Syria Mosque

Lost Temple of Music
The Syria Mosque for 75 years was the centerpiece of Pittsburgh’s music culture hosting the performances of world renowned classical, jazz and rock artists. The Mosque was also a vital meeting place that hosted many historical political rallies and speeches. Dedicated in 1916, the 3,750 seat Moorish style theater stood at 4400 Bigelow Boulevard across from Soldiers and Sailors Hall in the heart of the Oakland Cultural district. The Mosque served as the home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the May Beegle Concert series, the Pittsburgh Opera, the National Negro Opera Company, and offered ballet and Broadway Musicals. The classical superstars who graced the stage of the Mosque included Vladimir Horowitz, Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein, Van Cliburn, Sergie Rachmaninoff, Rudolf Serkin., Gregor Piatigorsky, 
Paul Hindemith, Paul Robeson, Mario Lanza, and Enrico Caruso along with conductors Leopold Stokowski, Arturo Toscanini and Eugene Ormandy. Jazz artists who appeared at the Mosque included Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Art Tatum, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy and Pittsburgh's hometown jazz legends Earl Hines, Maxine Sullivan, George Benson and more. The Mosque hosted Rock N Roll concerts beginning in the 1950s with Bill Haley and the Comets, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and the Skyliners.  Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkle and the Who appeared in the 1960s.  Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, and Springsteen performed in the 1970s, and REM, Lou Reed, Bon Jovi, the Ramones, Dire Straights and Stevie Ray Vaughn appeared in the 1980s. The last concert was held in May of 1991.  

The historic Syria Mosque was torn down to make way for a lovely blacktop University of Pittsburgh Medical Center parking lot. The great music performances and historical events that took place there are long forgotten and tossed in the rubble pile of lost Pittsburgh music venues.  There is not even a historical maker to commemorate the Syria Mosque.

Shiners sell Syria Temple to Build the Syria Mosque

The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (A.A.O.N.M.S) known as the Shriners was founded in New York City in 1870. It is fraternal organization of the Masons dedicated to fun and philanthropy. The Shiners adopted a Middle Eastern theme and held their temple meetings in large auditoriums that they called Mosques. National membership grew rapidly from 100,000 in 1906 to 511,000 in 1922.  The Pittsburgh Temple was founded in 1877 and became the largest Shiner's chapter in North America with 26,000 members in the 1970s.  On October 23, 1902 2,000 Shriners attended the grand opening of the first Pittsburgh Syria Temple on Webster Avenue and Washington Place (on the site of the Civic Arena). It was a four story building that housed a large ballroom.  
 Membership grew quickly and the Shiners needed a much larger space. In 1910 the Shiners sold the Syria Temple for $160,000 to a group of 30 labor unions. It was renamed the Labor Temple and was the site of many historic labor union meetings. It was torn down in 1929. With the proceeds of the sale of the Syria Temple the Shiners purchased empty land in Oakland for $90,000 from the Schenely Farms Company. They announced plans to build a gardened roofed 2,500 seat theater to host grand operas and Shiner events. The Chicago based architectural firm Huehl, Schmidt & Holmes was hired to design the building. Construction on the Syria Mosque began in October of 1911 when Pittsburgh was booming as the 6th largest city in the United States.

Syria Mosque is Born
Built at a cost of $750,000 the brick Syria Mosque structure was adorned with Moorish revival features.   Architecture historian Jamie Van Trump described the Mosque's contrasting layers of buff brick as being like a “mocha torte”.
The top the Mosque was ringed by a white-glazed terra cotta banner written in  Arabic calligraphy that spelled out a line from a 14th century poem "Thou Hast Risen on the Horizon Of the Kingdom Full of Mercy to Disperse What There Was of Dark Oppression And Justice."   The interior of the Mosque was decorated with 32 chandeliers and stain glass windows.  The 3,750 seat theater, the biggest concert hall in Pittsburgh, featured a large ornate chandelier.  Below the Syria Mosque theater was a large ballroom used for the Shiners' meetings and banquets.  

