Young Pat: Is the English lady dead, Auntie Mame? Auntie Mame: She's not English, darling. She's from Pittsburgh. Young Pat: She sounded English. Auntie Mame: When you're from Pittsburgh, you've got to do something.
From "Auntie Mame," by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
LIKE SO many worldly travelers, Mame Dennis never actually visited the Pennsylvania city whose name almost invariably occasions such offhand derision. Wild Stutz-Bearcats couldn't have dragged her there, most likely. Yet had circumstances somehow conspired to land the lady in Pittsburgh for a few days, Mame's high-handed notions of the place surely would have given way to bubblier sentiments. For she--along with other visitors equipped with decent eyesight and any sense of fair play--would have had to concede that Pittsburgh has gotten a bum rap.
As is often the case with the unjustly accused, Pittsburgh first surprises because it doesn't have the expected guilty, hangdog look. On the contrary, it presents a rich, confident, even expansive face to the world. The downtown area in this city of 470,000 (two million in the metropolitan area) is a formidable huddle of high-rise towers crowded onto a wedge between two rivers--the Allegheny and the Monongahela, which join here to launch the Ohio on its murky meander west. Downtown is called the Golden Triangle. The triangular shape is self-evident. The "Golden" part has its roots in local boosterism, no doubt, but also in fact: Downtown Pittsburgh represents a daunting concentration of wealth, frequently affording the glossy kind of glimpses that travelers tend to find so improving.
Alternately described as having either the third or fourth highest number of corporate headquarters in the country (Pittsburgh biggies include Gulf Oil, U.S. Steel, Westinghouse, Rockwell International, and Alcoa), the city exudes a boom-town atmosphere that suggests a future beyond those mortifying vistas of dead smokestacks, beyond the wrenching sagas of the unemployed that old industrial regions so readily call to mind these days. And although most outsiders come here on business, the observant will find much to attend to beyond the bottom line.
For Washingtonians, there's the special, perverse pleasure of seeing another city go through the agonies of rending out its innards to accommodate a new subway--although in Pittsburgh the job is essentially a reconstruction of the existing trolley system, with only a mile or so of underground track. The construction barricades (due to come down late this year) seem to be everywhere. Yet they hardly conceal the architectural verve and variety that make the densely packed downtown more reminiscent of New York than of any other place.
From so many vantage points--along downtown's narrow Sixth Avenue, with its jumble of offices crowding around a neighborly pair of old stone churches and the simple, somber graveyard that links them; from the Parkway West, the airport road that bursts from the gloom of the Fort Pitt Tunnels to cross the Monongahela River, in the process unfolding an eye-popping vista that takes in the entire Triangle--the city offers genuine visual thrills. Pittsburgh's many hills help a lot.
Admittedly, humdrum buildings take up more than their share of any view. But over the years Pittsburgh architects and imported talent alike have managed to create a downtown that leavens bankerish stolidity with generous, whimsical touches--from the immense domed entrance at the turn-of-the-century Union Depot (by Chicago's Daniel Burnham) to the festive '50s modernism of Mellon Square Park (the work of Pittsburgh firms Mitchell & Ritchie and Simmons & Simmons). Many of the buildings that predate World War II have suffered the customary neglect, but here and there appear capable restorations and--a far finer pleasure--venerable structures (Henry Hobson Richardson's fortress-like Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail, completed in 1888; Burnham's ornate and dignified Frick Building, which dates from 1901) handsomely maintained and still serving their original functions.
Today the town is building ambitiously. Three new towers, each stretching more than 40 stories, are under construction. The most startlingly original was designed for PPG Industries by New York's Philip Johnson and John Burgee, and it poses esthetic challenges equal to those of most anything now going up in Manhattan. PPG looks somewhat as though a designer of fun houses had been given, say, a billion dollars and told in a half-hearted way to get serious. Basically, it's a blockish spire surrounded by a brace of low buildings. Reflective glass covers every surface, creating a hard and brittle look. Yet at the edge of all the rooftops, even at the building's summit, ranges an army of fanciful finials--towers of varying sizes that lend the structure a romantic and slightly madcap air. This sort of effort, which turns the building into a grown-up child's vision of a medieval church or a crystal mountain or even Oz, is one of many that give a sober city a bracing bit of gaiety. The Capital of the Western World should be so lucky.
Downtown Pittsburgh's cramped quarters ensure that most of the Triangle lies within manageable walking distance of the three major hotels. The Hyatt, brassy and new, has all the most up-to-date features but stands farthest from the center of things. The Hilton occupies a prominent site pretty much surrounded by parkland and overlooking the tip of the Triangle (called, appropriately enough, the Point). In-between, facing Mellon Square in the heart of the city, is the William Penn. This place has old-line glamor to spare; when you walk in, you know you've arrived someplace special. Getting to the city's new convention center and to shopping are relatively easy jaunts from any of the three hotels.
