Designer of the Gettysburg Commemorative Half Dollar

Frank Vittor was a Pittsburgh sculptor whose works adorn buildings and public places throughout W Pennsylvania. His numismatic fame was assured when he completed his design of the Gettysburg commemorative half dollar, issued in 1936. This article outlines the history of the artist and his coin. Several of Vittor's sculptures in the Pittsburgh area are described, for the benefit of native and visiting numismatists who may not be aware of their connection to the commemorative coin series.

The Artist

Frank Vittor was born in 1888, in Mozzato, Italy, near Milan. His family included many artists and by the age of nine young Frank had already begun sculpting. His formal art education took place in Milan and at Rodin's studio in Paris. In 1906 he came to the United States to be a student of Stanford White. The eighteen-year-old Vittor was left to fend for himself, when just a week after his arrival, White was murdered. Vittor eventually established himself in New York where he became an assistant teacher of sculpture classes at Cooper Union. It is said that he also worked several years for Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

In 1917 Vittor visited his wife's relatives in Pittsburgh, bringing with him over eighty of his bronze works for display in a local gallery. His work was immediately popular and several local art patrons, including famous scientist John Alfred Brashear, convinced Vittor to make Pittsburgh his home. In 1920 he moved to Pittsburgh and spent the rest of his life there, passing away in 1968.

Vittor taught sculpture at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon), the local YMHA and YWHA, and Carnegie Museum. He founded the Pittsburgh Society of Sculptors, and was a member of the Architectural Club of Pittsburgh and the city Planning Commission. He is known as the "Sculptor of Presidents" because of his busts of Coolidge, Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt. In 1959 he sculpted the heads of all thirty-four presidents for a museum in Florida. In his lifetime he sculpted over two hundred portrait busts in bronze [3].

Vittor's Pittsburgh Legacy

Frank Vittor was one of Pittsburgh's most prolific sculptors. He left a legacy of over fifty memorials and fountains throughout the Pittsburgh area. Some of his more prominent works are described here.

Highway Art

In the days when the automobile and public highways were still a relatively new phenomenon it was not uncommon to adorn new roads with artworks. In 1922, Pittsburgh opened an improved roadway connecting downtown with Oakland, the cultural heart of the city. Dedicated on Armistice Day, the Boulevard of the Allies had at its Grant Street entrance two grand stone columns. Frank Vittor designed the columns, each surmounted by an American eagle perched atop a granite sphere. The eagles still stand guard for today’s commuters.

In 1931, Frank Vittor designed granite relief’s for twelve massive directional pylons erected at the entrance of boulevards throughout Allegheny County. The relief’s depicted scenes of the early history of the local area. Only five pylons survive today. One is on Saw Mill Run Boulevard at Warrington Avenue (near the Liberty Tunnels). Two complete pairs of pylons still flank the Oakmont entrance to Allegheny River Boulevard and the Bellevue entrance to Ohio River Boulevard.

Vittor's work also decorates the George Westinghouse Memorial Bridge, which carries Route 30 across the Turtle Creek Valley. At the time of its completion in 1934, this bridge was the longest reinforced concrete span in the U.S. Four ten by eighteen-foot granite relief’s adorn the pylons at the ends of the bridge. The subjects are transportation, electricity, steel, and pioneers of the Turtle Creek Valley. "All the relief’s typify the Art Deco style in their massive, angular figures, jagged line, and streamlined, simplified forms. The lightning bolt motif, so strong in the twenties and thirties, is used effectively in Electricity. The stone in each relief is cut to a depth of eight inches, producing bold lines from the cast shadows.." ( [3], p347).

War Memorials

After The Great War ended in Europe, Vittor found himself busied with many commissions for war memorials throughout the greater Pittsburgh area. One of the more notable of these is at Peabody High School on Highland Avenue in East Liberty. The memorial stands at the East Liberty Boulevard entrance, and once served as a base for a two-hundred-foot flagpole. The work was paid for by students and alumni of the school.

Dedicated in 1923, the work includes seven fourteen-foot figures representing "Columbia calling her sons to defend humanity and liberty. The answer is indicated by intrepid youth arming himself to answer her call. Then comes the pathetic departure, youth bidding mother a farewell as it leaves for war. Then comes the return of the victorious hero, a work showing the affection and esteem with which the youth is greeted. Then you see the crowning of youth by fame. The figure of grief shows the nation mourning for those who did not return"( [3], p282-283).

Other Vittor World War I memorials stand in Oakmont (Allegheny River Boulevard at Pennsylvania Avenue) and Braddock (Library Street near Braddock Avenue). The granite and bronze Herron Hill Park memorial stands at one of the highest points in Allegheny County.

Twenty years later the world was at war once again, and in 1949 Frank Vittor designed a World War II memorial for the 5,000 veterans from Pittsburgh's Eighth Ward. The eighteen-foot limestone memorial stands in Morrow Park, at the intersections of Baum Boulevard, Liberty and South Aiken Avenues.


