See the Secrets of Hidden Pittsburgh
Join us for a peek inside Pittsburgh's hidden haunts, off-limits areas and under-the-radar opportunities.
photos by chuck beard
Calvary Episcopal Church: Tower and Spire
Anyone who has wandered through Shadyside throughout the past 108 years likely has paused to admire the tower and spire of Calvary Episcopal Church. Completed in 1907, the beautiful structure is easily among the most recognizable landmarks in the East End of Pittsburgh — and yet only a handful of individuals have seen the reverse view, surveying the neighborhoods from the landing at the base of the spire. That’s a pity.
Both the massive top room of the tower that houses the church’s bells, donated in 1907 by Henry Clay Frick, and the outdoor landing are unforgettable marvels, as is the rarely seen sight of Pittsburgh’s eastern neighborhoods from above (a view that includes Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, the Cathedral of Learning, the U.S. Steel Tower and miles of city and suburbs). It’s also a good thing few are granted access; the climb to the top involves a pair of chilling climbs up 40-foot metal ladders as well as ascents of dizzying spiral staircases.
Pittsburgh Magazine pulls back the curtain on such places — iconic slices of the city that lie in plain sight yet are strictly off-limits to the general public. From cultural institutions to historical touchstones, we’ll show you some of the most fascinating parts of the city as you’ve never seen them before. We’ll also clue you in to food, drinks and experiences exclusively for those in the know. Come on — let us show you some secrets.
Braddock Locks & Dam
In the shadow of the Edgar Thomson Steel Works and across the Monongahela River from Kennywood Park sits the Braddock Locks & Dam, a massive concrete and steel structure typically seen only by tugboat captains and recreational boaters.
“We’re kind of invisible to people,” says lockmaster Don Zeiler.
The river complex in Braddock is one of 23 locks and dams overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in its Pittsburgh District, which covers the the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers as well as the upper 127 miles of the Ohio. Without the locks and dams, the region’s naturally shallow waterways could drop to less than a foot of water during the summer months and wouldn’t be viable for year-round transportation.
“Today, we couldn’t support the infrastructure and the number of people who live in these regions without the locks and dams,” Zeiler says. “These are a necessity.” Because the flow of business and the laden river barges never stop, the Braddock facility is staffed around the clock, seven days a week. On any shift, two lock operators open and close the massive gates, tie up the boats once they’re in the lock chamber, log in the boat traffic and check the weather. Behind the scenes, mechanics take care of the heavy hydraulics, generators and other machinery. They even do their own concrete and welding work.
Pittsburgh Playhouse: Restaurant
Based on pop-culture depictions, it’s widely believed that old theaters contain ghosts and trap doors. The basement of Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse, on the other hand, holds what once was one of the city’s ritziest restaurants, at one time called The Stage Door.
Today original chandeliers, hand-etched wall sketches and dining chairs remain in the former waiting area. The still-functional fountain is there as well but blocked off. An old telephone has been removed, but decades-old sports bets still are penciled onto the white wall.
For the most part, everything else looks different: Assorted stage apparel is hung in a meat locker-turned-closet. A slightly offbeat collection of radios is stacked high on the floor and on book shelves in what staffers believe to be a former office. In the Lillian Russell room, previously used for banquets, an original mural has been painted over. Boxes of shoes and fabric sit in yet another office. Stagehands, staffers and students descend the steps to find and place mirrors, tables and other items in this tucked-away place filled with historical significance where some visitors have reported being spooked by strange noises.
A more practical fear may grip those who venture into the domed ceiling of the Playhouse’s Rockwell Theater, the largest of its three venues. To change lights in the dome, assistant master electrician Mark Bailey and master electrician Jeff Sherman must head up the steps into the balcony seating, open the wooden door posted to the wall and climb into the attic-like space. There, they must walk along the wooden pegs to safely get to the lights. It might cause panic in those with a fear of heights, but the view from the dome ceiling is tops.
PNC Park: Scoreboard Control Room
The Pittsburgh Pirates are taking the field, and the danceable beat of Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” is filling PNC Park. Inside the scoreboard control room, located above the word “Champions” in the World Series pennant collection at the top of the 300 level, the staff is demonstrating much better rhythm than many of the fans.
