A Search for Our Symbol

Defining Pittsburgh in visual terms has been a challenge. A look at some ideas: past, present and future.



Some will contend that Pittsburgh's most dramatic symbol was once the dark-at-noon pollution from steel mills. When the air was cleaned up and a renaissance was begun, people had more chances to take note of or to imagine other, more positive things that could be a symbolic statement of Pittsburgh's identity.

One notable example that resulted from Renaissance I (1946-73) was Point State Park, which was expanded from a postage-stamp-sized green space at the meeting of the three rivers to the city's front lawn around the time that the city was celebrating its 200th birthday. The effort culminated in the 1970s with the completed park's pièce de résistance, the Point Fountain.

Several other proposals around the mid-20th century were of such a scale that, had they succeeded, they would have significantly marked the city. In 1951, sculptor Frank Vittor proposed a 100-foot sculpture for the park at the Point. His 3-foot plaster model shows an immigrant steelworker named Joe Magarac, a Paul Bunyanesque superman from Pittsburgh with a back as broad as a mill gate. Stories varied on his height from 7 feet to as tall as those leftover smokestacks at the Homestead Waterfront.

According to the myth, Magarac, who was made of steel, drank hot steel like soup and chomped on cold ingots. He invented 24/7, working all day, every day. He could bend steel rails in his hands. He appeared suddenly to save steelworkers in danger. Don't ask his nationality. He's been identified as Slovak, Hungarian, Serbian and Croatian. His last name means "donkey" in Croatian. While Vittor's work wasn't called a symbol of the city at the time, its proposed size and placement would have made it one. The city's planning commission vetoed the idea.

Another alternative vision for the Point came from department-store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr. In search of a home for the Civic Light Opera in the late-1940s, Kaufmann commissioned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to create one. Wright produced drawings for a nine-story, circular structure to sit in the middle of the present-day Point State Park site and contain an opera house, movie theaters, convention center, museum, zoo and civic center - all auto-accessible. That, too, was voted down.

As a compromise, the city now has the Civic Arena, dedicated in September 1961, featuring the "largest movable dome in the world" and an uptown location. "Kaufmann not only had an outdoor place for the Civic Light Opera, but also it could sell the world on the idea that the city was clean enough and the view was beautiful enough that having an open arena would communicate that," says Rob Pfaffmann, principal at Pfaffmann + Associates. (On page 56, you'll see his proposal for taking the Arena, the city's 200th-birthday building, and retooling it into the 250th-birthday marker.) In a 1979 Pittsburgh Press article, Rich Gigler described the Arena as "the crowning jewel of a redevelopment Renaissance" until music groups started to use it.

Meanwhile, back at the Point, the Pittburgh Post-Gazette praised the proposed fountain at the time of the 1958 city bicentennial as a "great Pittsburgh symbol" with an "echo of 17th century Versailles."

Fed by Pittsburgh's legendary "fourth river," what geologists call an aquifer, today's fountain rises 200 feet into the air. It's basin also stretches 200 feet. It was "the largest fountain in America," with 90 percent of it unseen, reported Carnegie Magazine in 1975.

But not all aspects of that fountain are successful, some will argue. "It's frustrating that you cannot touch the fountain," says Bill Kolano, president/owner of Kolano Design. He goes on to explain that while the water sprays through the air, catches light and makes rainbows, the big berm around the fountain prevents real interaction with people. The new concept, he says, seen in fountains at the SouthSide Works and the water steps at North Shore Riverfront Park, "lets people interact with the water."

But Riverlife, an organization guiding development of the trails along the city's river banks and continuing revitalization of Point State Park, plans to add interactivity to the fountain, says Edward Patton, director of capital projects. It won't encourage people getting into the fountain but will allow water to spill over.

Another way to improve on the fountain came during a burst of creative activity in 1989 and a program called "Point to 'Port," sponsored by the local chapter of Artist's Equity Association. It envisioned sculptures lining the route from downtown to Pittsburgh International Airport. (Kolano, whose proposal for this month's feature appears on page 54, was among the participants.)

