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The Western Capital—Pittsburgh and Allegheny County

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It took four tries to establish Pittsburgh. The Point—the place at which the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers meet to form the Ohio—was fortified both by a party of Virginians and by the French in 1754, then by the British in 1759–1761. But these military settlements were not in city form, even if a 1760 census counted some 200 squatters living in houses around the British fort. Pittsburgh was laid out as a city in 1784 by surveyor George Woods for the heirs of William Penn, but it was unclear to which county it belonged, and even to which state, since it was claimed both by Pennsylvania and Virginia. Logically, when Pennsylvania carved out Allegheny County in 1788, it should have designated it Pittsburgh County, as a western counterpart to Philadelphia County in the east. That would have integrated the state's concern for the administration of justice with the city's concern for its own power base. But Allegheny County was created not to exalt Pittsburgh but to curtail it: the rival city of Allegheny was laid out (by David Redick) on the opposite bank of the Allegheny River in 1788. Pittsburgh stole the dignity of being county seat from Allegheny City almost at once, and in 1907, it gobbled up the rival settlement to become its North Side. Merely looking at the layouts of Allegheny City and Pittsburgh shows a striking difference in character: Allegheny City was broad, elegant, even utopian in its mix of buildings and green pastures in a perfect square, whereas Pittsburgh was cramped, overbuilt, and somewhat crooked in a jumbled street plan that shoehorned commercial enterprises along the richly profitable Monongahela and Allegheny riverbanks.

As it rose in its industrial wealth, Pittsburgh appeared uncultured and brash to the rest of the nation. What was not obvious then, and remains too little studied now, is that as a trade and distribution center, Pittsburgh and the whole of western Pennsylvania had roots both old and deep. When Europeans came here, they found only modest Native American settlements of the Delaware in modern-day Lawrenceville and McKees Rocks and smaller transient groupings of the Seneca and Shawnee. Probably gone by then was a Late Prehistoric village that had flourished at McKees Rocks from about 900 BCE. Still visible today is the natural base for what was once McKees Rocks mound—the largest in Pennsylvania—which had been occupied by Native Americans during the Early and Middle Woodland Periods, possibly as early as 1000 BCE. What these remains show is an extensive trade network along the riverine systems of the midcontinent; in those remote pre-European days, it was not the Ohio River valley but the East Coast that was hinterland. The rise of industrial Pittsburgh as a global center of exchange thus followed an ancient template.

The role of Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania would always be one of dominance, but the metropolis had to be interdependent with the small towns surrounding it. They were literal feeders during agricultural days, then allegorically so, when immense amounts of industrial production—often carefully and precisely orchestrated from one mill to the next—came from those same sites that were now turned into industrial satellites. Consequently, Pittsburgh's growth pattern was organic rather than orthogonal, expanding seven times from the Point over the next 250 years.

The first of these seven expansions was the creation of the rivals, Pittsburgh and Allegheny City, in the 1780s. Architecture in those two preindustrial towns overwhelmingly followed the sober Federal and Greek Revival styles from the 1790s to the middle of the nineteenth century. The city had two professional architects early on, both British born, in visiting Benjamin Henry Latrobe and resident John Chislett. The most impressive of the city's buildings from this era are mainly lost, as one would expect, but a few reconstructed walls and the Blockhouse remain from Fort Pitt ( AL6); the Neill Log House of c. 1787 still stands in Schenley Park on E. Circuit Road; and south of the city, Woodville Plantation ( AL132) survives as a surprisingly high-style exemplar of domestic architecture on the fringes of the frontier settlement. Otherwise, we have to depend on lithographs to acclaim Latrobe's Allegheny Arsenal ( AL93), Chislett's second Allegheny County Courthouse (1835–1841, burned 1882), and the massive “Homewood” house (1835, demolished 1924) that gave its name and social cachet to the city's eastern suburbs. Bedford Square (see AL48) on the South Side survives to give the general massing if not the specific structures of that part of the city around 1815, and the nearby Bedford School (see AL48) of 1850 and the contemporary Mexican War Streets district ( AL76) on the North Side are good representatives of Greek Revival in Pittsburgh.