It may come as something of a shock to travelers from the East Coast that the shopping in the Golden Triangle easily outstrips the offerings of most downtowns back home. In Pittsburgh, Brooks Brothers provides a reassuring presence. Saks Fifth Avenue contributes its characteristic pizazz. The big department stores--Horne's, Kaufmann's, and Gimbel's--more than match their counterparts nationwide. A gaggle of high-tone specialty shops--Polo and such--has taken roost in jazzy digs on the first few floors of One Oxford Centre, another of the city's new office towers. There is also the Bank Center, an airy, slightly frenetic downtown mall thrown together from five separate classical revival structures, including three old bank buildings.
Currently, the big attraction for shoppers and--more to the point--for gawkers is Station Square, which stands at a slight remove from downtown, just across the Monongahela. It occupies renovated quarters that once were the exclusive domain of the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie (P&LE) Railroad. The Freight House, a long, low structure with a high central skylight, contains both shops and restaurants. Sad to say, it is here that Pittsburgh seems least itself and most like everyplace else. The various establishments include all the chain operations--from The Limited to Laura Ashley--that exist in symbiotically profitable and wholly predictable harmony wherever the local populace has a little extra cash.
Yet there are a few surprises, the nicest of them the Cornerstone, a shop devoted to books about the city and to architectural remnants and reproductions. The shop is operated by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. That worthy group displays other impressive entrepeneurial skills, as well; it served as a developer for the entire Station Square complex. Besides the shops, the project includes a new Sheraton hotel and conference center, a 19th-century office building remodeled within an inch of its girders, and--best of all--the P&LE Terminal itself.
Offices for the railroad and for other enterprises occupy the upper floors, but the great glory of the building, its dazzlingly opulent waiting room, has been reborn as a restaurant called the Grand Concourse. In such a setting--surrounded by marble columns, sheltered by a vaulted glass ceiling--even merely adequate food assumes a certain magnificence. Despite the management's simulations of over-hearty hospitality (almost nonstop rounds of "Happy Birthday," for instance), the Grand Concourse has the stuff of a big night out.
A boisterous bar, the Gandy Dancer, adjoins the main room on one side; smaller dining rooms open off the other. One of these provides a quiet riverfront view that becomes increasingly seductive as night falls. The great towers downtown loom; barges silently glide by (the traffic on Pittsburgh's rivers rarely slackens); and, supported by the lacy framework of the Smithfield Street Bridge, the city's lumbering old trolleys--looking bright and snug and sluggish--make their sad, slow, Hopper-esque journeys back and forth across the water.
The most idiosyncratic element of Pittsburgh's transportation system rises from a point near Station Square to climb the nearly vertical face of Mount Washington. It's a tram, known as the Monongahela Incline; the Duquesne Incline operates a short distance downriver. A ride on either affords the heady sensation of something like slow-motion flight as well as the best views in town. And the crest of Mount Washington (actually a 1,200-foot-high ridge) has some costly restaurants dedicated to the long and luxurious contemplation of those vistas. Le Mont numbers among the pricier perches; so does Christopher's, which sits atop a nondescript building on what probably ranks as the neighborhood's high point. In the evening, the gradual ascent of the glass elevator at Christopher's carries passengers to no mere postcard panorama but to sights that amount to a revelation of raw urban splendor. Drinks or dinner by the windows is like having your very own helicopter, and a quiet one, that hovers over a mesmerizing valley full of water, movement, light and darkness.
Ah, Pittsburgh by night. Now there's a prospect that even the most optimistic traveler might shrink from. Yet here, too, reality improves upon reputation. The Pittsburgh Symphony, currently under the direction of Andre Previn and hardly a negligible outfit, plays at Heinz Hall downtown. Formerly a movie palace, heavy on the fantasy and the rococo details, the vast structure was cleaned up and toned down a bit a dozen years ago for some of the city's loftier cultural efforts--it also hosts the Civic Light Opera, occasional pop concerts, touring companies of Broadway plays, and the Pittsburgh Ballet.
The Pittsburgh Public Theater, on the city's North Side (across the Allegheny River), presents six plays a year. The universities--concentrated in and around the Oakland neighborhood, east of downtown--schedule frequent performances, too, as does the Pittsburgh Laboratory Theater, also in Oakland. Pittsburgh magazine carries detailed entertainment and cultural listings every month.
Downtown also offers most variations on the conventional night spots, and some offbeat ones. At Bob's Auto Pub, for example, a few lucky patrons end up having dinner in a Cadillac . . . or a Buick . . . or a Ford pickup. These artifacts sit (partly) reassembled in an otherwise unremarkable series of rooms off Market Square, something of a magnet for night owls. And for the tired or lonely business traveler who doesn't want to face a rowdy crowd of drinkers, a movie downtown holds few of the terrors that similar forays in other cities almost guarantee. The occasional seedy stretches along the way don't seem particularly hazardous, and the movies themselves attract a surprising number of nice young couples out on real dates. Imagine.
Oakland is the one neighborhood besides downtown that the wise and curious traveler especially ought to see. Like the Triangle, it's an unexpectedly dense area blessed with stalwart old buildings. But Oakland has more trees and a more high-minded personality. This is the neighborhood where many of the fellows who made fortunes downtown and in the mills along the rivers have concentrated their good works. Here is the University of Pittsburgh, much of it housed in a 42-story tower of vaguely Gothic design. (It is called, in all seriousness, the Cathedral of Learning.) Here, too, are Carnegie-Mellon University and the bosky reaches of Schenley Park, which also offers the floral abundance of Phipps Conservatory.
