The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation is pleased to support Jonnet Solomon, executive director of the National Opera House, to restore the Queen Anne-style house in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, which once housed the National Negro Opera Company, considered to have been the first African American opera ensemble in the United States.
“We have a great partnership with PHLF, which has been essential in understanding the scale of the restoration effort we are undertaking,” Ms. Solomon said. “I have been working on this house for more than 20 years and I am pleased to have the support of PHLF, not only on advocacy but in understanding the feasibility of restoration and how to execute a fundraising plan.”
In 2008, our organization supported the house’s designation as a City Historic Landmark. In addition to offering public support for the National Opera House, we have been working to conceptualize new ideas that would move forward the restoration of the house at 7101 Apple Street.
“PHLF has taken the lead and is underwriting the cost of the civil engineering work for the site, which entails the restoration of two historic stone walls that support the structure of the house, and also includes stormwater and erosion mitigation, and landscaping of the steep hillside on which the house is located,” said PHLF President Michael Sriprasert.
“Through this partnership, we have a great opportunity to restore this important house,” said Mr. Sriprasert. “We hope that this historic preservation effort will help create and leverage more funding opportunities for community renewal in this part of our city.”
Built in 1894, the house is a landmark in American history, and not only reflects the complicated history of race in this country, but also the aspirations of African Americans who dreamed of developing and pursuing their love of music, opera, and the performing arts, in this house seated on a hill in Homewood, in Pittsburgh’s East End.
In 1930, the house was purchased by William “Woogie” Harris, Pittsburgh’s first black millionaire and brother to famous photographer Teenie Harris. As the Harris’ family home, the house hosted some of the most famous personalities of African American society, arts, sports, and culture. During a period of discriminatory housing, lodging laws, and practices, the house provided a safe place, community, and accommodations to African American artists and athletes.
The National Negro Opera Company, organized under the direction of Mary Cardwell Dawson, rented the third floor of the house, using it as offices and rehearsal space. The company lasted from 1941 to 1962 and saw productions launched in Homewood and performed in Washington D.C., Chicago, and New York, among other places.
Because of its significance, the house received a historical marker from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1994 and it is included in African American Historic Sites Survey of Allegheny County, published by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 1994, and in A Legacy in Bricks and Mortar: African-American Landmarks in Allegheny County, published by our organization in 1995.
Our organization is currently designing an oral history and education program about the significance of the house as a part of Pittsburgh and American history named, A Legacy in Stone: Homewood’s National Negro Opera House and the Confluence of Pittsburgh’s African American Culture.
This project, which is funded through a grant from the African American Civil Rights Grant Program through the Historic Preservation Fund administered by the National Park Service, will also include our nomination of the house for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
Albert ‘Al’ Tannler, an architectural historian and author of significant books on the history and architectural heritage of Pittsburgh, died at St. Clair Hospital on February 24. He was 81.
A consummate researcher, editor, and archivist, Al was the director of the historical collections for the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation for 28 years, overseeing two libraries in addition to his scholarly interests.
For many years, he profiled more than 120 architects whose work defined the architectural landscape of our city and region through his writing, lectures, and specialized tours. He joined our organization in 1991and retired in 2019.
In that time, he authored and co-authored books, guidebooks, pamphlets, and many essays on various aspects of the built environment. His articles appeared regularly in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s Focus section from 1994 to 2004.
His Pittsburgh Architecture in the Twentieth Century: Notable Modern Buildings and Their Architects, was published by PHLF in 2013, and is the first guidebook devoted solely to the twentieth-century buildings in the Pittsburgh area.
Al was also the author of Charles J. Connick: His Education and His Windows in and near Pittsburgh, which he wrote after more than a decade of research into architectural glass and the discovery that buildings in Pittsburgh had some of the most inspired glass to be found anywhere. Published by PHLF, the book was selected by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette selected one of the best books of 2008.