As public address announcer Tim DeBacco lists off the Bucs’ starting lineup, Marty Corbett signals with a flick of the wrist to Heidi Narr, who ensures that each player’s name appears on the long fascia boards in perfect time with the music. Narr commands a bevy of ready-made graphics; every big play has a premade image ready to fire, no matter how remote a possibility it may be. (You may not think that closer Mark Melancon will ever leg out a triple, for example, but they’ve got a graphic ready to go just in case.)
More than 25 people work here on game night, including a full TV production crew controlling the video feed that plays on the scoreboard and monitors throughout the park (although they use Root Sports’ footage for replay angles and post-game interviews). Other staffers update stats, operate instant-replay equipment, transcribe stadium announcements for the hearing-impaired, feed Twitter and Instagram posts onto the scoreboards and perform other tasks to enhance the game-day experience for Pirates fans.
The Benedum Center: Backstage
At the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts, you’ll see singers and dancers. Thespians and musicians. World-class traveling companies performing Broadway shows with all the lights, costumes and sets of the original. What you don’t see is what goes on behind the scenes, what Jacob Bacharach, Operations Manager, Benedum Center, calls “an intricate ballet.”
The area behind the Benedum’s curtain is nine stories high and 80 by 140 feet. Only about one-third of the total space is seen by the audience. As many as 60-70 people work there during a larger show, such as a production of “The Lion King” or “Wicked,” to move sets, adjust lighting and manage props. For a “simple” concert, six to eight people run the show backstage.
Above the stage are two main working areas: the “fly floor,” about 35 feet above the stage, and the “grid,” about 80 feet up. A “fly system” — the ropes and rigging that lift flats, backdrops and curtains — runs from below the stage to the grid (a literal steel grid floor). Each of the 95 lines in the fly system can hold up to 1,500 pounds. On the fly floor is a kitchen area, as well as couches, televisions and exercise equipment for the crew to use during downtime on long shows, such as operas, with few set changes.
"I always say the backstage work before and after a show is the most interesting [aspect of what] goes on,” Bacharach says.
Andy Warhol Museum: Conservation Lab
In 2009, Andy Warhol’s painting “200 One Dollar Bills” sold at Sotheby’s for $43.7 million. For reasons both artistic and financial, the careful repairs and upkeep performed on the pop artist’s works in the Warhol’s Conservation Lab are very, very precise.
"It’s more maintenance” as of late, says Christine Daulton, the museum’s paintings conservator. “Acrylics are much more sensitive [to certain types of damage] than, say, oil paintings … you have to test a lot of different things to see what is going to work.”
Using powerful microscopes, Daulton can determine if a tiny spot on a work is a loss — such as a bit of paint that has flaked away — or an original feature of the work. If paint is missing, she can use specialized equipment to fill the spot without otherwise affecting the piece. Most paintings that make their way to the conservation lab are being repaired, cleaned or re-stretched to fit precisely on a stretcher frame.
So is the pressure on when she’s dealing with such treasures? Daulton says yes, but not because of Sotheby’s.
"I don’t like to think about monetary value; to me, they’re all intrinsically valuable, whether they cost a dollar or they cost $5 million. I think if you focus too much on that, you really can’t do justice to the work.”
The room, built in what was once the Warhol’s café and opened in March, has one glass wall that faces a public area — so unlike most of the spaces on this list, you actually can peer inside when you visit the museum.
Pittsburgh Steelers Equipment Rooms
One of the unintended consequences of professional football: laundry. Lots of it. The task of ensuring that the Pittsburgh Steelers have clean jerseys — not to mention properly fitted helmets, shoes, gloves and everything else — falls to the football equipment staff at the Steelers’ practice facility in the South Side.
Equipment Manager Rodgers Freyvogel, Field Manager and Assistant Equipment Manager Patrick Noone and Equipment/Field Assistant Adam Regan typically work 12-plus hour days on tasks as big as pushing a team’s worth of towels through the wash and as small as stitching nameplates on throwback jerseys.
"I get in at 4 [a.m.] … It’s a little bit of everything,” says Freyvogel, who has been on the job for 36 years.
Players are brought into the equipment area soon after joining the Steelers and offered choices on helmet style, chinstrap variety, facemask preference and innumerable other fine details.
“We have shoulder pads for days,” says Noone.