For this project, sculptor Virgil Cantini offered "The Golden Point," a piece that would be incorporated into the Point State Park Fountain and extend to the height of the main water jet. Cantini made a gold model to be produced in Cor-ten steel or bronze and an even more elegant aluminum version. Composed of triangular sail-like pieces with pipes running up through the center, the sculpture would retain the existing fountain and also carry water through the pipes and allow it to tumble out at different heights. The piece offers the advantage of a dramatic structure throughout four seasons, unlike the fountain, which diminishes considerably on windy days and disappears in winter and during frequent breakdowns.

Back in 1972, artist Van-De R. Campbell came to town from California with the idea for a national artists' corporation to be supported by a Statue of Life - a sculpture to rival the Statue of Liberty. The Statue of Life, according to the organization's magazine, Stuff, "visually and psychologically aided in the preservation of all living things." To underscore the purpose, the Statue of Life would house an International Egg Museum. Campbell had selected the egg as "the universal symbol of life."

Reached in Florida, where he now resides, Campbell recalls that the statue was born in Berkeley in the heat of Vietnam, Cambodia and Kent State protests. Well in advance of today's environmentalists, Campbell foresaw the statue as a tribute to all living things - except people. It encapsulated all of the things that humanity was given to care for, says the artist. The Statue of Life was to be a reminder.

By a manipulation of numbers, based on nine, Campbell figured the Statue of Life would stand 1,521 feet high. To put that in perspective, that's about 1,300 feet taller than the fountain at the Point. The 351-foot base of the statue formed a figure 8, an infinity symbol. Elevators in the base would carry visitors to a four-floor Egg Museum. A 1,053-foot river of glass (a nonbreakable plastic shaft) would travel from the museum to the top, where a 27-foot egg would rest.

While the Pittsburgh Point clearly matched Campbell's ideal location for the Statue of Life - "a valley with high mountains surrounding" to provide "the worm's and bird's eye view" - it never was intended for the city, he says. At one point, he recalls, the city did discuss a 100-foot version of the Statue of Life, but Campbell was too involved in setting up the artists' corporation to follow through. He now regrets not putting his energy into having the statue built. Had it been built in Pittsburgh, its size alone - even at 100 feet - would make it a substantial symbol.

City-symbol selection is clearly not an easy game. Especially when the goalposts move every 50 years - sometimes prompted by unexpected events and inventions. For its 150th birthday in 1908, for example, Pittsburgh built Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland to honor Allegheny County Civil War veterans and also electrified the downtown area.

In the 1980s, sculptor Mark di Suvero, backed by a group of private citizens, proposed a controversial 90-foot steel abstract sculpture/symbol for Gateway Center.

Around that same time, one enormous sculpture that did come to fruition was Richard Serra's four-steel-plate "Carnegie," a signature piece in front of the Museum of Art. Of course, there are some other notable local sculptures as well. Those with "Pittsburgh" as a title include the Alexander Calder mobile at the Pittsburgh International Airport and John Henry's massing of slender fingers of yellow-painted steel, sometimes called "French Fries," reclining in Frank Curto Park along Bigelow Boulevard heading into downtown.

Speaking of downtown and its skyline, there are some architectural landmarks that often qualify as symbols of the city. There's downtown's highest skyscraper, the U.S. Steel Tower, or the landmark it bested as No. 1, the Gulf Building, not to mention H. H. Richardson's Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail and PPG Place. Some would cite Oakland icons such as the Cathedral of Learning or Mellon Institute. For sports aficionados, there's always Heinz Field or PNC Park.

And in another leisure-related note, as well as a nod to Pittsburgh-based inventions, some have dreamed of constructing a version here of the world-renowned marvel that was the brainchild of George Washington Gale Ferris - the Ferris Wheel. Imagine it turning against a blue Pittsburgh sky. Well, OK, a gray Pittsburgh sky.


Ann Curran, a contributing editor of Pittsburgh magazine, favors construction of a Ferris Wheel on the North Shore to commemorate Pittsburgh's most whimsical invention (if you don't count Silly Putty).