Al was incredibly fascinated by the lives and stories of the architects and their clients, who built America, and the significance of their work in establishing an aesthetic that continues to define and impact how we appreciate the built environment. He established meaningful connections with architectural scholars and organizations in Pittsburgh, throughout the United States, and overseas.
In a tribute to Al upon his retirement, Peter Cormack, the distinguished British author, and expert on stained glass noted that Al’s “meticulous research, always so liberally shared with others,” and his devotion to the built heritage, truly made him “Pittsburgh’s priceless Civic Treasure.”
Al also authored a guidebook on H.H. Richardson’s Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail, published by PHLF in 2016, and he served as a co-editor of several other architectural guidebooks and publications.
In addition to his scholarly work, Al distinguished himself as a tour guide who relished the prospect of helping visitors appreciate the exceptional quality of Pittsburgh’s historic built environment. Over the years, he gave tours for assorted groups and organizations including the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Heinz Architectural Center, Friends of the Gamble House, the American Museum and Gardens in Britain, and the Society of Architectural Historians, Chicago Chapter, among many others.
A native of northeastern Pennsylvania, Al received Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Divinity degrees at Franklin & Marshall College (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) and the University of Chicago, respectively.
He lived in Chicago for more than 25 years, working as an archive research specialist for the University of Chicago Library and as a proposal coordinator in the marketing department of Sargent & Lundy, an architecture and engineering services firm, before moving to Pittsburgh in 1991.
Al’s extensive work in documenting our region’s architectural heritage will be accessible to the public through our organization’s James D. Van Trump Library, where we are in the process of creating the Albert M. Tannler Collection.
Our organization is establishing the Al Tannler Memorial Fund to underwrite various preservation efforts in memory of him. Click here to donate to this fund. Mark your contribution in memory of Al Tannler.
You may also send a check to PHLF marked in memory of Al or contact Karamagi Rujumba: email@example.com or 412-471-5808 ext. 547 for more information on ways to support this fund.
The Historic Religious Properties Grant Program of PHLF has awarded a total of $154,604 in matching grants to 17 congregations in Allegheny County as part of its 2022 funding cycle.
The monies, which will leverage over $2.3 million raised by the congregations, will be used to fund restoration, renovation, and maintenance projects on the historic structures utilized by religious organizations. The work ranges from cornice repair to masonry, roof, wooden doors, stained glass, and stone masonry repairs, among other needs.
PHLF is the only nonprofit organization in Allegheny County offering a continuing program of financial and technical assistance to historic religious property owners. Since 1997, we have awarded more than 270 such grants totaling more than $1.5 million and provided more than 60 technical assistance consultations.
Our effort is made possible through individual donations, private foundations, and our Donor Advised Funds. For more information about this program, contact David Farkas: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-471-5808 ext. 516.
$10,000– Beth Shalom Congregation, Squirrel Hill—Cornice repair
$10,000– Church of The Ascension, Shadyside— Stained glass window repairs
$10,000– First Baptist Church of Pittsburgh, Oakland– Repointing & slate roof repairs
$10,000– First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Downtown–– Exterior wood door repairs & repointing
$10,000– First Presbyterian Church, Downtown–– Exterior wood door repairs
$10,000– Good Samaritan Baptist Church, Hill District–– Roof replacement
$10,000– Homestead United Presbyterian, Homestead– Masonry repairs
$5,000– Natrona Heights Presbyterian Church, Natrona Heights, PA– Slate roof repairs
$10,000– Shepherd’s Heart Fellowship, Uptown– Repoint exterior
$10,000– Sixth Presbyterian Church, Squirrel Hill– Stained glass window repairs
$10,000– St. Nicholas Croatian Church, Millvale, PA– Roof replacement
$10,000– St. Phillip Parish, Crafton, PA– Restore exterior wood doors
$10,000– Tarentum Central Presbyterian, Tarentum, PA– Stained glass window repairs
$7,500– The Union Project, East Liberty– Replace lobby roof
$10,000– Third Presbyterian Church, Shadyside– Restore exterior wood doors
$2,825– Tree of Life Open Bible Church, Brookline, PA– Repoint entry stairs
$9,279– Valley View Presbyterian Church, Garfield– Stained glass window repairs
The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation is pleased to announce a grant of $41,378 from the African American Civil Rights Grant Program, through the Historic Preservation Fund administered by the National Park Service, Department of the Interior.