Around 1800, there was a second expansion from the core, resulting in the creation of a half-dozen detached settlements along Pittsburgh's riverbanks. Along the Allegheny River, Bayardsville (now the Strip) was platted around 1800, and William Foster's Lawrenceville followed in 1812. On the south bank of the Monongahela, Birmingham was platted by Dr. Nathaniel Bedford on land owned by his father-in-law, John Ormsby, in 1811, while on the Ohio River, the settlements of Manchester and Sewickley were founded between the 1820s and the mid-nineteenth century.

Like so many overcrowded and poorly built American cities, Pittsburgh suffered a calamitous fire (recorded locally as the “Great Fire” or “Big Fire”) on April 10, 1845. It burned through fifty-six acres in twenty-six blocks, about a third of the Golden Triangle, as well as one-quarter of a mile along the Monongahela shore. About one thousand buildings were lost (thankfully only two deaths were recorded). As one would expect, new wooden buildings became extremely rare in Pittsburgh after midcentury, though it was generally held that this was more a consequence of the power of the brick trusts than of farsighted city planning.

A third expansion, from midcentury to around 1875, was sparked by the arrival of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Pittsburgh in 1852. This led almost immediately to the formation of a string of railroad suburbs east of downtown, in Shadyside, Homewood, Point Breeze, Wilkinsburg, Edgewood, and Swissvale. Some aesthetes preferred to live at even greater remove from Pittsburgh, at Evergreen Hamlet and Sewickley in the Allegheny and Ohio river valleys, respectively. These near and far suburbs showcased the Gothic Revival, which had earlier manifested itself in Pittsburgh in such works as John Haviland's Western Penitentiary of 1828 (demolished).

This post–Civil War era saw the predictable importation of new styles in the Romantic tradition: Italianate and Renaissance Revival, Second Empire, and the beginnings of the Romanesque Revival. Topographically, the period marked the integration of the building and landscape architectural traditions, as in Allegheny Cemetery ( AL95). Some downtown relics from this era are Dollar Savings Bank ( AL27), the cast-iron facades on Liberty and Penn avenues, and the Italianate storefronts around Market Square. Even richer are three long, crowded streets that testify to post–Civil War prosperity and that have recently sprung vigorously back to life: E. Carson Street on the South Side, E. Ohio Street on the North Side, and Butler Street in Lawrenceville. While Philadelphia designers such as John Notman and Isaac Hobbs had much influence on the midcentury city, Joseph W. Kerr, Charles F. Bartberger, and other local architects led the outsiders in terms of volume.

The stage was now set for a fourth expansion from the core, in the industrial satellite communities in the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela river valleys. From 1875 to 1910, industrial Pittsburgh reached its apogee, both in its factories and the huge institutional buildings created from its new wealth. Virtually all the early mills were later cannibalized or razed, but certain archaeological survivals still stand in the Strip and Lawrenceville. Just two mills keep some of their original functions on their original sites today: Andrew Carnegie's United States Steel Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock ( AL57) and H. J. Heinz's food-processing plant on the North Side ( AL81), but the whole Pittsburgh district resonates with hundreds of factories and thousands of worker houses that survive in mill towns such as Natrona, Homestead, Turtle Creek, and Wilmerding, and a little later in McKees Rocks, Duquesne, and Clairton.

The tremendous wealth from industry flowing into the city from the 1890s until World War I refurbished Pittsburgh's downtown, where the Triangle was truly made golden. After the creation of the industrial plants, the spending by the robber barons of their vast wealth is the second most characteristic moment in the architecture of Pittsburgh. The new governmental and commercial architecture featured both medieval-based styles, such as the train station by Frank Furness ( AL125), and the Beaux-Arts idiom. The latter was the style of choice for Carnegie's partners Henry Phipps, Henry Oliver, and Henry Clay Frick for the skyscrapers they commissioned from New York City's George B. Post and Chicago's Daniel H. Burnham and others. The masterpiece of the era remains H. H. Richardson's Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail ( AL1), which combined elements of both stylistic camps. The Courthouse and the sumptuous corporate buildings gave Pittsburgh national and international prominence in architecture.

