Louise Sturgess, Executive Director of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, talks to Pittsburgh Current about the history of Downtown Pittsburgh, how it’s changed and what makes it unique.
Broadly speaking, what’s the history of Downtown Pittsburgh? What stands out over all of these years?
Pittsburgh was founded and named by the British in November 1758 on the strategic point of land where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio. The town began to grow outside the walls of Fort Pitt, completed in 1761. The streets were laid out in 1784, just after the Revolutionary War. In 1794, Pittsburgh became a borough, and in 1816 Pittsburgh was incorporated as a City. By 1955, it had grown through annexation to encompass 55 square miles and 90 neighborhoods. What’s impressive is that the historic street grid of 1784 still defines much of Downtown, making it walkable, with relatively small blocks and lots of intersections offering choices to pedestrians. The Block House in Point State Park is our most historic building––a survivor from 1764 and saved by women (before they had the right to vote). The Burke’s Building on Fourth Avenue is a three-story Greek-Revival sandstone building from 1836: it survived Pittsburgh’s Great Fire of 1845. Pittsburgh rebuilt impressively after the Great Fire, so most of the significant buildings in Downtown are from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Allegheny County Courthouse and former Jail are our most significant architectural landmarks, designed in 1884-1888 by Henry Hobson Richardson.
How has Downtown Pittsburgh changed over the years? Have the changes been drastic?
A city is always changing, but historic preservation can help manage change so the best of the past is adapted for new uses and so significant places remain. Downtown changed drastically after World War II during the Renaissance, when more than 90 buildings were demolished for the creation of Gateway Center and Point State Park; where a block of buildings was demolished for Mellon Square; where the Lower Hill was demolished for the Civic Arena; and where Fort Duquesne Boulevard, Fort Pitt Boulevard, and the parkway were created. When the Boulevard of the Allies was created after World War I, much of Chinatown was demolished. These changes were certainly drastic at the time––and necessary, some would argue. The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation was founded as a reaction to this top-down method of urban renewal. The mission of our organization was (and is) to show that historic preservation, rather than massive demolition, could (and can) be the underlying basis for renewing communities, building pride among residents, and achieving sustainable economic development.
How does Downtown fit into the larger historical narrative of Pittsburgh as a whole?
Downtown is where Pittsburgh began and it has always been the heart of the region. The triangular wedge of land, with its concentration of historic and contemporary buildings and bridges, draws people to the Point and to the three rivers and remains an exciting place to be.
There’s a lot of talk about Pittsburgh’s bridges. What’s unique about the bridges in Downtown Pittsburgh?
We have such a variety of styles. Our trustee, Todd Wilson, and our former architectural historian, Walter Kidney, have written wonderful books about Pittsburgh’s bridges. I believe that the International Media Bridge Conference comes to Pittsburgh almost every year because of the variety of bridges we have: tied-arch, self-anchored suspension; lenticular truss, to name a few.
Matt Petras is a Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer. Contact Matt at email@example.com.