Hannes Richter

A Bridge from Vienna to Pittsburgh

Hannes Richter

The settlement of the first Austro-Hungarian émigrés in Pennsylvania marked the beginning of a long tradition of contributions to their adopted country and set a high standard for generations that followed. On February 27-28, 2009, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the University of Pittsburgh (Center of Russian and East European Studies) hosted an event that paid tribute to this close historical connection between Pittsburgh and Austria. It featured a musical program by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra entitled, “A Bridge from Vienna to Pittsburgh,” conducted by Austrian Maestro Manfred Honeck who began his tenure as ninth Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in September 2008. The program was preceded by a lecture on the Austro-Hungarian Empire by visiting Austrian Professor of Political Science and Director of International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh Reinhard Heinisch. Six panels focusing on different aspects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, such as music, the arts, politics and social development, were on display in the lobby of the concert hall.

Historical Background

Austria and Pittsburgh have a long, commonly-shared history which began with the emigration of thousands of Austrians from the Habsburg Empire at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. They came in search of economic opportunities and found a new home in America. The many Austrians in the Pittsburgh area also discovered a great similiarity in topography and climate to various regions of Austria.

The introduction of the steam engine around 1850 reduced travel time significantly, and increasing numbers of immigrants settled close to Pittsburgh where jobs were plentiful in the coal and steel works. In 1850 only 946 Austrians were living in the United States according to the U.S. census, but that number rose to more than two million people between 1901 and 1910, when roughly a quarter of all people immigrating to the U.S. (24.4%) came from Austria-Hungary.

First Consulate in U.S. Outside Washington

It was in this context that the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s foreign minister, Count Andrassy, approached Emperor Franz Joseph on December 19, 1875 and suggested establishing a consulate in Pittsburgh. In December 1875, lawyer and banker, Max Schamberg, was appointed by the emperor as Austro-Hungarian Honorary Consul, and Pittsburgh became the first consulate and diplomatic post outside of Washington, D.C. Later it was converted to a career consulate in 1894. With 60,000 citizens of the Monarchy residing in the Pittsburgh area alone, administrative duties of the Austro-Hungarian consulates and the Embassy in Washington were greatly increased. The supervision of the various ethnic groups in the Austrian colony and the reporting of political activities with subversive intentions directed against the Monarchy became important in view of the awakening of nationalism in Europe. In particular, movements of Czechs and Slovaks, who were well represented in Pennsylvania, demanded greater autonomy and even newspapers were published in Czech, Hungarian and Croatian in the U.S. The so-called Pittsburgh Agreement was signed on May 31, 1918 in Pittsburgh and the way was prepared for the creation of the state of Czechoslovakia. The primary author of the agreement, Tomas G. Masaryk, declared the independence of Czechoslovakia on the steps of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA, in October, 1918.

Near the end of the 19th century, the Austro-Hungarian Consul in Pittsburgh described “the thirty or more iron works,” and reported that there was hardly a business or factory in the city that did not employ subjects of the Monarchy. Long after becoming American citizens they held to their traditions and nationality. With the end of World War I and the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire an impoverished post-war Austria was unable to maintain the Consulate in the city, and it was permanently closed on October 31, 1921.

The Austrian American Cultural Society of Pittsburgh

Today Austrians continue to add to the rich fabric of life in Pittsburgh and maintain strong ties to their native heritage through the activities of the Austrian American Cultural Society of Pittsburgh. Established in 1979, the Society’s initiatives cover a wide range of activities including fundraising events, concerts by artists from Austria, an annual St. Nikolaus Fest in early December, an annual Austrian Ball (accompanied by speakers, book sales and exhibitions), and outreach to schools, among others. Its cardinal achievement was the creation of the Austrian Nationality Classroom, which joined the collection of twenty-six classrooms from other nations in the ‘Cathedral of Learning’ of the University of Pittsburgh. After seventeen years of meticulous planning and fundraising by the Society it was completed in 1996.

The Austrian Room

The Austrian Nationality Room represents the 18th century era of the Austrian Empire during its age of enlightenment under Empress Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II. It incorporates Baroque elements of the Haydnsaal in Schloss Esterházy in Eisenstadt, where Joseph Haydn served as Kapellmeister from 1766 to 1778. Ceiling paintings depict scenes from Roman mythology similar to those in the Haydnsaal. The room features Lobmeyer crystal chandeliers and gilded white lacquer seminar furniture patterned after that in the formal dining hall of Vienna’s Hofburg. Royal red-tapestry walls, gold-leafed pilasters, and a parquet floor inlaid in a starburst design complete the decor. Under the architectural expertise of Austrian Architect Franz Gerhard Schnogass, the Austrian room’s painted ceilings, chandeliers, etc. are not mere surface embellishments but provide qualities that have the potential to introduce users to the Austro-Hungarian culture. Exhibits in the room trace the development of the multinational Austrian Empire and the birthplaces of representative Austrian composers.

By depicting the heritage of the ethnic groups of Austrians that helped build the City of Pittsburgh, it stands as a permanent, historic landmark. It also serves as a functional teaching classroom and is used daily by University of Pittsburgh faculty and students. In addition, the room is used for lectures, seminars, concerts, exhibitions and social events which focus on the heritage and traditions of Austro-Hungarian culture. It is also used as part of an active program of intercultural involvement and exchange. With the participation of the original organizing committee of the Austrian American Cultural Society for the Austrian Room a program has been initiated which provides annual student and faculty scholarships to facilitate study abroad. The first award was made in 1997 for study in Austria to a University of Pittsburgh student. The national, traditional and religious holidays of Austria are celebrated on campus, and the rooms are appropriately decorated to reflect these occasions. The Austrian Room organizing committee also sponsors cultural and fundraising events, lectures, concerts, exhibits, social events, workshops and ethnic studies utilizing the room. Distinguished international visitors have been received by the Austrian committee, and special projects have been undertaken, including the purchase of books for the University libraries, publications on topics from comparative literature to ethnic recipes, and the fostering of courses in German. Students recently named the Austrian Room as the best Nationality Room at the University.

Scientific Exchange

Today, Austrian influence is evident in Pittsburgh with outstanding Austrian representatives in the field of culture, education and science: Recently two Austrian surgeons, Drs. Stefan Schneeberger and Gerald Brandacher participated at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in successfully transplanting the hand of a former Marine who had lost his hand in a military training accident. This ground-breaking surgery at UPMC represents the culmination of more than twenty years of research in the field of hand transplantation. Although surgeons from around the world have performed hand transplants successfully, this team used a new treatment regimen to prevent rejection of the grafts, thereby reducing the risk of diabetes, infections and other disorders. This novel method known as the “Pittsburgh Protocol” is composed of two elements: (1) treating the patient with antibodies on the day of transplant, followed by (2) a donor bone marrow infusion several days later. When used in kidney and liver transplantation at UPMC, this protocol allows patients to be treated with low doses of a single maintenance drug.