Nameplates from years of former players line the wall around the laundry area. Boxes of custom shoes — most in sizes larger than you’d find at any department store — fill shelves nearly 20 feet high, and countless varieties of gloves are piled around another corner. As important as proper cleats and pads are to readying the Steelers for battle — not to mention the job of preparing the balls themselves — the simplest tasks may be the most vital.
“Laundry never stops,” says Noone.
Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History: Roof
Behind locked doors and up a labyrinth of stairs (some so steep you should climb down them backwards) is the foundation for one of the Carnegie museums’ two glass cupolas that adorn the roof of the structures. One cupola rises above the museum’s Hall of Architecture, with a glass-paned floor that sits 68 feet above the exhibit.
“It’s a bright gallery down there, and this is how it’s achieved,” says museums spokesman Jonathan Gaugler.
In addition, the space serves as part of the heating and ventilation system — hot air from below is pumped to this room, circulated and blown outside. The space also is the pathway for workers to access the roof, which they need to do occasionally for cleaning or repairing panes of glass.
Carnegie Steel beams hold up the glass roof. “Every piece of steel in this building is stamped with Carnegie somewhere,” says museums Vice President of Facilities Tony Young.
Although its uses are mostly functional, the room did once come to the aid of an exhibit. In 2014, artist Sebastian Errazuriz’s “Look Again” featured a piano suspended above viewers’ heads inside the Hall of Architecture as a sort of meditation on the fragility of life.
"We were able to use those massive steel beams in the structure of the pyramid to suspend a piano,” says Gaugler.
photo by richard cook
WQED: Rick Sebak’s Office
Rick Sebak’s office mirrors the man: It’s packed with history and nostalgia. Shelves run the entire length of his office, straining under the weight of books, mementos, sketches, statues and just plain stuff about Pittsburgh — and a lot of other places. Think library or a small museum, although not nearly as organized, although Sebak would beg to differ.
“I know where everything is,” he insists. “Look at this,” he says, as he plucks a bottle off of an over-stuffed shelf. “It’s a bottle of Blenheim ginger ale from South Carolina, part of my first field story that was actually shot on film, not video.”
It’s hard not to collect a massive amount of artifacts from 30-plus years of producing memorable documentaries; it is hard to cram all of it into one relatively small office in the corner of the ground floor of WQED-TV in Oakland. That’s OK with the television host.
“I can’t complain about the space I have because I think I have more space than anybody at WQED,” he says. Sebak admits he finds it very hard to throw away anything. “I treasure all of this stuff because it’s valuable, I know it is,” he chuckles.
photo by richard cook
Pittsburgh International Airport: Garage
A hangar-like garage near the end of a runway at Pittsburgh International Airport is home to an award-winning snow-removal operation. You read that right: The men and women who keep the runways clear of snow and ice at Pittsburgh International Airport have received multiple awards from the Northeast chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives.
A first-rate operation deserves a first-rate place to stow its gear — in this case, 110 trucks and other equipment mounted with brushes, plows and snowblowers. The garage is longer than a football field, taller than a two-story building and wider than the distance from home plate to first base at PNC Park. It keeps the airport’s $18 million fleet of snow-removal equipment warm, dry and (most important) ready to go when needed.
Awards? A massive heated garage? Perhaps it sounds like overkill for a simple snow-clearing operation. Then again, when you are sitting inside a Boeing 737 making its way back to earth in the dark of night, at well over 100 miles an hour, in a snowstorm, it’s nice to know the folks who clear your landing path know what they're doing.
Cathedral of Learning Nationality Rooms: Early American Room
It’s the only one of 30 Nationality Rooms that was presented to the University of Pittsburgh rather than dedicated (it was the gift of one person rather than an ethnic group). It’s the only room that contains two stories. It’s one of two rooms that typically is closed to the public and accessed only during tours. It’s also the only one that, rumor has it, is haunted.
The Early American Room in the university’s Cathedral of Learning was a gift from George Hubbard Clapp, a University of Pittsburgh Trustee. E. Maxine Bruhns, who has directed the Nationality Rooms and Intercultural Exchange Programs for 50 years, says her grandmother — Martha Jane Poe McDaniel, a second cousin of Edgar Allan Poe — haunts the site.
"We hold a ghost watch here every Halloween,” Bruhns says.
