To Do List … Pittsburgh
From Rafael Viñoly’s green Convention Center, head to Grant Street, the traditional seat of Pittsburgh government and corporate power. You’ll see the enormous U.S. Steel building, now with UPMC on top. U.S. Steel remains the largest tenant, but the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is the region’s biggest employer. On the right is the Gulf Tower, former home of Gulf Oil, founded here by the Mellons, America’s first venture capitalists.
Beyond the Bank of New York Mellon building on the left is the Allegheny County Courthouse (1883), designed by H.H. Richardson and considered by many to be one of the nation’s best examples of 19th-century architecture. Check out the frescoes on the staircase to the second floor as well as the central courtyard. From the front, look across Grant Street to the Frick Building (1901), designed by Daniel Burnham and built by Henry Clay Frick (after his bitter split with Andrew Carnegie) to be larger than the Carnegie Building, which is no longer there.
Grant Street was named for British Maj. James Grant, who led a premature attack on Fort Duquesne during the French and Indian War. Pontiac’s forces massacred Grant’s all the way back to Grant St., which used to be Grant’s Hill. Not long after, that hill was the site of an orchard that would become the source of “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman’s first apple seeds in his western trips. The hill was later leveled, which you can see looking at the Frick Building’s façade (the front door used to be on what’s now the second floor).
Cross Grant Street and turn right to Fifth Avenue. Look up at the Union Trust Building (1915), another of Frick’s, designed as an indoor arcade. It’s worth entering and looking up at the center of the building. Exit towards the Omni William Penn Hotel, entering the Starbucks and then taking a quick look at the lobby of Pittsburgh’s historic hotel. Take the elevator to the 17th floor to see the ballroom and Art Deco room by Joseph Urban. Exit the lobby via the steps down. Across William Penn Way is the soon-to-be renovated Mellon Square Park. Walk 100 feet and turn left onto Sixth Avenue. Cross Smithfield Street.
Ahead on your left, you’ll see Trinity Cathedral (1907) and the First Presbyterian Church (1903). Between them are some of Pittsburgh’s earliest graves. On your right is the Duquesne Club, regularly voted the best city club in America. Since 1873, it’s been home to Pittsburgh’s business titans and the destination for U.S. officials seeking to mobilize industry for war. It’s a club, though, and private.
Finally, ask anyone for directions to PPG Place. You’ll pass through Market Square on your way to Philip Johnson’s renowned glass castle, built for Pittsburgh Plate Glass. In winter, the plaza becomes an ice rink bigger than Rockefeller Center’s. From PPG Place to the Ohio River lies the land that was cleared in Pittsburgh’s Renaissance; the pioneering urban renewal that created Gateway Center and Point State Park.
A night on the town – Depends on the show and your stamina
The 16-square-block Cultural District was the dream of H.J Heinz II to turn a red-light district into a cultural center. Today it boasts six theatres including the majestically restored Heinz Hall and Benedum Center and the Michael Graves-designed O’Reilly Theater. The theaters are home to the city’s major arts groups — The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Pittsburgh Opera, Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, Pittsburgh Dance Council and Pittsburgh Filmmakers, among others. The District’s newest addition, the August Wilson Cultural Center for African American Culture, opens this fall as a tribute to Pittsburgh’s great playwright. On a typical weekend evening, the Cultural District streets teem with people eating, drinking, taking in a show, or checking out various galleries.
Mt. Washington – 1 hour +
If geography is destiny, Pittsburgh’s place to understand both is Mt. Washington, towering above Downtown’s Golden Triangle. Either drive up McArdle Roadway or take the Duquesne Incline. The incline, one of two, has served commuters and tourists since 1877 and, its Web site says, is “the third most romantic place in America”—the third scariest if you don’t like heights. At the top, you’ll see why USA Today called it the second most dramatic vista in America. You’ll also see why Venice isn’t alone as the city of bridges.
Mt. Washington used to be called Coal Hill, and the Pittsburgh coal seam plus the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers into the Ohio below explain Pittsburgh’s early significance.
In 1753, the British sent a young George Washington here to discourage further French incursions. Washington’s early trips here, however, were all disasters. He nearly drowned. He led British troops into a savage massacre. And when a French officer he’d captured was murdered by Indians under his command, the event sparked the French and Indian War.