 

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best Restaurants 2016

Best Restaurants 2016

Which 33 Pittsburgh-area establishments did our independent Restaurant Review Panel include among its top picks this year? Find them here.
Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

In addition to awarding Best Restaurant honors this year, our Independent Restaurant Review Panel also voted to recognize six chefs for their contributions to Pittsburgh’s culinary community in 2015.
Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

German blends a collage of community activism and soul-searching artistry.
PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

It only takes one person, one jagoff, one childish, attention-seeking, discourteous jerk to send a woo through PNC Park.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

5 Reasons PyroFest Will Light Up Your Memorial Day Weekend

5 Reasons PyroFest Will Light Up Your Memorial Day Weekend

PyroFest will also include live music, food, a Kids Zone and more.
8 Things You Might Not Know About Kennywood’s Jack Rabbit

8 Things You Might Not Know About Kennywood’s Jack Rabbit

When you compare what it cost to build the coaster in 1920 to what it would cost today, it's obvious Kennywood's owners got their money's worth.
Second New Restaurant Moving into Union Trust Building

Second New Restaurant Moving into Union Trust Building

The upscale seafood eatery is expected to open in late 2016 or early 2017.
Local Filmmaker Celebrates Pittsburgh Food

Local Filmmaker Celebrates Pittsburgh Food

Artist David Bernabo creates a series of films that track various aspects of Pittsburgh's food culture.

Sign Up for the 412 e-Newsletter

 

Our new, daily e-newsletter is curated by the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine and is designed to give you the very best Pittsburgh has to offer -- delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign me up!
* Email
 First Name
 Last Name
  * = Required Field
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best Restaurants 2016

Best Restaurants 2016

Which 33 Pittsburgh-area establishments did our independent Restaurant Review Panel include among its top picks this year? Find them here.
Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

In addition to awarding Best Restaurant honors this year, our Independent Restaurant Review Panel also voted to recognize six chefs for their contributions to Pittsburgh’s culinary community in 2015.
Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

German blends a collage of community activism and soul-searching artistry.
PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

It only takes one person, one jagoff, one childish, attention-seeking, discourteous jerk to send a woo through PNC Park.
Daytripping: Canonsburg is a City of Antiques

Daytripping: Canonsburg is a City of Antiques

Nearby Canonsburg is a rare find for antiques collectors.
U.S. Open at Oakmont: Will The Town Finally Be a Player?

U.S. Open at Oakmont: Will The Town Finally Be a Player?

The U.S. Open is returning to Oakmont — and unlike previous tournaments, this one could make the community a vital part of the action.
Edit Module

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


5 Reasons PyroFest Will Light Up Your Memorial Day Weekend

5 Reasons PyroFest Will Light Up Your Memorial Day Weekend

PyroFest will also include live music, food, a Kids Zone and more.

Comments


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

Kennywood Park opens soon and new this season is the return of the famed whale at the entrance of Noah’s Ark. In the name of science, PittGirl paid an early visit to test the squishiness quotient of the whale's all-important tongue.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Richard DeShantz Plans Two New Restaurants at Salt of the Earth Building

Richard DeShantz Plans Two New Restaurants at Salt of the Earth Building

DeShantz owns three other Pittsburgh restaurants and is about to open a fourth.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The quiet rise of Pittsburgh's tea scene gives us a few favorite gems.

Comments


Highmark Stadium Pub Wants Your Attention

Highmark Stadium Pub Wants Your Attention

The in-house tavern at the Riverhounds' home stadium is now welcoming guests during weekdays. But is it worth a dedicated stop?

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Resurrected Penguins Writing Their Story Their Way

Resurrected Penguins Writing Their Story Their Way

These Penguins have been downright unrecognizable, individually and collectively, on the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Flip the Switch: Industrial-Style Lighting Made in Pittsburgh

Flip the Switch: Industrial-Style Lighting Made in Pittsburgh

An electrician by trade, designer Thomas Verscharen creates custom lighting out of repurposed pieces.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The X-Men Would've Done Better in Wonderland

The X-Men Would've Done Better in Wonderland

Reviews of "X-Men: Apocalypse," "Alice Through the Looking Glass," "A Bigger Splash" and "Love and Friendship."

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Get with the (Wedding) Program

Get with the (Wedding) Program

Have you ever considered making programs for your wedding guests? If not, think again and get creative.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
A Tiny House that's Big on Energy Savings

A Tiny House that's Big on Energy Savings

Spread out across the city for these upcoming events, including a “Tiny House” exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center displayed by the FIY Network.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Duquesne University to Host Small Business Networking Event

Duquesne University to Host Small Business Networking Event

The event will connect hundreds of small business managers and owners and provide useful information to help them take their enterprises to the next level.

Comments