Pittsburgh Athletic Association

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania | C.1909

Photo Credit: Eric Reichbaum

A private social and athletic club, the Pittsburgh Athletic Association was developed by aesthete and real estate maven Franklin Nicola and modeled after a Venetian Renaissance palazzo. This impressive five- story structure officially opened in 1911, offering top-of-the-line spa and athletic facilities, white tablecloth dining, and guest lodging. Some of its more innovative perks included billiard and fencing rooms, rifle ranges, Turkish baths, a sleek bowling alley, and a magnificent 75-foot pool on the third floor.

The PAA quickly developed into a mainstay for those with ties to Pittsburgh, at one point boasting more than 2,500 members. It was a hub for annual social events and served as a lively meeting place for some of the most iconic figures to call Pittsburgh home, with a membership log that included names such as Heinz, Mellon, and Mesta. Most notably, it was visited with near-daily regularity by America’s most special neighbor, Fred Rogers. The American television personality and creator/star of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood kept a strict daily routine, one that centered on the club’s pool.

Fred Rogers grew up in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, forty miles east of Pittsburgh. He had a difficult childhood, which is perhaps why his capacity for empathy became seemingly limitless. Young Fred was shy, painfully introverted, and frequently homebound due to severe asthma. He was bullied for being overweight and taunted by the nickname “Fat Freddy” in his early years. After high school, he left Latrobe, earned a degree in musical composition in Florida, and then moved to New York to work on a variety of shows for NBC.

In his mid-twenties, Rogers returned to Pennsylvania in response to a request from the country’s first community-supported educational TV station, WQED Pittsburgh. He was tasked with developing their initial schedule, but his natural instincts for performance brought him onto the set as well. On one of those programs, The Children’s Corner, Rogers wore the caps of puppeteer, composer, and organist. During this span he found the time and will to attend the Graduate School of Child Development at the University of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary; he became an ordained Presbyterian minister but was urged to keep working with children through mass media. In 1968, the iconic Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood became available on what is now PBS, and Rogers went on to represent the comforting face of kindness for children across America. Over the course of his life he was honored with every accolade imaginable, from honorary degrees to the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Throughout, Rogers kept a disciplined private life, with his wife and two sons present to witness his methodical rituals. While he was a man of devout faith, waking each morning at 5:00 to read the Bible, often in Hebrew or Greek, he was also something of a numerologist, for whom the number 143 was exceedingly important. On the show, Rogers’s character points out that the number represents “I Love You”: one letter in “I,” four in “love,” and three in “you.” Love was his message, and invoking 143 was among the myriad of ways he broadcast it: the number appears frequently on his program; donating to the Fred Rogers Center means joining the 143 Club; the number was stitched into his trademark sweaters; and, astonishingly, he kept himself at that exact weight for the majority of his adult life.

And how? By checking into the Pittsburgh Athletic Association every morning at 7:00 and walking up to the third floor. Over the course of twenty-five minutes, he would swim a mile in the club’s pool, at a leisurely yet intentional pace. Rogers would then head to the scale to ensure that it read precisely 143 pounds. He proudly maintained the practice, the weight, the determination, and the affinity for the number for decades.

Mister Rogers once explained to children and parents alike: “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun, like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” For his part, love was also a verb, one he actively exemplified in both body and soul.

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AWA Community Insight:
orfamay I used to go here for dinner with my grandparents. It is a glorious building. One of the dining rooms had a molded leather ceiling.

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