The same years preceding World War I saw a fifth major expansion from the downtown, setting an elegant ring around the old urban core through the application of City Beautiful ideas to the middle- and upper-management neighborhoods of Oakland, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, Highland Park, Point Breeze, and the North Side. A score of mansions survive on 5th, Penn, and Ridge avenues from the years in which those streets held the highest concentration of millionaires in the United States.

What best survives from City Beautiful Pittsburgh are three new parks and their linked thorough-fares, all laid out by city planner Edward Manning Bigelow between 1890 and 1925. The parks are Schenley, Frick, and Highland; the thorough-fares are Bigelow Boulevard, Boulevard of the Allies (conceived around 1910 but delayed until the 1920s), Beechwood Boulevard, and Highland Avenue. These four carriage roads—probably originally planned as five—would have formed a twenty-mile ring around that portion of Pittsburgh lying between the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers. The best of Bigelow's roads today bears his name, though it was initially called Grant Boulevard. This stylish roadway was opened in 1901 to lead motorists from Grant Street in the Golden Triangle to Schenley Plaza in Oakland, and beyond into Schenley Park. The road still branches off at Grant Street at 7th Avenue (today marked by the USX Tower [ AL17] instead of the Beaux-Arts pylon once proposed) and snakes for about six miles along a cyclopean retaining wall cut into an escarpment some one hundred feet above the Strip. This is the best part of Bigelow, aestheticizing the industrial districts of the Allegheny River valley and Polish Hill.

After Polish Hill and a picturesque swerve over Bloomfield, Bigelow Boulevard awkwardly picks its way through the then new development of Oakland—whose growth it had spurred enormously—into Schenley Plaza. The boulevard then snakes its way from west to east through Schenley Park (under the new name of Schenley Drive), then changes name again for a third serpentine run across Squirrel Hill as Beechwood Boulevard. The fourth element is Washington Boulevard, picking up from Beechwood in Point Breeze at the intersection of 5th and Penn avenues, whence it took pioneer motorists down a wooded ravine to the Allegheny River shoreline. The fifth element would presumably have been a return boulevard along the Allegheny to downtown: Butler Street does this functionally but without Bigelow's characteristic aesthetic touch.

Egged on by Bigelow, Pittsburgh's industrial elite began to endow the East End with a string of monuments that would end only with World War II. Andrew Carnegie took the lead with the creation of his Library, Institute ( AL41), and Technical School (today Carnegie Mellon University, AL43). Entrepreneur Franklin Nicola doggedly pursued the concept of the City Beautiful until the Oakland district yielded a baseball park, society hotel, fashionable clubs, model homes of the Schenley Farms district, and a Beaux-Arts Acropolis-style campus for the University of Pittsburgh. The Mellon family contributed heavily to Oakland's medical complex, then took the lead in three monuments of still eye-catching scale: Mellon Institute ( AL37), the Cathedral of Learning ( AL38), and East Liberty Presbyterian Church ( AL98).

From roughly 1910 to 1940, there was a sixth expansion from the downtown core, this one also to accommodate the motorcar. A set of ambitious roads and public works projects turned a set of discrete urban sites into a loose web of suburbs. First came the Liberty Tubes, tunneling under Mount Washington to reach Mount Lebanon and the nearer South Hills. Two picturesque expressways followed: Allegheny River Boulevard, leading to the wealthy suburb of Oakmont, and Ohio River Boulevard to the even more glamorous Sewickley. These were the years that left Art Deco buildings in almost every corner of the city: the Allegheny County Airport ( AL60), Allegheny General Hospital ( AL78), the Art Deco storefronts on E. Carson Street, New Granada Theater on the Hill ( AL120), and a sort of institutional Art Deco in Buhl Planetarium ( AL74). Modernism came to the fore in the 1930s with Frank Lloyd Wright's office in the Kaufmann Department Store (moved in 1974 to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London), and the world-famous Fallingwater for the same Kaufmann family in nearby Fayette County ( FA28).

