Motor Garden Square: Under the Dome

Motor Square Garden4- Wikicommons

julie p

From 1889 to 1900, the East Liberty Market House at 5900 Baum Boulevard operated as a city market.

Financed by the Mellon family and built by famed Boston architects Peabody and Stearns, the Liberty Market House was bought in 1915 by the Pittsburgh Automobile Association. Renamed the Motor Square Gardens, the PAA used the building as a car dealership and exhibition hall for its cars. It also functioned as a host for many conventions, sporting events, and shows.

It was used intermittently as the home court for the University of Pittsburgh basketball team until 1925 when the Pitt Pavilion opened inside Pitt Stadium, according to Pitt: 100 Years of Pitt Basketball by Sam Sciullo. Circuses were held at the Motor Square Gardens, notably, the Great American Circus’ Knights of Malta from Nov. 27 to Dec. 1 in 1923.

In addition to the circuses and basketball games, the Motor Square Gardens hosted many boxing matches. Famous boxer Billy Conn “scored an impressive victory over Jimmy Brown” on Dec. 1, 1936, according to Sweet William: The Story of Billy Conn by Andrew O’Toole. A first in radio history also occurred at the Motor Square Garden: “The first live sports radio broadcast between junior lightweight pugilist Johnny Dundee and Johnny Ray [occurred] at Pittsburgh’s Motor Square Garden in April 1921.”

The entertaining life of the Motor Square Gardens lasted until the 1980s when the American Automobile Association, or AAA, renovated the building. According to Wally Gobetz of, “the Landmarks Design Associates of Pittsburgh redesigned it as an upscale shopping mall.” Though the shopping mall failed, the AAA still occupied the building along with a second tenant, the UPMC School of Nursing.

Perhaps more interesting than the events that occurred at the Motor Square Gardens is the architecture of the building. Because it was completed in 1900, it does hint at the Beaux-Arts style, which relates to the classical decorative style maintained by the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. According to Landmark Architecture Pittsburgh and Allegheny County by Walter Kidney, “the exterior of the building features a large tin-clad, steel-framed blue dome and a yellow brick facade. The industrial interior has a large atrium with exposed steel girders and skylights above.” Historian Joseph Rishel remembers walking by the auto dealership in his youth on his way to the orthodontist: “I can’t recall what type of car(s) they sold, but I did notice that wonderful dome. It was green with translucent windows. In many ways it was the most remarkable architectural feature of the East Liberty business district despite the fact that the building was overshadowed by the soaring East Liberty Presbyterian Church so very nearby.”