One of Frank Vittor’s earliest Pittsburgh works was a statue of his friend John Brashear, completed in 1920. Brashear was an internationally known astronomer who built the University of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Observatory in Riverview Park on the North Side. The statue sits in the Observatory, over a crypt holding Brashear's ashes. The sculpture has an unusual rough texture, not unlike the work of Vittor's onetime teacher Rodin.

In 1955, Vittor created a statue of Honus Wagner, the legendary shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Flying Dutchman" is often called the greatest shortstop in the history of baseball. The ten-foot bronze statue was installed at Forbes Field in Oakland and was later moved to the new Three Rivers Stadium on the North Side.

Near Phipps Conservatory in Oakland's Schenley Park stands a memorial to Christopher Columbus designed by Vittor in 1958. A ten-foot bronze statue of Columbus stands atop a twenty-foot granite base.

One of Vittor's last works (1963) has two numismatic connections. His ten-foot bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson at Jefferson Memorial Park in the South Hills is surrounded by a circle of thirty-foot Corinthian columns saved after the demolition of the Bank of Pittsburgh building on Fourth Avenue, downtown. The Bank, founded in 1815, went out of business in 1931. The classical building was demolished in 1944, yet the facade stood on the site like ancient ruins for several years.

The president of the cemetery, when checking on Vittor's progress with the Jefferson statue, thought the face looked "too Roman.'' Another man pulled out a Jefferson nickel. "More like this," he said to Vittor, who soon altered the nose to suit ( [3], p354-355).

Fountains, Plaques and Busts

Not all of Vittor's public works were large. He designed thirty drinking fountains for Pittsburgh's urban parks. The small bronze fountains sported a delightful dolphin motif. Most have been lost, but one survivor stands at the Highland Avenue entrance of Highland Park.

The Allegheny County Courthouse on Grant Street is adorned with two plaques designed by Frank Vittor. The Jacob M. Gusky plaque, dedicated in 1935, honors the businessman who opened Pittsburgh's first department store (just after the Civil War). Another plaque honors Captain William B. Rogers, a colorful riverman who pioneered major developments in the area's waterways, including raising Allegheny River bridges to better accommodate river traffic.

A 1931 bronze tablet by Vittor commemorates two broadcasting firsts. The world's first commercial radio station was KDKA, in Pittsburgh. The station began broadcasting in 1920 [4]. On Christmas Sunday evening 1922, the station broadcast a sermon from the Shadyside Presbyterian Church. The broadcast was received in the arctic regions by men of Hudson's Bay Company. On Easter Sunday morning 1929, a church service broadcast was received by Admiral Byrd's Expedition in Antarctica. The commemorative tablet is in the church on Westminster Place in Shadyside.

The current studios of KDKA are in Gateway Center, downtown. A life-size bronze bust of Marconi by Frank Vittor stands in the lobby. It commemorates the first transatlantic wireless message, sent by radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi in 1901. The bust was dedicated in 1952.

Proposed Monumental Works

Vittor conceived several works on a monumental scale that for one reason or another, never came into being. In 1932 he created a plaster model of George Washington as a young surveyor. A one-hundred-foot, floodlit statue was to be erected atop Mount Washington overlooking downtown Pittsburgh. The model is now lost.

In 1951 Vittor submitted a design for a one-hundred-foot statue for Pittsburgh's Point State Park. The statue depicted Joe Magarac, the allegorical steelworker. The design was rejected, but Vittor's three-foot plaster model is now displayed at the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society in Oakland.

The Gettysburg Half Dollar

An issue of up to fifty thousand half dollars commemorating the Battle of Gettysburg was permitted in an authorizing Act of Congress on June 16, 1936. The half dollar was to be commemorate the approaching seventy-fifth anniversary of the bloody 1863 Civil War battle. Specifically, the issue was coined for the Blue and Gray Reunion of July 1-3 1938, where Civil War veterans of both the North and South met to reminisce. The inscription "' BLUE .AND .GRAY REUNION "' appears on the lower obverse border.

One of the most crucial episodes in that historic conflict, the battle is known as "the high-water mark of the Confederacy." General Hooker commanded the Union Army of the Potomac against General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, as Lee attempted an invasion of the North. The fighting on July 1-3 1863 left some 18,000 Union soldiers and 23,000 Confederates killed or wounded.

One of the first descriptions of the coin's design appeared in the November 1938 issue of The Numismatist. The article quoted Paul L. Roy, executive secretary of the Pennsylvania State Commission in charge of the commem-orative.