The grant will enable PHLF to design an educational program around the National Negro Opera House, that will not only highlight the history and significance of the building in African American history, but also the importance of its restoration and preservation. The program will be titled, A Legacy in Stone: Homewood’s National Negro Opera House and the Confluence of Pittsburgh’s African American Culture.
“We are delighted to receive this grant, which will enable us to not only deepen our understanding of the significance of the National Negro Opera House and its place in American history but also tells the greater story of the African American experience in Pittsburgh in the first half of the Twentieth Century,” said PHLF President Michael Sriprasert.
As part of this program, PHLF will prepare and submit a nomination of the National Negro Opera House for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. This will include the creation of an educational component to explore the history of the building, bringing an understanding of the depth of Pittsburgh’s African American cultural legacy to a younger generation of students.
This grant is one of 53 projects in 20 states funded by a total of $15,035,000 from the National Park Service’s African American Civil Rights Grant Program.
“This grant makes it possible for us to work with educators in sharing the history of the National Negro Opera House with more students, helping even more people learn about and appreciate the significant African American history reflected in this landmark building in Homewood,” said PHLF Co-Director of Education, Sarah Greenwald.
Listed in 2020 as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Queen Anne-style house in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, was once a place of prominence for African American entertainers, musicians, and sports figures.
The house served as a lodging house and a community space for prominent African Americans visiting Pittsburgh during the era of segregation when it was not easy for African Americans to gain lodging in white-owned establishments. It is currently undergoing efforts to renovate and restore it by a group of stakeholders led by its owner Jonnet Solomon.
PHLF has been working with Ms. Solomon to help implement a strategy of restoration and renovation of the building. This includes an initial stabilization study to assess the feasibility of restoration and an ongoing engineering assessment of the building to analyze stabilization of the hillside behind the house and restoration of a historic wall along the property.
“Building Buddies” — A Giant Puzzle, Art Activity, and Outdoor Exploration — Teaches the Value of Our Buildings
As part of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s Corridor Free Day on September 30, 2021, we presented a creative “Building Buddies” program in which learners of all ages helped put together a giant puzzle of the Children’s Museum campus. Through the exercise, participants learned about the details that define the character of each of the four museum buildings. They also drew pictures of themselves and added them to the giant “Building Buddies” puzzle.
PHLF Co-Director of Education Sarah Greenwald and Education Adviser Louise Sturgess, guided learners through various activities, helping everyone see the beauty and discover the story of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.
“Building Buddies” was created by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, thanks to funding from the McSwigan Family Foundation Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation, Gailliot Family Foundation, and Grambrindi Davies Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation.
An online version of “Building Buddies” is available for anyone interested in exploring the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s family of buildings. Through an interactive game, matching activity, puzzles, and drawing activity, children learn that the four museum buildings have different styles, colors, shapes, details, and ages. It is the differences that make each building––and each one of us––unique and worth treasuring.
Use the learning platform Nearpod (free for students) on your phone or computer to explore “Building Buddies.” Click HERE to access these creative, educational activities.
We thank Megan Pen, PHLF’s 2020 summer intern from CMU’s Heinz College and College of Fine Arts, for adapting PHLF’s “Building Buddies” program to a series of interactive, online activities.
This time of the year marks a common annual passage: that of college freshmen settling into campus and university life. To introduce first-year students from Carnegie Mellon University to Pittsburgh’s historic built environment and preservation’s role in sustaining it, PHLF Co-Directors of Education Tracy Myers and Sarah Greenwald led students on a special tour, titled “Hello My Name is Pittsburgh,” through Downtown and the Lower Hill District.