The room’s kitchen/living area depicts life in America during the 1600s and includes a 9-foot-wide fireplace. Upstairs, above a dogleg staircase accessed by pressing a hidden lever inside a closet, is a bedroom holding many items that belonged to Bruhns or members of her family.
She says Theodore Bowman, a University architect and nephew of Chancellor John Gabbert Bowman — who originated the concept for the Nationality Rooms — brought back the idea of having a secret room after visiting the House of Seven Gables in Massachusetts.
Signs of her grandmother’s haunting have included the cradle abruptly beginning to rock, the pillow being mussed on the bed that holds her grandmother’s quilt and the cracks appearing in the glass in the picture frame that holds her grandmother’s portrait. “The fact that her quilt is here and I’m here. . . she just decided to come along,” Bruhns says.
photo by mark simpson
Cathedral of Learning: 32nd-Floor Roof
On Oct. 13, 1960, University of Pittsburgh student Woody Turner was hitting the books in the school library. He also was very aware that Game 7 of the World Series was underway at Forbes Field, just a line drive away. He jumped in an elevator inside the Cathedral of Learning aiming to get to a spot high enough to see the action, eventually wandering to a roof off of the 32nd floor.
“I’m quite sure no one was supposed to be out there,” he says. “And today, I’m sure authorities would prevent anyone from going out there — to watch a ballgame or anything else. But on Oct. 13, 1960, I suppose the authorities were somewhere watching the game.”
photo by George silk/the life picture collection/getty images
Unknowingly, he found himself in the middle of a scene now ranked as one of the best sports photographs of all time. A photographer on the roof sent to cover the game captured the young students cheering as Bill Mazeroski sent a game-winning home run over the park wall, and the shot ended up in LIFE Magazine.
Turner didn’t know the photo had been taken until he spotted it about 35 years later while jogging in a gym.
“For a sports photograph, you can hardly see the athletes, if at all,” says Turner, now an attorney at K&L Gates. “I still don’t quite appreciate what everyone is so excited about.”
Today, the roof is accessible only through a locked window inside the offices of the university departments of Financial Information Systems and Business Solutions. The roof itself has undergone renovation in recent years, and the floor is lower than it was in 1960; you now have to stretch quite a bit to see over the edge onto the former site of Forbes Field. The spot still represents Pittsburgh sports pride: It’s the home to a set of “victory lights” that project a gold glow onto the Cathedral after a football victory or other major athletic accomplishment by the Pittsburgh Panthers.
Photo by richard cook
Nemacolin Woodlands Resort: Mystic Rock Golf Course Locker Room
The locker rooms at the Mystic Rock golf course at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort are open to anyone. With its triple-digit greens fees, though, the course in Fayette County likely is not a regular stop for most of us hackers. That said, should you decide to test your handicap on this scenic and challenging course, make sure to ease your pain afterwards in the sumptuous locker rooms — you may never want to leave.
Professional golfer Vijay Singh, who’s seen a lot of locker rooms in his time, told Nemacolin staff that Mystic Rock offered “the greatest clubhouse in America” after winning the 84 Lumber Classic there in 2004.
How many locker rooms have a pool table, several flat-screen televisions and multiple seating areas to accommodate a game of cards, chess or a gourmet-prepared meal — or simply a round of drinks while mourning the state of your scorecard? Then there are the showers, which feature a waterfall spout and various pulsating jets. They are so popular that hotel guests will travel to the clubhouse — located two miles from the Chateau Lafayette, where most guests stay — just to enjoy the massage-like experience.
There’s a bit of history here, too: Autographed pictures of famous golfers who’ve played the course adorn the wall, and just inside the entrance is PGA big hitter John Daly’s autographed golf bag — Nemacolin founder Joe Hardy sponsored Daly during his early days on the tour. The management tells us the women’s locker room is equally luxurious. Nemacolin Owner & President Maggie Hardy Magerko stores her golf bag there, so we’re inclined to take their word for it.
Sen. John Heinz History Center: Museum Conservation Center
At any given time, only about 15 percent of the Sen. John Heinz History Center’s collection is on public display. The rest is held in the Museum Conservation Center, a nine-floor, LEED Gold-certified facility that opened in September 2014 and already is nearly filled with the other 85 percent of the museum’s treasures.
