Best of the Burgh: Our Soaring History
Pittsburgh’s antique skyscrapers tell stories about the people who shaped the city.
In October, Doors Open Pittsburgh will mark its fifth anniversary of inviting people inside some of the city’s “diverse collection of iconic buildings and cool new spaces.”
Given our natural nebbiness, the tours have been a huge success, but they were put on hiatus during the stay-at-home orders to control the spread of COVID-19. Doors Open responded with virtual tours, which are archived online at doorsopenpgh.org.
One of the most recent offerings was given by Mark Houser, a regular Pittsburgh Magazine contributor who has written “MultiStories: 55 Antique Skyscrapers & the Business Tycoons Who Built Them,” due out this fall. AntiqueSkyscrapers.com has a free preview of the book about noteworthy U.S. buildings built between 1889-1928.
“Pittsburgh has a terrific collection of skyscrapers,” Houser says. “Fourth Avenue is like a mini-museum.”
But Houser is less inspired by the architecture than by the stories behind the facades.
In January 2018, he wrote about the Arrott Building at 401 Wood St. for Pittsburgh Magazine. The striking building that architectural legend Frederick Osterling designed has an equally compelling, although less well-known, story behind its construction. James Arrott became the Bathtub King of Pittsburgh after his North Side business, the Standard Manufacturing Co., began offering enameled iron bathtubs. Following a merger that formed the conglomerate we know today as American Standard, Arrott decided to celebrate his success by hiring Osterling to design his first skyscraper.
“Most books about skyscrapers are about the architecture. I’m more interested in the person who built it because they are usually very involved. The story of how they got so rich and powerful that they wanted to build a skyscraper is always a good story,” Houser says.
Because Pittsburgh was such a wealthy city at the turn of the 20th century, it is home to a variety of historical skyscrapers, even though some have been torn down as the skyline has changed to accommodate new — yet still striking — additions.
“There is value to keeping some of the finest examples of the old skyscrapers,” Houser says. “It helps us to physically imagine a time before us that we didn’t experience, much like how people go to castles to inhabit the past.”
And people are getting more opportunities to appreciate Downtown’s historic skyscrapers as the structures are experiencing a renaissance. A prime example is the Union Trust Building, which underwent a $100 million renovation to become a LEED-certified multi-use building. Houser also notes the Oliver Building has added an Embassy Suites By Hilton to its office space so you can experience the historic skyscraper up close. And it has good company.
Houser says as you stand in Mellon Square Park and look around, the 360-degree panorama affords an eclectic mix of antique and modern skyscrapers. “It’s perhaps the best showcase that I’ve seen anywhere.”
Houser is planning to host “Antique Skyscrapers’ Rooftops and Views,” a Doors Open event at various times on Aug. 1 and 2. The tour will take you to the top of four antique Pittsburgh skyscrapers. Face coverings are required. The tours are scheduled to repeat during the Oct. 3 Doors Open annual event.