Twenty-nine students, almost none of whom were familiar with Pittsburgh before the tour, trekked through an introductory survey of the City’s architecturally significant buildings, districts, and green spaces. Through the tour, students were encouraged to think of themselves as taking a journey across time––from Pittsburgh’s establishment as an outpost of Empire during the French & Indian War, to its industrial history, postwar development, and more recent renewal as the “Renaissance City.”
In a vigorous walk that took in such landmarks and historically significant sites like the Fort Pitt Blockhouse, Gateway Center, the Allegheny County Courthouse, and the former Civic Arena site, students learned that, like all cities, Pittsburgh is a living, ever-evolving combination of old and new buildings.
The tour ended at Freedom Corner, where the students were encouraged to contemplate how historic preservation can help renew communities and build pride in contrast to massive demolition of the built environment.
“We are so pleased that CMU asked us to be part of its freshman orientation program. The old saying that you only get one chance to make a first impression is as true of places as it is of people. Sarah and I were excited to both show these young people our city and tell them of historic preservation’s very important role in keeping Pittsburgh distinctive,” said Tracy.
“It is our hope that whether or not they stay in the city after their university experience, these students see the relevance of history and understand that architectural preservation is completely aligned with their generation’s concern for the environment and the planet,” she added.
If you are interested in a similar experience for your education group, contact our education department by calling 412-471-5808 or emailing Tracy Myers at email@example.com.
A group of high school students spent three afternoons in July exploring the historic built environment of our city and region with the directors of our education team, as part of a four-week architectural studio program funded by the University of Pittsburgh’s Architectural Studies Program.
Tracy Myers and Sarah Greenwald, co-directors of our organization’s education department, guided the group on an exploration of the history and place, looking at how culture is reflected in our shared built environment, and how architecture and the principles of historic preservation in a city contribute to the aesthetics of our city neighborhoods, Downtown, and main street communities. As part of the tours, the students also learned about concepts of historic preservation as a tool of economic revitalization and community development.
The program was funded by the University of Pittsburgh’s Architectural Studies Department, which was awarded a seed grant from the Office of the Chancellor at the University of Pittsburgh to develop a summer architectural studio program for high school students. The four-week program took place in July.
“We are glad to work with community partners such as the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation to deepen students’ understanding and appreciation of the diverse array of landmark architecture found in Pittsburgh,” said program coordinator Sara Pettit.
“Getting out of the studio and into the real world is always important for students of architecture, regardless of their age or level of interest. Carefully studying buildings and their relationships to other elements of the built environment is absolutely essential to the design process, as is understanding that buildings embody lives and histories; they aren’t mere piles of material,” said Tracy Myers.
“Sarah and I were delighted to share our city’s rich architectural legacy with these sharp young people and explain to them how preservation continues to inspire and invigorate our communities,” she added.
If you are interested in having PHLF collaborate with you to enrich your education program, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. For questions about The University of Pittsburgh’s “Experiencing Architecture” summer studio course, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following article was written by Emily Barrie, a tenth-grade student at Upper St. Clair School High School in Allegheny County. The idea for this article originated when Emily called our offices to express her interest in learning more about the historic built environment and volunteering for PHLF. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, our staff was working from home at the time. We suggested that Emily explore Downtown Pittsburgh using our guidebook, “Exploring Pittsburgh,” and then write about her experience. Her fresh perspective highlights the enduring vitality of our city’s architecture, no matter the time or circumstances. To explore on your own this summer, please order one of our guidebooks at https://phlf.org/landmarks-store/ or download a self-guided tour at https://phlf.org/education-department/self-guided-walking-tours/.
Since 2020, our world has gone through a chaotic and challenging time due to the Covid-19 global pandemic, which led to the closure of many of our favorite buildings and businesses. Still, there are many exciting places to visit right in our very own city that can fulfill your need to leave the house. I have always loved history in general, but discovering the history and culture of my own city has been especially rewarding. This past year, I toured Downtown Pittsburgh’s historic landmarks, including The Pennsylvanian, buildings in the Cultural District and Market Square, Smithfield United Church, Point State Park, and the Omni William Penn Hotel.