The two 11 foot long 7 1/2 foot high 2,500 pound bronze sphinxes that guarded the main entrance of the Mosque were unveiled in a ceremony on Nov 1, 1919.  Design by Giuseppe Moretti they were cast by 
Matthews International.  They were built to honor eight members of the Pittsburgh temple who lost their lives in World War I. 

The Syria Mosque was one of several Moorish revival theaters built by the Shiners.  Huehl, Schmidt & Holmes also designed the Medinah Temple in Chicago in 1912 that still stands today as a retail shopping space.  Other temples that were built include Mecca in New York City that is now a concert hall, the Newark Symphony Hall, The Landmark Theater in Richmond, the Tripoli Shrine Temple in Milwaukee, the Helena Montana Civic Center (Montana), and the and the Fox Theater in Atlanta. Those cities preserved those historic buildings for music and entertainment, rather than for parking.

Dedication October 1916

The formal dedication of the Syria Mosque was a week long event celebrated by 30,000 people in October of 1916.  On Monday October 23, Shriners Day, 5,000 Pittsburgh Shine members were invited to tour the building.  On Tuesday 25,000 Master Masons from Allegheny County were invited.  The Mosque was opened for tours by the general public on Wednesday Oct 25.  
The formal dedication ceremony was held on Thursday Oct. 26, 1916. It was gala event attended by the Shiner members from Pittsburgh and Shiner Temples around the country. On 10 A.M. the Henry L Neideringhouse, the national Imperial Potentate of the Syria Temple Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, spoke at the inauguration event that featured choruses and ritual teams. The Syria band performed in the afternoon. The Pittsburgh Festival Orchestra with soloist Christine Miller performed in a evening concert. On Friday a buffet supper was held for 10,000 attendees and Saturday October 28th was Children's day.

John Philips Sousa

One of the first major concerts at the Syria Mosque was the appearance of John Phillips Sousa leading the 250 member Navy "jackies" band on October 15, 1917. Sousa and his "Great Band" returned to the Mosque on April 15, 1918 for a free "On to Victory Rally" concert.  John Philips Sousa kicked off the 1920 Syria Mosque concert series with his seventy piece band and appeared again in 1922. Sousa and his band performed at the Mosque in September of 1924 and performed jazz music. Sousa told the press that he had to include jazz as syncopated music had become a permanent part of America music.

May Beegle Concert Series

May Beegle was Pittsburgh’s internationally famous concert Impressario who presented classical music superstars at the Syria Mosque from 1922 through 1944.  When the Pittsburgh Symphony disbanded in 1909 May founded the Pittsburgh Orchestra Association to bring outstanding classical musicians to Pittsburgh for performances. In 1923 Beegle founded the Mary Beegle Agency and promoted an annual classical concert series.  The series was held at the Syria Mosque for over 20 years.  Beegle financed and promoted concerts at the Syria Mosque.  Highlights of her concerts included performances by Ernico Caruso (1920), The New York Philharmonic (1927), The Metropolitan Opera in Faust (1927), Sergei Rachmininoff, (1931, 1936) the Russian Grand Opera (1936), Jascha Heifetz (1937,1939) Ignace Jan Paderewski (1930, 1933, 1939), violinist Friz Kreisler (1930, 1935), Yehudi Menuhin (1935), Vladimir Horowitz  (1937),  1940), Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra (1929, 1939), singer Ezio Pinza (1945) pianist Arthur Rubinstein (1949), Feodor Chaliapon, Pavlova, Madame Schumann-Heinck, and Arthur Fielder and the Boston Pops. She brought the Chicago Grand Opera Company to Pittsburgh for 8 consecutive seasons. After her death in 1943 May's brother Thomas Beegle and her nephew Bill carried on the series at the Mosque until 1954.

Arresting Developments for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

The PSO which had disbanded in 1909 due to financial problems reformed in 1926 when the musicians contributed their own money to fund the orchestra.  They performed their first concert on Sunday April 24, 1926 at the Syria Mosque defying the Pittsburgh blue laws.  A Sunday date was chosen because most of the players were under contract to perform at other theaters during the week. The next day nine symphony board members were arrested for playing secular music on the Sabbath.  With the headline publicity the fans returned to support the PSO. The PSO resumed its concert series at the  Syria Mosque performing at that venue from 1926 until 1971.  

