Frick were buying and selling parcels of property in Oakland, including all the land on which now stands the Cathedral of Learning. Four years later he completed purchase of the Schenley Farm tract, knocked down the Oakland Terrace (better known as Casey’s Row) and oversaw the establishment of the PAA on the site.
Frank Nicola was responsible for a great many of the outstanding buildings constructed in Oakland and downtown, including the Schenley and Liberty Theatres, Syria Mosque, Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Hall, the Twentieth Century Club, Masonic Hall, University of Pittsburgh buildings and the 18th Regiment Armory. In addition, he was responsible for raising several streets above the high flood level mark and started many organizations to promote new industry.