Frank Vittor, internationally known sculptor, of Pittsburgh, has been commissioned by the Pennsylvania State Commission to design the obverse and reverse of the Gettysburg commemorative half dollar soon to be minted. The suggested designs of the Pittsburgh sculptor were selected by the commission from fourteen suggestions submitted to the commission. Before announcing its selection the commission conferred with the Pennsylvania Art Commission and received the approval of the sculpturing committee of the latter group of Mr. Vittor' suggestions.

One side of the commemorative half dollar will be emblematic of the observance in 1938 of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, and the other side, showing the rugged head and shoulders of a Union and a Confederate soldier, will be emblematic of the reunion of the Grand Army of the Republic and the United Confederate Veterans to be held in Gettysburg during the anniversary observance in 1938. [5]

Photographs of the artist's models were printed in the June, 1937 Numismatist, shortly after they were released for publication[6]. David M. Bullawa, in his 1938 update of Howland Wood's monograph on The Commemorative Coinage of the United States, wrote that "the models were prepared by Frank Vittor, a well-known Pittsburgh sculptor, and when completed were reduced by the Medallic Art Company of New York"

Don Taxay's Illustrated History of U. S. Commemorative Coinage pictures other sketch models of Vittors. In correspondence between the Commission on Fine Arts and Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross, there is mention "of the fact that the faces and expressions of the eyes of the two soldiers are nearly identical but ... that the artist may have done this intentionally [8]. Two different models actually sat for the artist; J. P. Sankey posed for the Union soldier, and H. R. Lee for the Confederate[2]. Perhaps Vittor intended the similarities to highlight the ironic "brother vs brother" aspect of the war.

Original plans called for the half dollars to be produced at all three mints (Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco). In the end, only the Philadelphia mint coined the pieces. In June, 1937 the mint struck 50,028 coins. Unsold coins numbering 23,100 were later returned to the Mint and melted, leaving a net coinage of 26,928.


Frank Vittor was a prolific Pittsburgh sculptor who left a legacy of memorials, statues, and plaques across Western Pennsylvania. Numismatically, he is remembered as the designer of the Gettysburg Commemorative Half Dollar of 1936.

The Red Book Listings

A Guide Book of United States Coins, more commonly known as "The Red Book", gives this sixty-nine word description of the Gettysburg commemorative half dollar:

On June 16, 1936 Congress authorized a coinage of fifty-cent pieces in commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg. The models were prepared by Frank Vittor, a Philadelphia sculptor. Portraits of a Union and Confederate veteran are shown on the obverse. Two shields representing the Union and Confederate armies separated by a double-bladed fasces are on the reverse. ([ll], p216)

This is of course, incorrect, since Vittor was a PITTSBURGH sculptor. The 1987 edition informs us that the coins are valued from $210 in AU-50 condition to $1,100 in Mint State 65. When I first read this, I became curious about how much I might have paid had I been wise enough (or just lucky enough) to buy one a few years ago, before the big boom in commemoratives..

The 1980 Red Book values an MS-65 Gettysburg Half at only $160.00. Prices had certainly changed in seven years, but I noticed that the description had not. Such stability is to be expected in a classic reference, but I assumed that there had certainly been SOME change over the years. Curious, I checked the oldest Red Book in my library, a 1949 third edition. To my surprise, the wording of the description of the Gettysburg Half had not changed a bit! Typefaces and photographs had been updated, but the wording had not changed one letter in nearly 50 years.

In case you're wondering, an uncirculated piece was listed at just $5.00 in 1949. Had I been born yet, I would certainly have had the foresight to buy a few. Better yet, I could have bought all I wanted for the issue price of $1.65 back in 1937.


[1] Walter Breen, Anthony Swiatek. Encyclopedia of U.S. Commemorative Coinage.

[2] David M. Bullowa. Numismatic Notes and Monographs. Number 83: The Commemorative Coinage of the United States, 1892- 1938. American Numismatic Society, New York, NY, 1938.

[3] Vernon Gay and Marilyn Evert. Discovering Pittsburgh 's Sculpture. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA, 1983.

[4] Stefan Lorant. Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City. Author's Edition, Inc., Lenox, MA, 1975.

[5] Paul L. Poy. The Designs for the Gettysburg Half Dollar. The Numismatist 49(11):910, November, 1936.

[6] Paul L. Poy. The Gettysburg Half Dollar. The Numismatist 50(6):507, June, 1937.

[7] Arlie R. Slabaugh. United States Commemorative Coinage. Whitman Publishing Company, Racine, WI, 1962.

[8] Don Taxay. An Illustrated History of U. S. Commemorative Coinage. ARCO Publishing Company, New York, NY, 1967.

[9] R. S. Yeoman. A Guide Book of United States Coins. Western Publishing Company, Racine, WI, 1949.

[10] R. S. Yeoman. A Guide Book of United States Coins. Western Publishing Company, Racine, WI, 1980.

[11] R. S. Yeoman. A Guide Book of United States Coins. Western Publishing Company, Racine, WI, 1987.