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Downtown is a place we can all look up to

Sunday, June 01, 2003
Pittsburgh Post Gazette

The kids listened hard. When the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation tour of Downtown was over, they were of one mind. Summed up by me from the versions I heard, the majority opinion was, “I didn’t know what an important city Pittsburgh is.”

What grabbed our interest early was hearing that Abraham Lincoln had given a speech from the balcony of the Monongahela House, a hotel at Smithfield Street and Fort Pitt Boulevard. Now on the corner is a building housing United Way. For all of us, Lincoln is an important icon, one of the first individuals to dominate the imagination when we learned about him in school.

I was as impressed to hear of Lincoln’s visit as were the Winchester Thurston third-graders, on tour with their teacher, Ani Esther Rubin (of whom I am the mother). And what a good teacher she is. Eliza Nevin, a docent from the History and Landmarks Foundation, in an effort to keep us engaged, threw out questions to these boys and girls. They knew the answers.

“What river is this?”


“What does that Indian word mean?”

“Crumbling muddy banks.”

“Do you know what Mount Washington was first called?”

We didn’t.

“Coal Mountain, for the mining done there.

“What invention of Elisha G. Otis made tall buildings practical for Downtown?”


“With automatic safety devices,” Nevin added.

“Why do we plant trees in the city?”

“To clean the air.”

The children did not know what a morgue was. Except for our guide, none of us knew what a wyvern was. It’s a “grotesque,” in this case a panther’s head with a worm’s body, on a carved plaque outside the morgue or, as the city would have it, the coroner’s office, at Ross Street and Fourth Avenue.

What puzzled me about this Frederick Osterling building, its design inspired by the H.H. Richardson courthouse and jail, was how it got detached from Fifth and Grant, moved downhill, and slid into a corner at Ross and Fourth.

“Why, it got there on rails,” said Nevin.

The 8,000-ton granite building was raised 20 feet off its foundation and placed on 22 tracks of rails, then pulled to the new site by teams of horses. There are documentary photographs in the lobby. It took three months to move, and every day the folks who worked at the morgue entered the building to do business as usual.

This impressed me more than it did the children, who are Abra, Yuvie, Charlie, Jake, Lauren, Allyson, Lisa, Grace and Michael. With us, too, was Michelle Ultmann, a Pittsburgh pediatrician and the mother of Lisa, who had volunteered her time as a chaperone.

The grotesques, fantastic animal and human forms used as architectural decorations, and the gargoyles whose mouths served as spouts for water to drain off a roof, were what the children liked. Yuvie Ben-David offered that their purpose was to ward off evil spirits, and there was general agreement that, indeed, they might have had that effect.

Watching for grotesques, gargoyles and wyverns, we learned a powerful lesson. Look up. It is amazing the details you see on buildings you pass. Along Fourth Avenue, passing the Law and Finance building at 429 where I’ve walked thousands of times, Nevin pointed out the carvings of mustachioed men on the keystones above the fifth-floor windows. This lineup was chosen as decoration because in 1927 when the building opened, mustachioed men dominated law and finance.

Across Fourth and near Smithfield, we stopped to admire Dollar Bank. Brownstone was the building material chosen because it was expensive. (The Duquesne Club is brownstone for the same reason.) With sculpted lions wearing banker’s expressions and guarding the entry way, the bank sent the message that your money is safe here. Built 133 years ago, the bank, along with Trinity Cathedral, was the oldest building visited on our Downtown tour.

And so we wandered across Mellon Square, stopping to appreciate the contribution this park makes to the city. What was it? When I suggested that it covered an urban parking lot, it amused me that the children went straight to their teacher for confirmation. My daughter had their trust, and they would believe what I said when she agreed it was true. That this should be so made me proud.

Crossing Smithfield Street, our guide explained that running as it did through Devereaux Smith’s farm field, it was named Smithfield. Officially Pittsburgh is 245 years old, but the mapping of the Downtown streets was done 219 years ago.

Our last landmark would be the city’s oldest cemetery, beside Trinity Cathedral. Here we stopped at the grave of Mio-qua-coo-na-caw (Red Pole), whose monument reads “Principle Village Chief of the Shawnee Nation died at Pittsburgh the 28th of January 1797. Lamented by the United States.”

And by us as we offered our silent tribute.


Our tour was taken on a cold blustery day, and stopping for refreshments was on all our minds. The grownups wanted Starbucks, and the kids wanted Candy-Rama. Next time, I’m bringing treats.

Ma Rubin’s Peanut Butter Cookies

1 1/4 cups sifted flour

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup natural peanut butter

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 egg

1/2 cup peanuts

Sift together flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Set aside. In the large bowl of a mixer, beat butter with peanut butter. Add sugars gradually, and beat until light and fluffy. Beat in egg. Add flour mixture, beat to combine. Add peanuts, mix. Drop dough into a plastic bag and chill one hour or overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Shape dough into balls 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Place 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Flatten with tines of fork dipped in flour. Bake 15 to 25 minutes (depend on how cold the dough) or until lightly brown. Cool on wire rack. Makes about 3 dozen.

Marilyn McDevitt Rubin can be reached at or 412-263-1749.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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