But Oakland's real draw is the Carnegie Institute, a sprawling heap of black stone that contains two large museums--one devoted to natural history, the other to art--as well as the city's main library and a concert hall. For years, the Institute in general and the natural history museum in particular seemed a dusty and dreary place, airless and relentlessly educational. Parts of the museum still have that stuffy feel, though many of the galleries have taken on a fresher appearance in recent times. And for visitors with conventional kids in tow, certain sections of the natural history museum have always proved surefire--the dinosaurs remain a constant hit. The art museum has been almost completely revamped, largely courtesy of a serene new building (technically a wing) known as the Sarah Scaife Gallery.
Sarah Scaife was born a Mellon and seems to have picked up that family's appetite for the finer things. The Gallery is just one of the many philanthropies by the Mellons that make this city a better place. To the outsider, it can seem that Pittsburgh owes a good bit of its current vigor to such gifts and to the longstanding involvement by the old leading families in the day-to-day affairs of the community. Not for nothing did the city's early efforts at urban renewal become known as Pittsburgh's Renaissance (with the current push called Renaissance II); like the Medici of Florence, the Mellons and their peers loved making money and loved spending it on sprucing up their hometown.
Of course, it helps to own the bank--even today, family interests still control 20 percent of the stock. Local wags, in a takeoff on the University of Pittsburgh's lofty name for its tower, call the main office of the Mellon Bank the Cathedral of Earning. Hereabouts, the feeling about the Mellons, the Heinzes, and their kind does have ambivalent aspects. Most everyone of lesser station knows that the great families all could have moved away long ago and set themselves up in stupendous if superfluous style somewhere else. Yet the fact that those fortunes arose out of the labors of thousands upon thousands of simple folk does not escape notice in this irreverent, democratic (both big and small d) town.
Take, for instance, the East Liberty Presbyterian Church, a multimillion-dollar gift in 1935 from Mr. and Mrs. Richard B. Mellon.It has long been known as Mellon's Fire Escape; the gift struck many locals as a kind of spiritual bribe, one made in the hopes of avoiding the never-ending flames that it was felt the donors so richly deserved.
In any case, the Scaife Gallery offers a close-to-perfect environment for the relaxed and thoughtful viewing of its lovely paintings. Individual galleries are spacious and uncluttered; the lighting is bright but unobtrusive, showing most everything to best advantage. The first floor contains a dining room, which is both sleek and comfortable. A bookstore and special exhibit space take up the remainder of this level. The second floor also includes small galleries for rotating shows, as does the old main building. Most of the second level of the Scaife Gallery, however, is taken up by the museum's permanent collection. The art runs the gamut from old masters to the big guns of the present day. The finest things are mainly European and American paintings from the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, when Pittsburgh millionaires easily could afford the top artists' work and weren't shy about buying. All the fabled names are here, and most are represented by first-rate examples.
Relatively few Pittsburghers live in Oakland, or downtown, or even on the North Side, which with Three Rivers Staduim (home to the Pirates and the Steelers), Buhl Planetarium, and block upon block of skillfully restored Victorian rowhouses might merit a visit from the traveler with more than couple days in town. Most people live in the suburbs, of course, but the rest hang their hats in one of the 75 or so more-or-less distinct neighborhoods in the city. Although many of the neighborhoods have grown more heterogeneous than in days of yore, a fair number still offer much in the way of particular ethnic delights. Others, such as Squirrel Hill, concern themselves with looking pretty--and do a bang-up job of it.
Yet even Pittsburgh magazine advises newcomers: "Don't try to figure out the neighborhoods," in part because there are so many of them. Also, the city's mountain-goat landscape dictates roundabout, indescribable routes from place to place. Along with the appalling condition of many city streets, this can slow a traveler's pace considerably or even halt it altogether. The city's various enclaves may well remain out of reach, except for the visitor lucky enough to have a local guide.
Fortunately for those who get lost or who just feel sociable, Pittsburghers are in the main a friendly lot. And many seem to enjoy chatting about their town. In the (superficially) similar industrial cities farther west, visitors from the East frequently encounter a strange, almost apologetic demeanor when talk turns to local conditions. Not so here, or not so often. In Pittsburgh, conversation about the city frequently becomes a winning and unpredictable combination of bragging (about local culture, about the resilience of the native character, about the sheer level of construction the city sustains) and complaining (about the city's politics, about the fortunes of the Pirates, about the weather-- overcast days are reported to outnumber sunny ones by almost three to one). There's a feisty defensiveness in the air--even well-intentioned comparisons between Pittsburgh and, say, the newer, fancier sections of Baltimore can arouse angry hoots.
Yet this is a place for realists. They know that their hometown is not--well--not Paris anyway.
Still, in a brief visit, this city can provide many delights--grand vistas, high culture, a style all its own--akin to those available across the sea. So if you're being sent off to Pittsburgh, do all your whining in advance. And don't put too much heart into it. Because--in spite of yourself--you just might grow to like it here.