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Shriners Sell the Syria Mosque Lost
Syria Mosque Lost


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA)
- Sunday, March 31, 1991


If the walls of the Syria Mosque could talk, perhaps they'd say "Bravo." In its 75 years, the Mosque has hosted a staggering number of the world's greatest classical, jazz and pop performers.

The wrecking ball seems destined to obliterate the Mosque within a year, now that the Shriners have agreed to sell the building for $10 million to a development company. If the Mosque goes, so will an era.

That era began Oct. 26, 1916, when the Mosque was dedicated. The structure was built to house the activities of the Syria Temple, a local chapter of a international fraternal group whose members are called Shriners.

The Mosque's role in Pittsburgh's cultural life swung into high gear when the Pittsburgh Symphony first performed there on May 2, 1926. In April 1927, the symphony began playing there regularly. The Mosque served as the symphony's home until the orchestra moved to Heinz Hall at the start of the 1971-72 season.

Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein, Van Cliburn, Rudolf Serkin and Gregor Piatigorsky are only a fraction of the luminaries who performed there under conductors Fritz Reiner and William Steinberg and guest conductors like Leopold Stokowski, Arturo Toscanini and Eugene Ormandy.

"I remember as a very young child seeing Rubinstein (at the Mosque)," says Patricia Prattis Jennings, principal keyboard player with the Pittsburgh Symphony, " 'cause I remember that he leaped from the bench when he hit a loud chord."

Pittsburgh Opera, too, performed at the Mosque from the 1963-64 through 1970-71 seasons. Performers who graced the Mosque's stage during this time include Roberta Peters, Birgit Nilsson, Richard Tucker, Anna Moffo and Renata Scotto -- often under the baton of Richard Karp.

"I remember a wonderful 'Tristan und Isolde' with Marjorie Lawrence, who was in a wheelchair. She had to be placed onstage between acts and she almost never moved," recalls Bernard Goldberg, principal flutist with the Pittsburgh Symphony.

Jazz, as well as classical, flourished at the Mosque. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Art Tatum and Dizzy Gillespie all played there in the '30s and '40s.

In the late '40s and early '50s, the Jazz at the Philharmonic tours touched down often at the Mosque, bringing Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Sarah Vaughan, Dexter Gordon and others. A single "Night of Stars," presented by the Pittsburgh Courier on Aug. 7, 1946, featured Maxine Sullivan, Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Eckstine, Erroll Garner, Roy Eldridge, Ray Brown and more.

Rhythm and blues and, later, rock 'n' roll eventually shook the rafters of the Mosque.

"The focal point for rock 'n' roll in the 1950s was the Syria Mosque," says Dave Goodrich, author of "Key to the City," a history of Pittsburgh entertainment from 1928 to 1954.

Pittsburgh was a particularly strong market for R&B and early rock, which meant that performers would play the city several times in a matter of months. Bill Haley played the Mosque first on Oct. 20, 1955. He returned on Jan. 27, May 3 and June 4 of 1956. He was due to perform here again Oct. 22, 1956, but was banned because of his rowdy performances.

Elvis Presley was banned before he ever set foot (or pelvis) in the Mosque. James Brown was banned after he did a wild show at the Mosque in May 1963. Rock was almost banned at the Mosque entirely after officials said 700 seats were damaged by jumping teenagers at a July 18, 1956, show with Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.

Rockers often performed on "package tours" that offered a dozen or so acts for a few bucks. The Big Beat, an Allan Freed production that played the Mosque on May 1, 1958, featured Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Frankie Lymon, Chuck Berry, the Diamonds, Danny and the Juniors, the Chantels, Larry Williams, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and others.

After the symphony and the opera left for Heinz Hall, the Mosque was left with pop/rock and the occasional comedian or touring Broadway show. The Mosque lost most of that when the city's largest concert promoter,
DiCesare-Engler , began staging shows at the Stanley Theatre (now the Benedum) in 1977 and bought the Stanley in 1978.

But the Mosque regained a measure of prominence in 1984 when DiCesare-Engler sold the Stanley to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and moved to the Mosque once again.

Performers from the post-Beatles era who have appeared at the Mosque include Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, the Kinks, Van Morrison, Pink Floyd, Emmylou Harris, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bruce Springsteen.

Bette Midler introduced her musical director when she debuted in Pittsburgh at the Mosque; his name was Barry Manilow. A young singer-songwriter opened for the Doobie Brothers; his name was Billy Joel.

Concerts haven't been the only attraction at the Mosque; many theater productions have been staged there. "Theatre Guild on the Air" productions were heard across the country, offering stars like Basil Rathbone, Dorothy McGuire and Henry Fonda. A production of "Page Miss Glory" on May 21, 1950, starred Ronald Reagan, Betty Hutton and Jack Carson.