Elians Breeskin conducted the reformed PSO from 1926 through 1930. Braddock born conductor Antonio Modarelli led the symphony from 1930 to 1937.  Under Modarelli's direction the PSO was broadcast to two-thirds of the U.S. from the Syria Mosque on NBC in 1936.   Modarelli led performances of pianist Sergie Rachmaninoff in March of 1931 and December of 1936.  Moderelli directed a George Gershwin performance in November of 1933.  The sold out Gershwin concert was the first ever legal Sunday concert in the state of Pennsylvania.  Otto Klemperer became the music director in 1937. Fritz Reiner led the orchestra for a decade from 1938 to 1948.  Pittsburgh pianist Oscar Levant performed with Reiner and the PSO in a triumphant concert in 1939.  A series of guest conductors led the orchestra from 1948-52, including Leonard Bernstein and Leopold Stokowski. William Steinberg led the PSO at the Syria Mosque from 1952 to 1971. In September of 1971 the PSO moved to its current home at Heinz Hall. 

Pittsburgh Opera

The Pittsburgh Opera made its home at the Syria Mosque from the 1963-64 season through the 1970-71 season During that time opera stars Roberta Peters, Birgit Nilsson, Richard Tucker, Anna Moffo and Renata Scotto performed at the Mosque with the Pittsburgh Opera.

The Jazz Age

The Syria Mosque presented many historic jazz performers during its 74 year existence. The Jazz Age started in the mid 1920s. One of the first jazz bands to appear at the Syria Mosque was the Paul Whitman Orchestra in 1929. The Big Bands and popular entertainers performed at the Mosque during the 1930s and 1940s including Mills Brothers (1932), Eddie Cantor & Georgie Jessel (1933), Cab Calloway & His Cotton Club Orchestra (1933), Duke Ellington (1934), Benny Goodman (1941), Tommy Dorsey (1941), and Peggy Lee with Benny Goodman (1942).  Legendary jazz pianist Art Tatum gave a solo concert at the Mosque in 1948. Louis Armstrong and Pittsburgh's Earl Hines performed together at the Mosque in 1948.  Armstrong returned to the Mosque on March 25, 1956 with his All-stars and the Woody Herman band.  Another great night of jazz was a concert with 
Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and Louis Armstrong in 1953. 

On Aug. 7, 1946 the Pittsburgh Courier presented "A Night of the Stars" featuring an all star cast of Pittsburgh's jazz legends.  Maxine Sullivan, Earl Hines, Billy Strayhorn, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Eckstine, Erroll Garner, Roy Eldridge, Ray Brown, Louis Deppe, and the 15 year old pianist Conrad "Sonny" Clark performed in a benefit concert.  The Earl Hines band backed the performers and the concert with 3,500 attendees went on until midnight.  It was one of the greatest nights in the history of Pittsburgh jazz welcoming home Pittsburgh's natives who are among the most influential artists in jazz history.  

Norman Granz began bringing his annual his "Jazz at the Philharmonic" tour to the Syria Mosque in November of 1946.  The tour featured an incredible cast of preeminent jazz stars every year. Pittsburgh trumpet legend Roy Eldridge appeared at the first Pittsburgh JATP show in 1946.  The 1957 show in Pittsburgh featured Ella Fitzgerald, the Oscar Peterson Trio with Pittsburgh bassist Ray Brown, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and the JATP band with Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Roy Eldridge.

Musical Americana Show

The Musical Americana show produced by KDKA radio was broadcast live from the Syria Mosque to 96 stations on the NBC Blue Network during 1940.  It featured 102 Pittsburgh musicians and a 24 member swing chorus.  Directed by Raymond Paige the half hour broadcast featuring music by American composers aired weekly until January 1941.

