Pittsburgh’s skyline is striking no matter which street brings you into the city.
From the east, west, north or south, every turn provides a view of the cityscape that can cause the most hardened anti-Pittsburgh-heart to state a well-spoken: Wow!
After the skyline, the attractive football and baseball stadiums (no one will ever convince me that the hockey arena is anything but a box), take time to study the downtown architecture. Thanks to the project initiated by Pittsburgher-Chicagoan-Pittsburgher Bonnie Baxter, companies hosted the inaugural Doors Open Pittsburgh the first weekend in October. From the number of visitors volunteers cited, it was a resounding success.
There were 39 buildings available for touring—more than could be accomplished in one day. Since a handful were not open on Sunday, next year we’ll make a weekend of it and attend each day.
Here are some of the stunning places we enjoyed during our stroll:
Allegheny HYP (Harvard, Yale, Princeton) Club
Now open to any college graduate, the HYP Club was great fun with a pleasant welcome by the volunteers. It was designed in the Georgian style of London and built from bricks that came from buildings removed from the HYP campuses. The space was warm and inviting and if we had use of such a club, we’d apply for membership.
Although we didn’t get beyond the narrow lobby, the brass and marble were impressive. Finished in 1902, the Arrott is Pittsburgh’s oldest skyscraper. Architect Frederick Osterling designed this, the Heinz History Center (formerly the Chatacaqua Lake Ice and the Union Trust buildings. The inlaid marble borders—each an individual piece—were captivating and brilliantly put together. Sadly, Arrott passed away before stepping foot in his completed structure.
Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie’s relationship never recovered after the Homestead Strike, so when Frick built his office building, he made it five stories taller than Carnegie’s, located behind Frick’s. Rumor has it that he also wanted it taller, by 12 feet, than the City-County building so he could look down on the politicians across the street. The Frick was finished in 1902, adorned with marble throughout and in 1903 it was written up as, “One of the most beautiful buildings in the world.”
A tidbit neither of us would have guessed is that we entered into what had been the original basement—it was gorgeous. The construction allowed for the already planned lowering of Grant Street, so they made this entrance as stunning as the first floor above us.
PS. Frick really won the battle because Carnegie’s offices were destroyed in 1952 so that Kaufman’s Department Store could expand.
Henry Oliver Building
Designed by Daniel H. Burnham (also did the Pennsylvanian, The Frick among others) and although like Arrott, Oliver died before the building opened in 1910, we’re glad he had it built. Part of this building has been renovated into an Embassy Suites hotel. Elevators leading to the hotel have Embassy-green panels in the doors while the others remain as they were—brass. It was great to be able to go to the 25th floor and get amazing pictures from the many windows.
This 1899 former train station is comprised of marble, terra cotta, plaster, and masonry and is still connected to the Amtrak rails. The Pennsylvanian is now offices and apartments. It would be hard not to love gazing around the old waiting room of this combination Beaux Arts, Neo-Baroque building—the original depot. In the rotunda, the “h” for those of you who mistakenly leave it off Pittsburgh upon occasion, was granted back to the city in 1911. All the other burghs around are h-less. The plaques in these piers represent the four cities–Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York and Chicago–that were principle destinations of the trains using this station.
Mayor’s Office in the City-County Building
It was important for my husband to pop in here having spent much time in the office of his mother when she was in charge of issuing permits in the 1960s. Gertrude Gordon was a force to be reckoned with as the mayor, Pete Flaherty, quickly learned. Mayor Pete would use the “hidden” staircase from the mayor’s office to one floor below. She’d give him heck as he snuck up and scared her, with young Alex watching with laughter.
James Hill, Special Assistant to the Mayor, was an entertaining young man citing tidbits. One fun was the fact that for 70 years the portrait hanging in the conference room was mistakenly believed to be that of the city’s so-named founder: William Pitt. Turns out it was his son: William the Lesser. What a terrible moniker!
According to Mr. Hill, Pittsburgh has some special things planned for this year’s Light Up Night since we’ll be hosting the National League of Cities. We so enjoy Light Up Night, that we venture out when the temperatures should keep me indoors. It kicks off on November 18th—look for posts closer to that date.
William Penn Omni Hotel
I learned about the hotel’s Speakeasy this summer when a friend took me for a birthday wine. That was a treat as was getting to explore the Grand Ballroom and Urban Room on the 17th floor. Opening in 1916, the place was built by—you could guess—Henry Clay Frick. I’m always a sucker for Italian Renaissance designs and the Grand Ballroom is stunning in part because it’s two stories, with a balcony enveloping the broad space.
Remarkable in the Urban room is the fact that the designer, Joseph Urban, also painted the wall murals and the ceiling. Okay, I admit it, I wanted to throw myself down on the floor and study what was hiding up there in the dark recesses of the room.
Always striking in its ornateness, it was great to take pictures of the Benedum without throngs of people settling in for a show. Open in 1927, it was originally a Stanley Theatre, of which there were a number across the country, showing silent movies. At 2,800 seats, there must have been a lot of amazed folks wanting to see movies back in the day. It’s a lovely theatre and I scoop up any chance I have to see a production there.
It was intriguing to discover that the Fairmont offers an ongoing display of artifacts dug up when they were under construction. History revealed in long glass cases, complete with notes.
Alcoa/Regional Enterprise Tower
We’ve both been in this building any number of times, but appreciate that Strada Architecture opened their offices for the panoramic views of the city.
We viewed two of the four churches available. Being a fiend for visiting churches when in Europe, it was a good slap in the face for me to realize that we’ve got our own gothic treasures sitting side by side.
Trinity Episcopal Church
The church’s stonework has been cleaned and sparkles in bright sunshine. Inside, the structure is sedate, but still surrounded by stunning stained glass and wood painted in my favorite shade of green.
First Presbyterian Church
The construction of the First Presbyterian Church is English Gothic with a sandstone exterior. While darker than Trinity, they’ve been wise to not pummel away at the darkened stone with sandblasting. Featuring the church’s massive organ, dating back to 1988 it doesn’t win on age, but on sheer breadth. The church is more ornate than Trinity, with a balcony surrounding the main area. If you have vertigo, be aware of the slight slope to the marble walkway leading to the altar. Progressive, there are QR codes adjacent to the stained glass, telling you about each window. Thirteen of these gorgeous pieces are from Tiffany Studios.
Did you notice the brass postal boxes scattered throughout the photos? Isn’t it grand fun that more than one volunteer said they’re still in use?
Does your city have a Doors Open event? We’re glad this is an annual occurrence. What a great way to be a tourist in your hometown.
Read: Another Doors Open tour