Most of the floors the History Center occupies — a few are rented out to other cultural institutions — contain smaller items, but the third floor of the conservation center contains rows of furniture and other large items no less fascinating and significant than any you’ll find behind glass on display.
Head down one row, and you’ll find a couch from the set of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Look around another corner to see lockers and skate-sharpening equipment rescued from the demolished Civic Arena. A mirror looming on a high shelf once reflected the face of former President Abraham Lincoln; it’s part of the bedroom set from the presidential suite at the former Monongahela House hotel, which hosted Lincoln, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and more luminaries (and also served as a stop on the Underground Railroad).
Near the mirror is an unlikely getaway vehicle: The horse-drawn sleigh used by notorious criminals Jack and Ed Biddle during their daring 1902 escape from the Allegheny County Jail. And the cell doors from that jail lie, dismantled, around another corner. While you can’t poke around the Conservation Center, a planned “Visible Storage” area, set to open in 2016, will offer visitors a peek at what’s hidden away. “It’ll give you a sense of what’s behind the scenes,” says Brady Smith, the History Center’s senior communications manager.
photo by richard cook
Pittsburgh International Airport: Air Traffic Control Tower
An elevator is the preferred way to the top of the Air Traffic Control Tower at Pittsburgh International Airport. At more than 20 stories tall, the tower discourages most people from taking the stairs.
Surrounded by massive, cantilevered windows, the control room is a plane-spotter’s paradise. Nearly every inch of runway, ramp and service road is visible. Unless you are airborne, the tower also is the only place where you can view all of the X-shaped airside terminal.
This hub of air traffic isn’t particularly noisy; using headset microphones, controllers instruct arriving and departing pilots in staccato-short bursts of aviation jargon mixed with current weather conditions. Aside from that, the only other noise comes from the muffled whine of jet engines in various stages of taxi, takeoff or landing.
So how far can you see? Even on hazy days, several of Pittsburgh’s skyscrapers are visible rising above Mount Washington. On clear nights, controllers can see the landing lights of incoming planes first rise above the horizon — following the curvature of the earth — before slowly descending to the runway. A room with a view, indeed.
Iron Mountain Storage FacilIty
Harry Potter and his cohorts relied on Gringotts Bank — operated by goblins and protected by a dragon — to keep all of their wizarding treasures safe. Here in the Muggle realm, there’s the non-magical but equally well-guarded Iron Mountain storage center in Butler County.
Located inside a cavernous former limestone mine in rural Boyers, the underground, climate-controlled, 1.9 million square-foot facility houses some of the world’s most valuable information, including data centers, government archives — and notably, the Bill Gates-owned Corbis Image Collection. Hollywood’s major motion-picture studios also send original film reels to the facility — away from the threat of California’s earthquakes and wildfires — for safekeeping.
Iron Mountain also boasts an underground lake fed by a natural spring that is used for cooling the data centers, as well as drinking water for its 2,200 employees. The facility also supplies its own fire trucks, should flames ever break out. There’s also a high-tech studio for digitizing and editing media. While we’re not allowed to spill the beans on what all is stored there (Iron Mountain keeps its customers’ information confidential), we can reveal that the facility’s locked, numbered vaults contain original films from a bevy of blockbuster and classic movies, as well as sound recordings from some of the biggest names in the music industry.
Kennywood Park: Archive
Ghostwood Estate isn’t one of Kennywood Park’s oldest attractions, but relics from the park’s distant history can be found above the ride. Since the haunted house was installed in 2008, staffers have stored prized videos, books, letters and memorabilia from multiple eras in a nondescript room above Ghostwood.
Along with the park’s plush warehouse (where thousands of stuffed-animal prizes are kept), the archive is among the many places in the park you can’t visit. If you could, though, you’d find previously used Kenny Kangaroo costumes, smiley height-requirement characters, promos on VHS tapes and decades-old picnic photographs.
Shelves are lined with encyclopedia-size books containing correspondences from the early-20th century and brown paper-wrapped documents sorted by year. Director of Community Relations Andy Quinn, a descendant of Kennywood owners, says his great-uncle may have helped to carve the former Noah’s Ark ride’s original gorilla, now stored in the archive.