National Negro Opera Company

Mary Cardwell Dawson launched the National Negro Opera Company (NNOC), the first African American opera company, with an inaugural performance of Aida at the Syria Mosque on October 30th, 1941.  The concert received rave reviews.  Mary Cadwell Dawson provided talented African American singers with opportunities denied them by unjust Jim Crow segregation.  For twenty-one years she trained students in voice and classical music. She produced acclaimed opera performances in Pittsburgh at the Syria Mosque and in New York, Cleveland, and Washington.  Turned down for grants by racist philanthropic arts organizations Mary worked diligently to raise the funds to support the NNOC and the students. 

First Live DuMont Television Network Broadcast

On January 11 1949, Slim Bryant and the Wildcats appeared on Pittsburgh's first television broadcast on WDTV Channel 3, performing live from the Syria Mosque. The one hour program that began at 8:30 PM was also aired national as the first live national broadcast on the DuMont and three other television networks. The remainder of the national broadcast, which ran to 11 PM. featured live segments from four networks: DuMont, CBS, NBC, and ABC.  Ed Sullivan broadcast his "Toast of the Town" show from the Syria Mosque on June 3, 1951. 

Theatrical Productions and Comedy

During her time promoting events at the Syria Mosque May Beegle brought several dramatic plays to Pittsburgh starring Agnes Moorehead, Charles Boyer, Tyrone Power, and Charles Loughton,  Yul Bryenner starred in the King and I at the Syria Mosque from April 15 to May 10 1981.  The DeBaralo Corporation announced plans to acquire the Syria Mosque in 1983 to make it into theater for Broadway production, but in never came to be.  DiCeaser Engler Productions brought its Broadway series to the Syria Mosque during the 1980s.  In 1984 seven shows appeared at the Mosque: 
La Cage Aux Folles, Brighton Beach Memories. 42nd Street, Noises Off, The Real Thing, Zorba and the All Night Strut. Other productions held at the Mosque were The Odd Couple with Tony Randell and Jack Klugman (1975), don't Both er Me. I Can't Cope (1975), Grease (1976), Raisin in the Sun (1976), Torch Song Trilogy (1985), Annie (1986), Oh Calcutta (1990).  Comedians also played to the Syria Mosque audiences include Victor Borge (1948, 1956), Jack Benny (1950, 1963), Bob Hope (1950), Spike Jones (1951), George Gobel (1956),  Richard Pyror (1978), Bill Cosby (1971, 1985), Robin Williams (1986), Stephen Wright (1987), Jay Leno (1987), and George Carlin (1984, 1990), Richard Lewis (1990), Phyllis Diller (1991), and Tim Allen (1991).

1950s Birth of Rock N Roll
Rock N Roll was born in the early 1950s and the Syria Mosque became center stage of rock in Pittsburgh. Billy Haley, who had the first hit rock n roll record in 1953, played the Mosque for the first time on Oct. 20, 1955. He returned on Jan. 27 with Bo Diddley and on May 3 and June 4 of 1956. His fourth performance that was scheduled for Oct. 22, 1956, was banned because of his previous rowdy shows.  Fearing riots Elvis Presley was banned from appearing at the Mosque. Chuck Berry appeared at the Mosque four times in 1957.  Buddy Holly performed four times in 1958.  Allan Freed's The Big Beat tour played the Mosque on May 1, 1958, featuring Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Frankie Lymon, Chuck Berry, the Diamonds, Danny and the Juniors, the Chantels, Larry Williams, and Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Other early rock N roll stars who performed at the Stanley include Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, Carl Perkins, the Everly Brothers, Eddie Cochran, Duane Eddy, The Platters, The Coasters. the Drifters, Fabian, and Bobby Rydell. The Skyliners appeared at the Mosque in 1959 as part of Dick Clark’s first “Cavalcade of Stars” tour.

The Rock Era

Concert promoter Pat DiCesare, of "University Attractions" and later "Pat DiCesare Productions" established an exclusive booking agreement with The Syria Mosque during the 60s and 70s. Being in the heart of the Pittsburgh college district with the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon, and Carlow College it was a prime spot of rock.  