Regardless of their status on tourist destination lists, the sites showed me, as a Pittsburgh-area resident, an underappreciated and beautiful side of my city— one I hope more people take the time to learn about.
The first landmark I visited was The Pennsylvanian, historically known as the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Union Station. Located at 1100 Liberty Avenue, it was completed in 1903 and designed by D.H. Burnham & Company (Chicago). From a distance, it resembled any other stately building in Downtown Pittsburgh. Because of its small size (compared to nearby skyscrapers), my first instinct was to drive past its buff brick and terra cotta-ornamented facade.
But once I pulled into the parking lot, I realized that this beautiful landmark was underappreciated. The most significant feature of the building is its rotunda. Standing under it, I was amazed by how small I felt compared to the building as I craned my neck to admire its many details.
The arches were outlined with soft yellow lights, and there was a decorative tablet in each corner with the name of one of the railroad’s four main stations during the early 1900s ––Pittsburg, New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. A feature that stood out to me was the name of Pittsburgh, spelled “Pittsburg,” because the building was built during the time (between 1891 and 1911) when the U.S. Board on Geographic Names insisted that Pittsburgh drop its “h” in an effort to standardize names throughout the nation.
I loved the center of the rotunda with its opaque glass skylight and intricate design. The overall scale and detailing of the rotunda transported me back to a grander time. Standing under it, I could picture the horse-drawn carriages and early automobiles dropping off passengers. Much has changed since then. The former station building was remodeled in 1988 into offices and apartments. The Pennsylvanian is a gorgeous gem in Downtown Pittsburgh!
The next stop on my exploration was the Cultural District, an area of fourteen square blocks that lie parallel to the Allegheny River between Stanwix and Tenth streets. I had been to the Cultural District a plethora of times during my eight years of living in Pittsburgh— I am a huge lover of musicals––so the Benedum Center for Performing Arts, Heinz Hall, Byham Theater, and Harris Theater were all treasured places to me. Each place gives me the feeling of wanting to dress up, to show up in my finest.
Just walking through the Benedum’s doors and looking up at the breathtaking grand staircase leading up to the balcony, or seeing the crystal chandeliers suspended from the intricately decorated ceiling at Heinz Hall, makes me feel as if I am going to an exclusive and opulent event. Sometimes, while attending a performance, I even catch myself staring at an artistic building detail instead of the performance itself. While performances are offered many times a year at these theaters to packed audiences, the buildings always make me feel as if each time is special, and that I, too, should wear my finest attire. Overall, the interiors of all the theaters in the Cultural District are gorgeous and make seeing a performance that much more enjoyable.
Every time I visit the Cultural District though, it’s either at dusk or at nighttime, and I am rushing to my seat for a performance. With Covid-19, and now the lack of musicals occurring, I discovered that it was such a joy just to walk around the Cultural District in the daytime.
On my recent walking tour, I saw more of the buildings and noticed how they related to one another in the built environment. I felt completely safe as I strolled down Penn Avenue and past a handful of sculptures and statues, even if several of them were shaped like eyes, watching me walk into the Agnes R. Katz Plaza. Unperturbed, I rested on one of those benches and looked closely at the facade of the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts. The lights, which illuminate the building at night, were turned off. For the first time, I could see how much work and intricacy was put into the pale terra cotta and tan brick building.
The terra cotta formed into the shape of a rising sun or a shell far above the windows, with even more ornamental patterns inside this arch. In modern buildings, there are not as many ornamented features, which tells me (and other alert observers) that many of the Cultural District buildings were created well before the 1950s and 1960s. Furthermore, during the day, I was able to read the message on the marquee of the Benedum: “Stay Safe and Healthy.” This made me smile, and it added a sense of relevance to the historic building, which otherwise could have been overlooked if driven by without knowledge of what life lives inside. The Cultural District is a great place to visit either at night or during the day, but whenever you go, I guarantee you will appreciate the beauty and welcoming aspect of the buildings and outdoor spaces.