The archive may not be heavily trafficked, but when folks do visit, they can make discoveries: writer Dave Hahner, while working on a book about Kennywood, learned through his research that the Jack Rabbit roller coaster opened one year prior to the year the park had recorded. Though there’s talk of potentially relocating the archive to a climate-controlled space at the history center, in the meantime Kennywood staffers plan to continue visiting it when searching for a throwback poster or photograph.
The ScareHouse: Behind the Scenes
Within the carefully curated path that winds through The ScareHouse, Etna’s Halloween destination, you’ll be surprised, spooked and terrorized by a well-trained crew of performers.
Beyond the walls of the sets, things get even creepier. The building, which turned 100 years old this year, served as an Elks’ Lodge for more than 70 years; during that time, a multistory stage overlooked a sprawling dance floor that today serves as the ScareHouse’s main floor. Remnants of the room’s former life still can be found via winding staircases and hidden passageways that lead to narrow rooms and out-of-the-way corridors — many of which are filled today with disused props, costumes and all manner of ghoulish paraphernalia. Add to that aging machinery and fixtures of unknown provenance — in response to a question about the function of a mysterious set of circuit breakers, ScareHouse creative director Scott Simmons could reply only, “I don’t know. I try to avoid them,” — and you have a whole different brand of fear.
Oh yeah — and the staff has reported real-world paranormal activity behind the scenes. One ScareHouse staffer swears he has heard and felt someone running full-speed at him from behind, only to turn and find he was alone. In other words, when you buy a ticket to the ScareHouse, not all of the eerie moments you experience may be created by human hands.
Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens: Production Greenhouse
Tucked off of the main path at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens sits the production greenhouse, where the staff makes a global array of plants grow.
In 2006, Phipps built the 36,000-square-foot greenhouse on land that previously served as a parking lot; this goes hand in hand with efforts to use all space efficiently. Katie Werner, production foreman, says this is where she and her colleagues produce “any plant material that the campus will need.” This may include fresh additions for seasonal exhibits — orchids, mums, ferns — and potential substitutes for struggling, on-view plants.
Inside the greenhouse, which itself contains multiple areas with different temperature and humidity requirements, the production team works months ahead to prepare for shows. They will propagate, or start, plants and care for ones they purchase (most tropical plants, for example, come from nurseries in Florida). The team also works with contractors who grow certain plants, including poinsettias and spring bulbs. Fans, mist systems and shades are among the items that may be used as part of the growth process. Team members hand-water nearly all plants, and they manually clip select plants. The bees pollinating flowers may be busy, but so are staffers who work to ensure the upkeep of exhibit pieces, supplemental plants and crops for the on-site cafe.
photo by richard cook
Nemacolin Woodlands Resort: Lautrec Restaurant Kitchen
When it comes to bragging rights among restaurants, two of the most accepted barometers are AAA’s five-diamond and Forbes Travel Guide’s five-star rankings. Just 25 restaurants in the world hold both and one them is Lautrec at the Nemacolin Woodlands resort in Fayette County.
What makes this restaurant even more unique is the chef de cuisine, Kristin Butterworth, is the only woman in world to run such an elite kitchen.
Not surprisingly, this kitchen is huge, organized, and spotless. Stacks of gleaming dishes sit under red domed lights. Each dish is polished. Each tablecloth is ironed. Each wine glass sparkles. Behind the counter, a sous chef chops roasted eggplant with a surgical-like precision, before clearing his cutting board of the tiniest of crumbs.
Butterworth says that kind of attention to detail, combined with ingredients such as produce from as close as a nearby farm to daily homemade pasta to butter imported from France, sets Lautrec apart.
“From the front of the house to the back of the house it is about the time and the detail that goes into everything. Not skipping steps,” she says. “Everything that comes into this kitchen is prepared and handled exactly the way it should be.”
Such a dining experience doesn’t come cheap. A meal from the basic menu with wine pairings is $200 per person, before tax and tip. Certainly a first-class experience that Butterworth says rivals any other restaurant in the world.
“I think what we do here is unique, we’re not in downtown Chicago, we’re not in downtown New York City, we’re in Farmington,” she says. “It’s pretty awesome to be held as one of the top 25 restaurants in the world and to be doing it as kinda the underdog.”
photo by chad cadji
Under the Radar Culture
Some say it's all in who you know. In this case, it's what you know. Open the door to these unlisted cultural and experiential opportunities.