Ohiopyle -1 hour, 30 minutes S.E. of Pittsburgh
If you have time and a car, Mapquest Fallingwater and Ohiopyle. Considered one of America’s greatest private residences, Fallingwater was built for the Kaufmann family by Frank Lloyd Wright and is magnificent in any season, especially the fall. If you’re a Wright fan, consider nearby Kentuck Knob. Call for reservations for both, which are run by the Western Pa. Conservancy. On your way back, drive through the beautiful Laurel Highlands to Ohiopyle State Park, where the tumbling Youghiogheny River offers white-water rafters excitement and possible death. Running through Ohiopyle is the Great Allegheny Passage, the superb rails-to-trails project bikeway connecting Pittsburgh with Washington, D.C.
The Strip District – 2 hours if you have a meal
Contrary to how it sounds, you’ll find no pasties and pole dancers. The Strip is Pittsburgh’s produce market, and on Saturdays, it’s the place to go for a late breakfast, people watching or late-night club hopping. Restaurateurs (and everyone else) buy their supplies here. Also on sale are any manner of goods, from handmade wool hats from South America to anything having to do with the city’s main religion—the Steelers. The Strip is where Pittsburghers of all stripes mingle and do business together.
Oakland – 2 to 3 hours
Increasingly, the center of Pittsburgh’s contributions to the world come from Oakland, four miles from the Ohio River. It’s home to four universities, the region’s biggest hospital complex, Schenley Park, Phipps Conservatory and the Carnegie Museum complex. The most visible edifice is the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning—worth a visit to see the Nationality Rooms. Across Forbes Avenue is one of the first of some 1,300 libraries Andrew Carnegie built across the world. The huge building also houses museums of art and natural history. If you can stop in just one place there, see the Carnegie Music Hall foyer and the opulence of the era when Carnegie was the world’s richest man. Finally, travel half a mile down Forbes to the Carnegie Mellon University campus. Just walk through the University Center, look around and listen; Pitt and CMU form one of the nation’s great university centers.
South Side – 2 + hours – dinner and a walk
The South Side’s Carson Street is Pittsburgh’s biggest concentration of young energy. From live music to restaurants and bars and tattoo shops, this old Eastern European neighborhood co-exists with its young revelers. When the Steelers won the Super Bowl, the biggest party was on Carson Street. At the south end of Carson, is the SouthSide Works, built on the former site of one of the region’s sprawling steel mills. Now home to American Eagle Outfitters, apartments, stores and night spots, it’s a prime example of the brownfield redevelopment that has attracted Pittsburgh international attention.
North Side – 1 to 4 hours
In 1907, Allegheny City was annexed into Pittsburgh. Now known as the North Side, the area is home to PNC Park and Heinz Field (home of the Pirates and Steelers), the National Aviary, the Carnegie Science Center and three other outstanding museums. The Pittsburgh Children’s Museum is one of the best in the country, and The Andy Warhol Museum and the Mattress Factory are one-of-kind, the latter featuring installation art. If you want sauerbraten, potato pancakes and authentic German atmosphere, stop at Max’s Allegheny Tavern, in continuous operation for more than 100 years. Finally, half a mile west of Allegheny General Hospital are the Mexican War Streets, an area full of beautifully restored homes. But apropos of a region with continuing population decline, this gentrification has remained in a tenuous state for decades.
Homestead & Braddock – 2 hours for a round trip drive
Until 30 years ago, these and other Monongahela River towns were the heart of the world’s steel business. Mills stretched for miles and immigrant families rose to make the American middle class. Shiftwork was so lucrative and the hours so variable that generally, women didn’t work outside the home and men didn’t need higher education. This explains a Pittsburgh pattern that’s only recently changed: low female workforce participation and low educational attainment. Drive into Homestead across the Homestead Grays Bridge, named for one of Pittsburgh’s two Negro League baseball teams. On the right are a series of smoke stacks. This is the site of one of the nation’s seminal labor battles. The infamous strike of 1892 against Carnegie Steel resulted in 11 deaths. Broken up by the state militia, the strike largely quelled the labor movement until the 1930s and set the tone for the bitter local labor-management relations that have subsided only in the past two decades. Fifty years ago, Nikita Kruschev visited the massive Homestead Works. In its place now is the Waterfront mall. Across the river in Braddock, the site of a French and Indian ambush massacre of British troups guided by a young George Washington. Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, the Edgar Thomson Works, still operates in Braddock, and across the street is one of Carnegie’s first public libraries. Drive through Homestead and Braddock, and you’ll see ground zero of the Pittsburgh transition and two towns that will never be the same.
For more expansive information, visit pittsburghquarterly.com and view the items listed under “Pittsburgh Essentials.”