Among the older houses of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood are some of the most distinguished modern designs in the city. James Speyer was born in one of the old mansions in the Woodland Road district, but in 1938, just weeks after Ludwig Mies van der Rohe became dean at the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago (now the Illinois Institute of Technology [IIT]), Speyer joined him for graduate studies and became a committed modernist. Speyer's achievements were fourfold: as teacher of architecture at IIT; as architect of some exquisitely detailed houses; as curator at the Art Institute of Chicago; and as famed exhibit designer there.
The background for the design of the Apt house was unusual. Joan Frank Apt had grown up across the road in a house designed by Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer ( AL111), and she knew Speyer. The site is steeply sloped and a granite stairway descends the hillside to reach the house. The house's low rectangular base is Miesian, as are the great expanses of plate glass; the heavily wooded site affords privacy. Other design decisions seem to have been client driven, such as the two internal circulation systems, one for family members and one for servants. The architect's family summered next to the Kaufmanns at Fallingwater ( FA28), and Frank Lloyd Wright's influence is apparent in the house's low ceilings and integration of the furnishings. The fireplace's dramatic arch is an H. H. Richardson influence.
Speyer also designed a house for his widowed mother, Tillie S. Speyer, in 1963 (Wightman and Northumberland streets). The severe templelike block turns its back on the adjoining busy intersection, and the entire property is ringed by a high brick wall for privacy, with the bricks stacked rather than bonded to indicate their nonbearing role. Large windows light the simple interior plan, which has a bank of rooms north and south off a two-story atrium. The theme of serenity and contemplation extends to the sunken garden and adjoining channeled rivulet of water, which gave his mother, a sculptor of biomorphic abstracts, the sense of a Japanese garden in the middle of Pittsburgh.