I next visited Market Square, nestled in the heart of Pittsburgh. Of all the places I have mentioned thus far, Market Square was by far the most bustling and alive. I was only able to stay a short time due to limited parking, but it was enough for me to get a good sense of how much it had to offer us: its history (laid out in 1784), delicious restaurants, and breezy, flowing urban design. This area gave off positive energy to everyone within its borders. But I wanted to know more about this area’s past.
At first, I was a bit confused as to where this history could be found, in a place so full of growth and new restaurants. Then I realized that if I looked closely, history was everywhere. The first piece of history I saw was a plaque labeled “Historic Landmark: Site of Bear Tavern (1827) Oyster House C. 1871-1971.” This was on the wall of the Original Oyster House. It was an average-looking brick building, but after this initial discovery, it did not take me long to find another restaurant in a historic building. Primanti Brothers, a true Pittsburgh classic, occupied a building constructed relatively soon after Pittsburgh’s Great Fire of 1845. It looked similar to the Oyster House building (they both were shorter buildings, with dentil molding under the eaves), which suggested to me that the Primanti Brothers building was constructed in a similar, but more ornamental, style (with window hoods, for example).
Market Square has nowhere near the feeling of historic grandeur that The Pennsylvanian or the Cultural District displays, but it is a beautiful space to remember the history of everyday Pittsburgh. While standing in the middle of the square, I felt like slowly turning my head to take everything in, that the public spirit and purpose of Market Square had never changed since it was laid out. It is a place for people to gather, eat good food, and enjoy each other’s company—whether that be in the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, Twentieth, or Twenty-first Centuries. It is a must-see for history and non-history lovers alike.
Between Market Square and the Cultural District was my next stop to see the Smithfield United Church of Christ. Designed by Henry Hornbostel and completed in 1926, it is located on very busy Smithfield Street. Parking was difficult to find. The building was draped in netting since the exterior needs to be restored, but that did not draw away from the beauty and history the church offers to the viewer.
My first thought upon seeing the church was about the way the building filled up every square inch of space allotted to it. Also, the church doors were wide and welcoming. It had a medieval look to it as well, with the open-work, aluminum spire at the top (which can only be really appreciated from a distance because of its height). In reading about the church, I learned this structure was designed in the eclectic Gothic Revival style. The church is famous for its series of stained-glass windows commemorating historical events and Pittsburgh scenes. I think stained glass is such a gorgeous feature of churches: the time and effort people have dedicated to creating it shows the importance of religious structures in our country’s history. There are a lot of churches in downtown Pittsburgh, which does make it hard to pick which one to explore next!
Rather than hunt for another religious structure in my guidebook, though, I decided to walk all the way to Point State Park. I enjoyed exploring the park the most. The vastness of the park makes it seem never-ending. Entering the park, I felt as if a little adventure was waiting just for me. I walked down the long footpath filled with a variety of people, from young families pushing strollers to men and women jogging. The park gave off positive and safe energy. After walking under the aptly named Portal Bridge (1961-63), my sightline opened up to a breathtaking view of the fountain and, in the near distance, the three rivers: the Monongahela, Ohio, and Allegheny. The foreground was anchored by a large, nicely mowed, grassy area where people were having picnics and throwing frisbees. The rivers were beautiful to look at, but knowing their past made them all that more lovely.
These three rivers were crucial in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), which became a global conflict between England and France that was known as the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). Whoever controlled trade in the Ohio Country, controlled settlement further west, and the Point, where the Ohio River began, was of strategic importance. Because these rivers were so important for maintaining control over the region, I thought that there must be some sort of fortification here, right? Yep, the very next thing I noticed was a reconstructed bastion of the British Fort Pitt, and nearby, the outline of the French Fort Duquesne. Although the forts were no longer standing, the Fort Pitt Block House has survived for 257 years and is open to the public. At school, the Seven Years War and Pittsburgh’s role in it are discussed so students are familiar with the names of these two forts. Still, seeing the outlines of the actual forts located at the Point where the three rivers meet made the whole conflict more real.