During the 1960s the Syria Mosque hosted Cliff Richards (1960), Bob Dylan in 1964 and 1966, and Simon and Garfunkle in 1968.  The early 1970s saw appearances from Three Dog Night, Yes, the Allman Brothers ,John Sebastian, Leon Russell, John Mayhall, the Beach Boys, Frank Zappa, T. Rex, Edgar Winter, and Bette Midler,    Pink Floyd appeared five times between 1970 and 1972.

The Mosque was very busy in 1974 with shows by Gensis, ZZ Top, The Eagles, Jesse Collin Your, the Carpenters, Sha Na Na, Mott the Hoople, Bachman Turner Over Drive, David Bowie , Joan Baez, the Kinks, and Van Morrison.  Other shows at the Mosque included Bob Dylan (1966 and 1990), The Who (1969) The Band (1970), Carly Simon 1972, Framk Zappa (1974), Bruce Sprinsteen (1975),  Jackson Brown (1975, 1976), Jan Ian (1975), Richie Havens (1975), the Tubes (1975), New Riders of the Purple Sage (1975), Genesis (1976), James Taylor (1976), Daryl Hall and John Oates (1976), Gino Vannelli (1976), and Kansas (1976).  

As the Mosque was not air conditioned shows were booked infrequently during the hot summer months. In 1974 DiCeasare Engler Production purchased the air conditioned Stanely Theater in 1977 and moved its shows to downtown Pittsburgh.

DiCeasare Engler returned to the Mosque in 1984 when they sold the Stanley Theater to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. DiCeasare-Engler took over the operations of The Syria Mosque and made it a top 10 grossing theater booking concerts and touring Broadway shows.  In that period appearing at the Mosque were Dan Fogelberg (1983), Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble (1984), Bon Jovi (1984), R.E.M.(1985, 1986), Joe Walsh (1988), Kansas and Night Ranger (1986). 

DiCeasare-Engler also booked smaller shows in the Syria Mosque Ballroom including Stryper (1985, 1987), Yngwie Malmsteen (1985), B.B. King (1987), Los Lobos (1987), Susan Vega (1987), Alvin Lee (1987), Jane's Addiction (1988), Ramones (1988), Tesla (1989), and Warren Zevon (1990)

The Parking Lot Exchange of 1991

The Syria Mosque went down as a casualty of parking lot madness in 1991.  The 13,000 member Pittsburgh Shiners was having a tough time finding parking spaces for their members in crowded Oakland.  Members had to park in expensive UPMC parking garages when they attended events at the Syria Mosque.  The Shiners wanted to build a new temple outside of Pittsburgh that had plenty of free parking for its members.  UPMC, the ever expanding medical behemoth, wanted a parking lot for their executives and doctors. The Shiners voted to sell the Syria Mosque to UPMC for $10 million on March 4, 1991.  As part of the agreement the Shiners were allowed to take stain glass windows, chandeliers, the Sphinxes, marquees, and other items from the building. The Shiners paid $200,000 to DiCesare-Engler Productions for the cancellation of their lease which was to run through July 31, 1993. The last concert was an appearance by the Yanni on May 12, 1991.

A furry of protests and lawsuits broke out when the sale of the Mosque was announced.  City Councilman Jim Ferlo John Murdock, Albert Petrarca and Marshall Goodwin were 
pulled down from the Sphinxes and hauled to jail on August 27, 1991. The massive sphinxes were loaded onto a flat-bed truck taken away at 5:30 A.M.  Bulldozers brought down the hallowed walls of the Syria Mosque. 

The New Shiners Temple

The Shiners built a new $7 million dollar Mosque in Harmor Township off of Route 28 with free parking for 1,000 cars.  The Sphinxes guard the entrance of the new temple.  A 1,200 seat banquet room host Shiner meetings, wedding receptions, and trade shows.  Today the Shiners International ia fraternal organization of the Masons whose goal is care for the less fortunate, especially children who suffer from burns and crippling disease. They operate a network of 22 Shriners' Hospitals for children in the United States, Mexico and Canada. The hospitals provide free orthopedic care, burn treatment, cleft lip and palate care and spinal cord injury rehabilitation. The Pittsburgh chapter was the largest local chapter in the country for 41 years.  In 2012 it has around 5,000 members.