Venting off Steam… and Turning It Into a Musical Downtown Clock
Lynn Dunbar is well acquainted with the vertical steam pipe that juts from the pavement at Penn Avenue and Seventh Street in Downtown Pittsburgh for patrons of the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts and the rest of the Cultural District to see. Her husband is in the Pittsburgh Symphony, she once worked for the symphony and she sings in the Mendelssohn Choir.
“I spend a lot of time in the Cultural District. And I’ve always thought that steam pipe was an eyesore,” she said.
She happened upon a way to transform it into something wonderful during a vacation to Vancouver, in British Columbia, Canada. In its Gastown neighborhood, a steam clock was built to mask one of the grates that vent the city’s steam heating system. Although designed to fit with the Victorian Italianate-influenced architecture of the neighborhood, it isn’t an antique. It was built with private donations in 1977.
It transformed a steam grate from a place where homeless residents once sought to nest to a major attraction for tourists who gather to hear it whistle the arrival of every quarter hour.
Dunbar, convinced that such a clock could enhance Pittsburgh’s Cultural District, pitched the idea to the city’s mayor, Bill Peduto, and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and a group of foundation leaders in October as a 2019 Pittsburgh Tomorrow Contest finalist.
The pipe she wants to hide with the clock vents an underground steam delivery system that heats several dozen buildings and draws its water from Pittsburgh’s “fourth river,” a large aquifer flowing beneath Downtown streets.
It would become one of only a handful of working steam clocks in the world. The first was built by Englishman John Inshaw in 1859 to draw customers to his Birmingham, UK, tavern.
The two-ton, 16-foot-high Gastown Steam Clock in Vancouver was built as part of a campaign to revitalize the city’s historic shipping hub and warehouse district. It was intended as a curiosity to attract visitors and to Gastown’s new offerings, which include a fashion district, galleries and restaurant scene. “I’ll tell you what, it’s thriving now,” Dunbar said. “And there is always a little bit of a crowd around the clock waiting for the hour or quarter hour.”
Today, the whistles that mark time are stream-driven, but little else about the clock is. Small electric motors help it keep time more accurately. When built and designed by Canadian clockmaker Ray Saunders, it carried a price tag of nearly $44,500. More than 30 years later, building something similar could cost three times as much.
The clock was a gift to the city from a local business association, shop owners and other private donors who raised the money to have it made. The city and business group share the cost of maintaining it, which is close to $11,000 a year, according to a Vancouver spokesman.
A clock that would conceal the steam pipe on the high-traffic sidewalk outside of the Benedum remains an idea at the moment. Dunbar doesn’t have a specific design in mind, but sees it as an opportunity for local engineers and artists to create a signature work that would turn a crude pipe into something more befitting the city its steam helps to heat. “It could be Pittsburgh-specific,” she said. “You can have cultural representation in it, Steelers, robotics. It would be cool.”