Gateway to the west: two centuries of blood, paint, stone and steel

Black smoke curls out of chimneys and smokestacks. A constant cloud of dust and coal hovers over factories and tenement houses. War rages, fires blaze, men die, and wives cry.

This was the image of early 20th-century Pittsburgh. An old factory city and home of the original Carnegie Steel Co., Pittsburgh has endured wars, riots, poverty, and overcrowding. Pittsburgh’s growth as a city really started with the War of 1812, when the British blockade increased inland trading and manufacturing of American goods. At that point, the city flourished because it was rich in coal and petrolium. It also earned the name “Gateway to the West,” due to an influx of immigrants headed for the western terrain. In 1845, a raging fire devastated the city, causing almost $9 million in damages. Rebuilding of the city was accompanied by new technologies, especially steel. The need for steel armaments during the Civil War boosted Pittsburgh’s, and the city became known as the “arsenal for the Union.”

By the end of the war, one-third of American steel and two-thirds of American glass were manufactured in Pittsburgh. In the second half of the 19th century, labor rioting raged through the streets. In the late 1800s, Andrew Carnegie established the first Carnegie Library and Carnegie Institute, and in 1901 he sold Carnegie Steel to J.P. Morgan for $250 million — the rest is history. The end of World War II saw reforms, both political and cultural, and although industrialism thrived, public building projects started to take form. This eventually resulted in the Pittsburgh we know today; the now up-and-coming city has made a complete “180” in terms of its aesthetics, culture, and everyday life, but has still managed to retain that old steel-town charm.


The Allegheny County Courthouse, on Grant Street near Fifth Avenue downtown, is a stunning building with an interesting history. The current courthouse is actually the third in Pittsburgh history. The first one deteriorated due to coal smoke damage and the second was destroyed by fire. The entire building is built around an interior courtyard, which allows natural light and fresh air to circulate through most of the building. The main courthouse is connected to the former county jail, now a courthouse annex, by the Bridge of Sighs, similar to identically-named bridges in Italy, England, and Germany. The courthouse also showcases a five-story tower. Inside, the courthouse features gorgeous stone archways and columns. The heavy stonework and somewhat gothic feel show that this building, unlike its predecessors, is made to last.

Taking that heavy, gothic feel to a new extreme, the Cathedral of Learning is a symbol of life in the steel town. Sandwiched between Forbes and Fifth Avenues on Bigelow Boulevard, this 535-foot-high, 42-story Gothic tower is the symbol of the University of Pittsburgh and the Oakland community. The Cathedral of Learning is sort of an Empire State Building-meets-Notre Dame Cathedral structure. The second-tallest educational building in the world, the Cathedral of Learning is a beacon of light (quite literally — it is lit up at night) and hope, and pays homage to Pittsburgh’s variety of cultures. Within the Cathedral of Learning are 26 Nationality Rooms. Each room features decorative and structural styles of a certain nationality, such as Armenian, Japanese, German, and more. The 10th chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, John Gabbert Bowman, envisioned a home for learning that greatly represented the impressive city that Pittsburgh has now become.

Pittsburgh’s most famous and well-known tourist attraction is not even really in Pittsburgh. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is located about 90 minutes to the southeast; however, many people think of it as a part of the city, at least culturally. In 1935, Wright designed it for the Kaufmann family (of Kaufmann’s department store), completely going against the grain of the time by building the house over a waterfall. Like many of Wright’s designs, Fallingwater attracts tourists from all over the world, as they flock to see what is now a museum.

One of Carnegie Mellon’s faculty members, Arthur Lubetz, is the designer of one of the more modern architectural additions to Pittsburgh’s community. The LEED-certified Squirrel Hill branch of the Carnegie Library, on the corner of Forbes and Murray Avenues, may be a small hint of the direction in which Pittsburgh aesthetics is going. A large open space — vaguely reminiscent of a warehouse, complete with exposed ductwork, steel stairs, and glass walls — makes up the main area of the building and echoes Pittsburgh’s industrial history. The library’s claim to fame is most definitely its openness, greatly enhanced by glass and light. Large, comfortable chairs freckle the floors, many of them facing oversized windows.

Lubetz described his reasoning behind the unconventional setup. “Libraries are in a state of change with the Internet,” he said. “The question is, ‘What is a library going to be in a few years?’ That building is very adaptable and flexible; the lines between the librarian space, the community space, and the book space are blurred.” A favorite activity of visitors is to sit in the windows facing the church. The windows are elevated off the floor and are large enough for one and often two people to be able to comfortably sit in and do work, read, or listen to music. “The little window boxes on the Murray Avenue side all face different aspects of the church across the street; that’s why they are at different angles,” said Lubetz.

And what of the soot, smoke, and coal? Besides a new focus on LEED-certified buildings (a trend popularized here at Carnegie Mellon), Pittsburgh has embraced environmental activism in all aspects of the community. Garbage cans and recycling bins have appeared on street corners. Parts of Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, and downtown Pittsburgh feature artistic, Three Rivers-themed bicycle racks in an effort to promote environmental safety without marring the landscape and city design.


The Port Authority of Allegheny County also moved to further incorporate art into everyday Pittsburgh life. The Pittsburgh Art in Transit campaign is an exchange between artists and the Port Authority, in which the city provides local artists with places for their artwork to be seen. In exchange, the artists provide work to be put on the buses — hence the elaborately designed and more aesthetically pleasing 59Us, 61Cs, and other buses driving around Pittsburgh. Many of these buses also incorporate the culture of Pittsburgh with text in various languages adorning the sides and windows.

Buses aren’t the only places for artists to display their work in Pittsburgh, and for the artistically challenged, it’s also always fun to just see some artwork. For pieces dating as far back as 476 CE, visit the Carnegie Museum of Art. Located by the intersection of South Craig Street and Forbes Avenue, this space houses the works of esteemed artists, such as Degas, Van Gogh, and others, and includes art, architecture, sculpture, and more. A children’s area allows kids to do arts and crafts to get hands-on experience. The fountains outside encourage visitors and create a surprisingly tranquil space to sit, relax, or do some homework, as well as add to the overall appeal of the Oakland community.

David Carrier, the Champney Family professor at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Institute of Art, wrote about art in the community in his article "New York Art, Pittsburgh Art, Art": “Art has the power to create a kind of community among a group of people who share an interest in looking at it.” Similarly, Pittsburgh’s art brings its communities together. The ever-popular Gallery Crawl, for example, is a night when the galleries are open and free to the public. Visitors are encouraged go to as many galleries as possible to see a variety of art from visual to performance to film. It also gives people a chance to interact with others who share the same interests.

The Mattress Factory, so named for the original function of the space it currently inhabits, houses more artwork, some by local artists. Located in the Mexican War Streets area of the North Side, the Mattress Factory features contemporary pieces by artists from all around the world. These works are all created right in the area, and many of the artists live nearby. A frequent favorite is Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Dots Mirrored Room,” which features white mannequins with giant red polka dots situated in a mirrored room.

Despite having been an industrial center for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the city has now evolved into an artistic and cultural haven; most of the steel left in this town is in the spirit of the community.