Embracing Pittsburgh's Past (with a Couple of Titles)

Two recent releases serve as guides to Pittsburgh's past and present.

A major milestone has come and gone in Pittsburgh’s history, but those of us lucky enough to be present during the city’s 250th-birthday celebration will most likely remember this time as one when residents embraced the past, looked to the future and enjoyed the outpouring of art that crept from every corner of the local community. For the last half of 2008 and the early part of 2009, if you so much as left your house, you couldn’t help come into contact with a 250 celebration and/or art installation of some sort.

We witnessed the largest fireworks display in the city’s history; the Cathedral of Learning awash in light; short films created to honor many of the city’s distinct neighborhoods; commemorative bags of potato chips; and, if you’ve been religiously reading this Arts + Leisure department (and I hope you have), a number of books produced with this historic moment in mind.

There are reasons—some more obvious than others—why anniversaries of this scale and magnitude are not everyday (or every year) occurrences; for starters, 250 years need to go by before you can celebrate their passing. However, although fireworks displays are transient moments, buildings—like books—are enduring experiences. They are permanent fixtures, always there to be enjoyed time and time again. And it is with this in mind that Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation published Whirlwind Walk: Architecture and Urban Spaces in Downtown Pittsburgh. After all, as it’s stated in the book’s introduction, “A great city is, in fact, the art-work of its people.” That’s a quote from urban designer David Lewis, and a claim Whirlwind Walk aims to prove. According to PHLF, the only way to gauge whether, after 250 years, Pittsburgh is a great city is to get out there and see it for yourself.

Complete with a fold-out map, this fully illustrated guidebook provides all of the tools necessary to take a walking tour of nearly all of the principal buildings and public spaces living within downtown Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle. Furthermore, Whirlwind Walk provides sightseers with everything they need—color photos of the buildings and structural adornments (read: gargoyles and art-deco flourishes), addresses, architects, construction dates, walking directions and contextual information—to enjoy each of the 45 tour sites. But perhaps the best bit of sightseer information is the mantra emblazed on the back cover of the book: “Look up when you walk downtown. You’ll be surprised by what you see.” It’s advice that lends itself not only to downtown but also to the numerous modern Gothic churches spotting the landscape. And it works if you’re using Albert M. Tannler’s Charles J. Connick: His Education and His Windows in and near Pittsburgh as a companion guide. Created in a similar spirit as Whirlwind Walk, this book celebrates a man considered by many to be the world’s greatest contemporary craftsman in stained glass—a person who spent 22 years living and working in Pittsburgh, learning and honing the art and craft of stained-glass-window design and fabrication.

Tannler spent more than a decade researching the architectural history of Pittsburgh’s stained glass, and the book reflects his efforts. The first half of the book serves as a retrospective on Connick’s life—his childhood, his education, his apprenticeship, his innovations—and the second half serves as a tour guide to all of Connick’s windows in Southwestern Pennsylvania—from Edgewood to Greensburg to Butler to Oakland.

Similar to what’s offered in Whirlwind, each tour stop comes complete with plenty of high-quality color photos, addresses and in-depth background information. Though some readers may be a bit overwhelmed by all of the technical information of the craft, if they’re lucky, everyone will lose himself or herself in the breathtaking work of an American master.

Whirlwind Walk: Architecture and Urban Spaces in Downtown Pittsburgh Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation;
$8.95 (Paperback)

Charles J. Connick: His Education and His Windows in and near Pittsburgh; By Albert M. Tannler, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation; $19.95 (Paperback)

Categories: Arts & Entertainment