The VIP rooms inside Phoenix Big Cinemas’ North Versailles Stadium 18 [phoenixtheatres.com] afford a chance to enjoy a low-key outing in VIP fashion. View the flick from the comfort of your private, in-theater room, and high-five your companions for having the place to yourself. Note that the fee — a few hundred dollars on average — covers refreshments and service for your crew. Phoenix's Bridgeville location is also home to one VIP room.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater [fallingwater.org] in Mill Run is a must-see attraction. Though the tours themselves supply enough information and amusement, the Pottery Terrace is an added bonus. Request to see this newly restored garden during your next tour.
Bayardstown Social Club [bayardstown.com] has a ’Burghy backstory: Staffers at Deeplocal, the innovation studio in the Strip District, turned a barren nearby lot into a DIY-chic gathering place. To get in, one must hold a key; it will provide access to the fire pit as well as the right to hang out under the mini shelter and enjoy any of the BYO foods (either provided potluck-style by members or purchased from the occasional mobile vendor). Memberships range in price from $40-$80; $5 day passes are also available.
La Hütte Royal [lahuetteroyal.com] sits high on Troy Hill, near the second (soon-to-open) art house commissioned by art collector Evan Mirapaul. Be sure to make time to see this by-appointment-only cultural entity.
Immersive and interactive forms of theater have become a focal point in the arts scene. Groups such as Devious Maid [deviousmaid.org] and Uncumber Theatrics [uncumbertheatrics.com] have teamed up to present shows and events that may fly under the radar (and often sell out quickly), with well-outside-the-box concepts.
Would you blindly go into a concert trusting that you’ll enjoy its contents? Sofar Sounds [sofarsounds.com/pittsburgh] (pictured) is hoping you will. Pittsburgh is one of about 180 cities to become a home for the intimate shows starring mystery performers in small, unconventional venues. Sign up on the website to remain in the loop about upcoming shows. It’s that simple.
When you don’t want the party to stop, head to downtown Pittsburgh’s members-only club, Tilden [facebook.com/tildenclub]. In the second-floor space on Liberty Avenue, the party starts at 11 p.m. and rolls on till at least 2 a.m., seven days a week. A mix of house, DJ-spun and electronic dance music keeps the beat moving.
photo by heather mull
Off-Menu Food & Drinks
The last thing any diner or bar patron wants? Looking like a newbie. Order off-menu with confidence, using this advice.
Hungry for something new? Head to ethnic eateries including Chengdu Gourmet [chengdugourmetpittsburgh.com] (pictured) in Squirrel Hill, China Star [chinastar-pgh.com] in Ross Township and Ka Mei in Squirrel Hill. All have authentic Chinese menus, perfect for those who’d rather not eat an Americanized plate of sticky General Tso’s chicken. The real-deal offerings contain ingredients less frequently seen in simple preparations: hand-pulled cabbage, spicy beef in flaming pan, or duck with ginger. Improve your experience by asking the server or chef to recommend something that’s not commonly seen in regional restaurants; don’t be afraid to expand your palate.
Craving something simple? If you head to a favorite restaurant, particularly one that often works with larger amounts of seasonal goods, you may be able to sweet-talk the kitchen staff into making something off-menu if it involves using a surplus of ingredients with an impending shelf life.
Mobile vendors also have gotten in on the off-menu game. Food trucks such as Waffler [twitter.com/wafflertruck] have promoted special offerings on Twitter; this is an advantage of following your favorite vendors on social media.
Sitting down at the bar ordering from a menu is fine. But at a place such as downtown’s Meat & Potatoes [meatandpotatoespgh.com], which existed before some other now-popular drink hotspots, it’s common to see master mixers working with egg whites, grapefruit juice and other once-unconventional ingredients that now are part of many bartenders’ repertoire. That means that this place is one of many drink destinations where you can ask bartenders to make something to your liking and they’ll almost certainly have the ingredients and expertise to do it.
Tender Bar + Kitchen [tenderpgh.com] in Lawrenceville is another stellar place for custom drinks; although there is a drink menu, you likely will covet your neighbor’s off-menu drink when you see the bartender pass it her way. Craig Mrusek, who has been there since the swanky spot opened in 2013, offers a tip that will help him to make the optimum drink for you: Tell Mrusek what kinds of base spirits you like, how much you want to taste the alcohol and what kind of flavor you seek — tart, bitter, etc. “That opens up the dialogue,” he says.
