Saturday, November 6, 2010

Pittsburgh's "Renaissance" and the Price of Urban Renewal

Like almost all American cities, Pittsburgh has seen too many of its historic buildings demolished in the name of "urban renewal," which could be translated to mean "urban removal" since it generally involves mass demolition of dense urban spaces in favor of suburban-like parking lots and green space. Pittsburgh was home to the country's first large-scale "urban renewal" project. In the early 1950s, hundreds of historic structures, some over one hundred years-old even then, were demolished in order to make way for what is now Point Park. A whole stretch of Penn Avenue was demolished where the generic aluminum and glass of Gateway Center now stands. Wabash Terminal, one of the most grand examples of Beaux Arts "City Beautiful" architecture was razed. So was Exposition Hall, and countless historic street-level commercial buildings, hotels, and row-houses -- all for what? Point Park is generally empty today. There is a fountain, and there are impressive views, but the urban density and historic integrity of a city neighborhood are gone.

During the 1950s, Pittsburgh also lost its original City Hall on Smithfield Street, one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. The Old Post Office followed in 1966.

Downtown Pittsburgh retains much of its historic character due to the large number of existing structures dating from the early 20th century. However, very little remains of downtown Pittsburgh from its boom in the early to mid 19th century and the Victorian era. Larger, significant buildings, such as the Allegheny County Courthouse, may have been spared the wrecking ball, but countless smaller buildings from Pittsburgh's early days, such as brick rowhouses and small commercial buildings, are gone. These buildings contributed to the city's street-level business and activity, and gave the city a density and walkability not unlike some older European cities. Existing buildings from this era are largely vacant and unrestored. One may see the occasional row house or 1850s wrought iron facade on a commercial building standing on Wood Street, Liberty Avenue, Fifth Avenue, and Penn Avenue, as well as some in the wharf area and in back streets and alleys throughout the city. One might be surprised to learn that there were once houses, and whole residential communities, in downtown Pittsburgh, where only fragments remain today.

Historic preservation is essential to a city like Pittsburgh because beautiful things are meant to be created, not destroyed. The historic buildings of Pittsburgh are beautiful and irreplaceable. Thus, they cry out to be saved -- to people who have eyes which can recognize the romantic history of Pittsburgh, and the beauty in that. The Pittsburgh of today is both a testament to the glory of historic buildings, in a city of so many beautifully restored landmarks -- and a testament to what can be lost when greed, corruption, and oversight pave parking lots over history.

The following video documents some of Pittsburgh's lost buildings. They are the ghosts of Pittsburgh's romantic, historic past. We can't visit them now. We can only be haunted by the everlasting effects of "progress" that deemed these buildings disposable. The next time you walk down Smithfield Street, remember the Old Post Office and City Hall. All we have in their place is a parking garage and a small black building that looks like a shoebox.


  1. Thanks. Well done. Can you do a video tribute for Wheeling, WV and send it to local historical preservation groups - for ultimate delivery to the city government regarding their East Wheeling demolition?

  2. AnonymousJuly 11, 2013

    I am also sickened by the beautiful mansions that were leveled to make way for CCAC on the North Side. Two remaining mansions are in back shape and are/were being used by the college as offices, no longer recognizable (interior) as being the beautiful homes they once were.

  3. Does anyone have any info on the old Schwitzer (sp) mansion in the West View section of PGH? I used to pass by there back in the 70s when it still stood. Always intrigued me.

  4. Does anyone have information about the Shady's Hotel that existed (possibly on Chartiers St at 4th Ave.) in the early 1900'?

  5. I have spent hours over the last few days on this site. I must say I am utterly shocked and dismayed. I spent a year in York, PA when I was a teenager and American life seemed rather picturesque.

    I currently live in a building from 1749 (not the oldest in my neighbourhood) and nobody would dream of demolishing it!

    When I was a child, we used to laugh at the strange plot in the movie "The Love Bug", unable to imagine that historic houses would be allowed to be torn down like this - how silly! How unrealistic! More than 30 years later I realize with a sinking feeling that the film was actually showing an American reality.

    I hope many historic houses will find a new owner who saves them!