The first live network telecast originating from Pittsburgh happened at the Mosque. That was on June 3, 1951. The show was Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town."

Politicians as well as entertainers have paraded across the Mosque's boards: Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, Malcolm X. But radical presidential candidate Glen Taylor was banned from speaking at the Mosque in 1948.

Not all those who have performed at the Mosque hold the building in high esteem. The symphony and opera, for instance, had reasons for leaving.

"The stage was too wide and too shallow," says flutist Goldberg. "And there were some areas that were just dead out in the audience. It was very difficult to hear from one side of the stage to the other, which amounted to half a block."

Offstage, things were worse.

"Backstage there was only a single toilet. So there was always a lineup there."

Goldberg won't miss the Mosque if it goes.

"When I saw pictures of it on TV," he says, "I remembered it with a certain amount of retrospective thril, looking at certain parts of ceilings and corners where I would try to send my tone in particularly inspiring performances. But other than that, I don't have any special feeling about it."

But Jennings will mourn its loss. "I think that it's very sad if it's going to be torn down. I realize that the world moves on, but for somebody who goes away from Pittsburgh and comes back many years later, things are missing and it's difficult Joe Rock, manager of the Skyliners and the man who co-wrote the group's hit "Since I Don't Have You," also will miss the Mosque. As a teenager, Rock struck up conversations with R&B stars like Etta James and Big Joe Turner while they waited for the bus after R&B package shows in the early '50s.

His Skyliners made a triumphant return to Pittsburgh in September 1959 at the Mosque as part of the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars.

"Everything that happened musically happened there, and I just hate to see it. I know 10 million bucks is a loes you just can't put a price on something."


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA) - Sunday, March 17, 1991


A development company has offered to buy Oakland's 81-year-old Syria Mosque for $10 million, and the leader of the organization that owns the building is urging members to accept the offer.

Known for its 3,700-seat concert hall where many popular music stars have performed, the mosque is owned by the 13,000-member Syria Temple, a branch of the national fraternal group whose members are known as Shriners.

Members of the temple will vote March 25 on the offer from National Development Corp. to pay $10 million for the building at 4223 Bigelow Blvd. and the adjoining parking lot.

Norman C. Arbes, the temple's potentate, has urged members in a letter to approve a sales agreement, reached Feb. 13, between the Syria Temple Holding Corp. and National Development. Members will vote on the agreement at a special 8 p.m. meeting at the mosque.

The building, which opened in 1910, is in the center of the Oakland, a block from the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh.

The fraternal group, which is looking for a new location for its meeting
halls, has been trying to sell the building for nearly 22 months.

Gregory Hand, senior vice president of National Development, declined yesterday to comment on the offer or about plans his company has for the property.

National Development was one of the first firms to express an interest in the property when it was put up for sale in June 1989. Its original offer in
December of that year was to demolish the mosque and replace it with a $6 million office building.

The current sales agreement indicates demolition is still being considered. Under the agreement, Syria Temple has promised to obtain a demolition permit if National Development decides to tear down the building.

Arbes said if the sale is aphe temple would find an "interim or permanent building" to hold meetings and its other events.

He said the temple has "many beautiful sites in the city and county under consideration" as the future home of the temple, but declined to identify them. Jack L. Weaver, the temple's recorder and building manager, said 10 to 15 sites are being considered.

"The site we select must have road access and free parking for our members," said Arbes, a Pittsburgh area businessman.

Last April the University of Pittsburgh made a $5.5 million offer for the property. Tim Ziaukas, director of communica, said earlier this year that Pitt was "no longer negotiating for the property." He added that if the mosque is sold, "we have no interest in renting the building."

Under the current agreement, National Development can void the sale if it discovers within seven months of the closing that the cost of eliminating hazardous materials or waste, asbestos or petroleum products on the site exceeds $700,000.

S reduce the sales price by up to $250,000 if the environmental correction cost is $500,000 or higher.

The temple has also agreed to eliminate all leases, including one with the
DiCesare-Engler Productions, which books concerts and other ev the mosque.

The DiCesare-Engler lease, which runs through July 31, 1993, requires the temple or the buyer to pay the entertainment firm a $200,000 penalty if the mosque is sold or demolished prior to termination of the lease.

The agreement allows the temple to remove from the mosque all personal property and such fixtures as the Sphinx outside the building, stained glass
windows, selected parts of the marquees, chandeliers, both kitchens and other items.

If, within two years of the sale, National Development does not develop the site but sells the site to another party, it has agreed to share equally any profits it obtained from the sale with the temple.

The temple can accept or reject National Development's offer to provide, without charge, preliminary site, development and design analysis for any new location and to provide development and construction of a new building with no development fee or construction profit.