20 of Pittsburgh’s Architectural Gems

Pittsburgh boasts three rivers (the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio), nearly 450 bridges and one of the oldest documented structures west of the Allegheny Mountains (the Fort Pitt Block House)and as of this fall, it plays host to HGTV's Restored by the Fords and DIY Network's Vintage Rehab. Tour some of the sites and sights that have made history in and around the 'Burgh with us!

Photo By: Picasa

Photo By: Picasa

Photo By: Don Burkett

Photo By: Derek Jensen

The Duquesne Incline

One would do well to begin an appreciation of Pittsburgh’s scenery with a ride on the restored wooden cable cars that began climbing the Duquesne Incline to the summit of Coal Hill, later known as Mount Washington, in 1877. The Incline is now operated by a preservation society, but it’s part of Pittsburgh’s transportation grid and uses the same fares as buses and trolleys—and offers an incomparable downtown view.

Smithfield Street Bridge

Pittsburgh’s oldest surviving river bridge—it was built between 1881 and 1883 to connect the northern and southern shores of the Monongahela River—is now the third version of a structure at the same spot (a covered wooden bridge was erected there between 1816 and 1818). Today’s Smithfield Street Bridge carries cars, trains and pedestrians between the Station Square complex and the Golden Triangle.

Pennsylvania (Union) Station

Constructed between 1898 and 1903 by Daniel Burnham, Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR)’s downtown station was designed to impress: Burnham had recently wowed visitors at the World’s Fair in Chicago, and for Pittsburgh’s Penn Station he created what was to become one of America’s great examples of Beaux-Arts architecture. The soaring rotunda at the end of Liberty Avenue downtown is no longer in service as an entry for train passengers—Amtrak’s working station is now located in another facility at the back of the building complex—but visitors can still feast their eyes on its massive glass dome.

Phipps Conservatory

The spirit of the World’s Fair also made its way to Pittsburgh via the philanthropist Henry J. Phipps, who wanted to “erect something that [would] prove a source of instruction as well as pleasure to the people.” Upon completion in 1893, Phipps Conservatory’s nine rooms contained plants that had been displayed in Chicago. 120 years later, it also plays host to art collections, parties, classes and even a greenmarket, and is open to visitors from 9:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily (with a few exceptions).

Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail

In Allegheny County’s words, “One of the most unique aspects of our history is a location that most county citizens tried to avoid.” Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail was designed by the architect H.H. Richardson in 1884 and built with a 229-foot tower and Romanesque flourishes. Since the jail itself was closed in 1995, one could argue that the grand old complex is now more welcoming than ever before.

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (Main Branch)

In 1881, Andrew Carnegie offered Pittsburgh $250,000—an offer that later increased to $1 million—to help create a Main Library and branches throughout the city. Both a library lover and a shrewd businessman, Carnegie was happy to provide capital funding, then insisted the best way to maintain a healthy relationship between the organization and local residents was for them to contribute to its upkeep.

St. Paul Cathedral

The 247-foot-tall, Scholastic Gothic cathedral built on Fifth Avenue cost $1.1 million to erect and furnish in 1906. A century later, St. Paul Cathedral has joined the National Register of Historic Places and is still the mother church and center of spiritual life for Catholics in Pittsburgh.

First English Evangelical Lutheran Church

Founded in 1837 by the missionary J.C.F. Heyer and consecrated at its current location in 1888, the First English Evangelical Lutheran Church—as its name implies—pioneered worship for Lutherans west of the Alleghenies. Its 170-foot spire now stands at the heart of the Golden Triangle, where the church’s delicate stonework and Tiffany windows rub shoulders with Pittsburgh’s skyscrapers.

McCook Mansion

In the late 19th and early 20th Century, a portion of Fifth Avenue on the city’s north side gained notoriety as “Millionaire’s Row,” thanks to the lavish Gilded Age estates constructed there for prominent members of society. McCook Mansion, a three-story manor built in 1907 for Henry Clay Frick’s attorney and his family, is now a hotel and event space.

Emmanuel Episcopal Church

One of H.H. Richardson’s final designs, the comparatively humble, brick-clad Emmanuel Episcopal Church seems a far cry from the classical confections at the Allegheny County Courthouse—but its simple, severe structure has its admirers. As the architectural historian James D. Van Trump wrote, “[b]eyond Fashion and beyond the caprices of the changing stylistic seasons, it seems to possess a curious timeless serenity, more than a hint of architectural immortality.”