What doesn’t help bartenders: asking them what they’d recommend. At Butterjoint [thebutterjoint.com] in Oakland, regulars know they can order the “Mercy of the Bartender,” known elsewhere as “Dealer’s Choice.” Bartender Tim McCarthy says he and his fellow staffers communicate about cocktails they’ve made for folks who order multiple special drinks per visit; his preference is to keep it simple. Robes reminds you there’s a difference between “fruity” and “refreshing;” he says he may hear a request for a fruity drink, when the patron really wants a light thirst-quencher.
Finally, a bonus bit of secret grub that’s developing a cult following: Baron Batch, football player turned art figure, occasionally whips up batches of his Angry Man Salsa [facebook.com/angrymansalsa] for online sale. He usually posts about the release weeks in advance.
photo by chuck beard
We asked a trio of history-focused locals to weigh in with a few of their favorite bits of hidden Pittsburgh.
Timothy Murray and Michelle Smith
- Chapel, former Allegheny County Morgue, downtown:
It now houses staff of the Allegheny County Health Department, but when it served as the morgue, unidentified bodies were on public display there, waiting to be claimed by loved ones. Visiting the building once was a popular Pittsburgh tradition for young men to take their prom dates to gawk at the bodies as a morbid way of capping off their big night. The gruesome tradition ended in 1964.
- Observation Deck, Gulf Tower, downtown:
The iconic skyscraper on Seventh Avenue — former home to Gulf Oil and the tallest building in town for decades — still announces the weather on its pyramid dome via colored lights. It also formerly had a public observation deck on its 38th floor. The deck closed to the public in 1970 due to security concerns. Too bad: the view west looks straight into PNC Park.
- Henry Clay Frick’s Shower,19th floor, Frick Building, downtown:
Steel magnate Frick had his office — and an over-the-top shower — on the 19th floor of the building he constructed downtown in 1902. The shower was a technological marvel for the time since pumping water that far posed severe challenges. The shower’s multiple spigots and sprays — water would even squirt up from underneath — resembled something designed by Doc Brown from “Back to the Future.” It’s in a private office, off-limits to the public.
The Odd, Mysterious and Fascinating History of Pittsburgh
- Abandoned Catacombs, St. Patrick Church, Strip District:
Below the famous, 28-step “Holy Stairs,” in a now-abandoned location 40 feet below street level, St. Patrick housed an exact replica of the catacombs of Rome. These catacombs, lit by two incandescent globes, contained a pathway through a dark labyrinth that stretches for more than 100 yards. After a devastating fire in 1935, the catacombs were said to have been destroyed.
- Forgotten Cemeteries, Point State Park, downtown:
One important — and overlooked — fact in Pittsburgh’s history: Not only were people born at Fort Duquesne, but many also died from natural causes there as well. This led the French to conceive three separate cemeteries, one for the sick and diseased, one for families and one for infants. More than 200 people still are buried somewhere within what is now Point State Park.
- Left Altar, former St. Joseph Church, Bloomfield:
The church on Liberty Avenue — part of St. Maria Goretti Parish — has a sculpture of Jesus in the tomb in the base of the altar. It’s an unusual depiction of Christ between the crucifixion and resurrection, usually opened to the congregation only on Good Friday and Holy Saturday of each year. We shot it for my 1989 documentary “Holy Pittsburgh!” but never used the footage.
- Control Room, former Shippingport Atomic Power Station: The old control room and the wall with all of the gauges and controls at Shippingport are still there (and there’s a Pittsburgh potty behind the wall.) We got to tour the original building at the world’s first commercial nuclear power plant in Beaver County when we put together the program called “Invented, Engineered and Pioneered in Pittsburgh,” and the sensible mid-century technology design is still impressive.
- Benedum Mausoleum, Homewood Cemetery:
This mausoleum (pictured) has accommodations for an electric heater as well as a telephone jack. Sadly, neither were for the comfort or convenience of the dearly departed; an underground electric line allowed a heater to be put inside the marble structure when condensation became a problem, and the telephone land-line was to save the maintenance crews from going back and forth if there was a problem at that distant edge of the cemetery. Perhaps now it might be smart for some of us to be buried with our cell phones, as well as rosary beads.