The seventh expansion from Pittsburgh's core paralleled post–World War II growth across the nation and gave the city a whole new chain of suburbs in South Hills, North Hills, and suburban corridors branching off the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Parkways East and West. But the Pittsburgh Renaissance from 1945 through 1969 (known as Renaissance I) had even greater impact in the rebuilding of the Golden Triangle, in what was one of the most massive reconstructions of a city core in the nation. “Renaissance” is an important term in Pittsburgh history, but its local meaning is a postwar movement that was crucial to the survival of the city. Pittsburgh reached its highest rates of industrial production in World War II, but even by 1944, when the local politicians, academics, and business leaders formed the Allegheny Conference on Community Development (ACCD), it was clear that without massive redevelopment Pittsburgh would be bypassed in the postwar economy. The main thrust of Pittsburgh's Renaissance I involved federally mandated flood control on the three rivers, stringent air pollution controls, and the creation of the nation's first Urban Redevelopment Authority with the power to flatten sizeable portions of the city. The flood and pollution controls reversed the worst environmental effects of Pittsburgh's two centuries of industrial production. For the built environment, the most visible and positive achievements of the Pittsburgh Renaissance were Point State Park (Gateway Center; AL7) and Mellon Square ( AL28.1), all downtown, and their attendant skyscrapers; the worst excesses of urban renewal took place outside the Golden Triangle, on the North Side, in East Liberty, and the Hill.

Renaissance II, from the late 1970s to around 1990, operated differently than Renaissance I. The goals and priorities of the first were set by the Allegheny Conference and professional groups, and implemented by the public sector; in the second, the public sector did more of the planning and agenda setting, with a more diverse power base in the private corporate and neighborhood groups. This Renaissance spawned completion of the light rail system in 1983, rebuilding of Grant Street, an agreement for a new Midfield Terminal Complex at the Pittsburgh International Airport (1992, Tasso Katselas Associates; bordering PA 60), and several downtown skyscrapers, including PPG ( AL24), Dominion ( AL10), Fifth Avenue Place ( AL8), Oxford Centre ( AL3), and One Mellon Bank Center ( AL19).

Renaissance II also expanded into the neighborhoods, where Main Street and preservation programs worked to encourage contextualism and infill rather than urban expansion—much of which was sprawl by that point. Suddenly Pittsburgh found itself with revitalized neighborhoods, a host of recycled buildings: Heinz Hall ( AL11), Benedum Center ( AL31), The Pennsylvanian ( AL16), the Mattress Factory ( AL77), Andy Warhol Museum ( AL67), a new wave of downtown skyscrapers, two sports stadiums (Heinz Field for the Steelers and PNC Park for the Pirates), and a convention center ( AL15). Pittsburgh's city government remains committed to the integration of its new developments in Squirrel Hill, South Side, and the Hill, with their preexisting old neighborhoods nearby; citizens groups try their best to keep city government to its promise. There have been some notable failures (the Waterfront mall in Homestead being the most prominent), but for the most part the new buildings blend well into old contexts. Prominent examples since the 1980s are Crawford Square ( AL121) on the Hill, the South Side Works on E. Carson Street, and the Village of Shadyside.

It was only in the 1980s that small communities such as Monroeville, Southpointe, and Cranberry (the latter two in adjoining counties south and north of Pittsburgh) emerged with a character decisively detached—culturally and physically—from the old urban core.

Pittsburgh continues to be an important place for innovative architecture. Since 1993, when several local environmentally conscious nonprofit organizations united to open a branch of the Green Building Alliance in Pittsburgh, the city has embraced the ideals and philosophy of environmentally friendly building. As a place degraded by its industrial boom, Pittsburgh learned early and well that cleaning the environment deterred urban decay. With the help of local foundations and the enthusiastic cooperation of local cultural entities, green building techniques are becoming the norm in new building, as in the new David L. Lawrence Convention Center ( AL15), and in additions to older buildings. Pittsburgh is consistently among the top three American cities for buildings with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating. This city that was famous for embracing its smoky atmosphere, because it indicated that the citizenry was working, is now preaching the gospel of green building and clean air.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Lu Donnelly et al.

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