Clayton (Henry Clay Frick Estate)

Frick’s own home stands on Reynolds Street, and while it wasn’t commissioned for his family, they made extensive additions to the property after its purchase in 1882 and preserved it from the decay that befell most of the Pittsburgh’s historic mansions. Visitors can now tour Clayton for intimate glimpses of Victorian architecture (and the domestic artifacts of some of the city’s most well-heeled residents).

Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum

Envisioned in the 1890s as a memorial to Allegheny County’s Civil War veterans and built where the Army had mustered its forces, Soldiers & Sailors is now dedicated to honoring the men and women of all branches of service “from all generations and conflicts.” “Our goal,” the museum’s curators say, “is not to idealize war but to honor and educate about the sacrifices during it.”

Cathedral of Learning

University of Pittsburgh Chancellor John G. Bowman wanted to erect a monumental building that would be an inspiration to everyone who saw it (and, of course, provide much-needed growing room for the school, which was rapidly expanding after World War I). The Cathedral of Learning’s creation was an act of civic pride: Local businesses gifted supplies for its construction, and according to Pitt historians, “17,000 men and women and 97,000 school children made individual contributions to help build the great tower.”

Union Trust Building

The Union Trust Building, first known as the Union Arcade, was built on land that was transferred from religious to secular use via a 1901 deed—and urban legends suggest that there’s a chapel hidden in one of its towers to comply with a requirement that a place of worship remain there. In truth, Henry Clay Frick intended it strictly for shoppers—but its spectacular roof is nevertheless divine.

Gulf Tower

Built in 1932 as the headquarters for the Gulf Oil Company—on the same location as the U.S.’s first oil refinery—the Gulf Tower was Pittsburgh’s tallest building until 1970 (when the U.S. Steel Building was completed). It’s long represented the intersection between classical ideals and industrial realities: The pyramid at its crown, designed to resemble the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (one of the seven wonders of the world), has required extensive restoration to remove decades of thoroughly modern grime.

Three Sisters bridges

The trio of large steel eyebar suspension bridges at 6th, 7th and 9th Street—named for Pittsburgh residents Roberto Clemente, Andy Warhol and Rachel Carson—are the only three identical side-by-side bridges in the world. Painted a shade of gold known as “Pittsburgh yellow,” their triplet images have appeared on logos for the Pittsburgh Marathon, Major League Baseball’s 2006 All-Star Game and the 2009 G-20 Summit (all of which, naturally, were held in town).

PPG Place

Built in the 1980s to recall and update Pittsburgh classics like the Cathedral of Learning and the Allegheny County Courthouse, PPG Place (named for its original anchor tenant, née the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company) is a half-step between the city’s storied history and its gleaming skyscrapers. Designed by Philip Johnson, “at once the elder statesman and the enfant terrible of American Architecture,” the neo-Gothic complex’s footprint spans three downtown blocks.

Mellon Hall of Science

The Richard King Mellon Hall of Science at Duquesne University, a four-story building that houses labs and lecture halls, is one of modern master Mies van der Rohe’s lesser-known projects (completed in 1968, a year before his death). As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review put it, “Unless you’re a science student at Duquesne...you’re unlikely to go there at all.” That said, it’s just as characteristic of the celebrated architect’s much-imitated style as his more celebrated works in New York and Chicago—and less-is-more fans will find a visit well worth their time.

Fallingwater (Mill Run, Pennsylvania)

About 90 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh, in Bear Run, Penn., Frank Lloyd Wright built Fallingwater, where his clients wanted a weekend house beside the area’s breathtaking sandstone ledges and waterfalls. Wright created concrete “trays” that allowed the home to perch over the rushing water, and his project was heralded as a masterpiece before it was completed in 1937. More than 5.7 million people have visited the property since it opened to the public in 1964, and it’s been a National Historic Landmark since 1976.

Kentuck Knob (Chalk Hill, Pennsylvania)

Seven miles south of Fallingwater, architecture and sculpture meet at Kentuck Knob, one of the last homes Frank Lloyd Wright completed. A “Usonian” (that is, "affordable for the average American") house, Kentuck Knob was based on a hexagonal design and built of sandstone and tidewater red cypress. More than 30 sculptures—including one of Andy Goldsworthy’s first commissions—dot the leafy landscape and walking trails around the house.