I also visited the Fort Pitt Museum, whose exhibitions and gift shop were engaging and enlightening. When I left the museum, it was getting dark, so I decided to head back. I walked a different way, though, closer to the river, and noticed there were plenty of bikers on this paved path, which showed me the huge variety of things you can do in Point State Park. By the time I reached home, I was definitely worn out from all the walking, but it was worth it! Point State Park is the type of place where you can return again and again and each time, discover more about Pittsburgh, both past and present.
The next time I found room in my schedule to explore downtown Pittsburgh, I took time to learn more about the Omni William Penn Hotel (Janssen & Abbott, architects, 1914-16; Janssen & Cocken, architects, 1926-29; Joseph Urban [New York], 1929). I entered the hotel from Mellon Square (itself a quiet respite from the city’s bustle) along William Penn Way. Above the entrance is a canopy with the inscription “William Penn Hotel,” along with different emblems, such as the Penn family crest. Beneath the canopy is bellhops who are there at the ready to take luggage, park cars and help customers. They were dressed in uniforms from a bygone era. Between the architecture of the hotel and the attendants’ attire, I was immediately pulled back into a different time. As the bellhop pushed the revolving door for me and I walked into the “swanky” lobby, I felt like I was a 1920s heiress who was staying at the hotel. Sparkling chandeliers hung from the ceiling, large arches provided glimpses into the branching hallways, and a wall clock ticked away the time. The lobby’s stateliness reminded me of the clocks found in another type of historic Pittsburgh landmark—our grand train stations. I walked through the lobby, passing the beautiful historic restaurant, and traveled down the first hallway I saw. The hallway was filled with history. There were pictures, documents, paintings, and sculptures in glass cases that all related to the founding of Pittsburgh and to the opening of the William Penn Hotel.
Looking up, I noticed a sign hanging from the ceiling saying “Speakeasy,” with an arrow pointing to the lower level of the hotel. The word “speakeasy” rang a bell in my mind from history class as a place where alcohol was illegally sold during Prohibition in the 1920s. I wanted to know more, so I found the closest stairwell and quickly descended. Then, I dashed down the hall past the William Penn Ballroom and spotted two doors with “Speakeasy” written on them. I was disappointed to find that I could not open the doors because the room, which is a working bar, was closed until later that evening. Nonetheless, I was able to peer through the green-tinted windows of the door and observe an almost perfectly replicated speakeasy of the 1920s. I found it so neat that the room continued to serve its original purpose. I took some photos and explored the surrounding area a bit more before deciding I had definitely achieved my purpose in visiting the hotel, which was to explore its history and appreciate its present beauty. It is a charming hotel for tourists, and a must-see for Pittsburgh residents: it really does make you feel like you are living in a completely different time, with a far more luxurious life!
My travels in downtown Pittsburgh to visit The Pennsylvanian, the Cultural District, Market Square, Smithfield United Church of Christ, Point State Park, the Omni William Penn Hotel, and other sites were rewarding experiences that showed me how history is present everywhere. The beauty in visiting historical landmarks is not just about enjoying the architecture of the buildings, but also about being in the place where significant events have occurred. This self-guided tour taught me that history is truly in every part of my city—from every hotel to every park.
I highly encourage everyone to take part in a similar walking tour. You’ll learn to appreciate just how rich we are in Pittsburgh, thanks to the efforts by many to preserve architectural landmarks and local history! During my walking tours, I did not spend even a single penny to visit any site, with the exception of a modest admission fee for the Fort Pitt Museum, which also shows just how affordable it can be to get out and explore your community. There is one way you can spend money, though, that will benefit the sites and Pittsburgh as a whole. Most historic buildings are either underfunded or in need of restoration or constant repairs for their upkeep, so donations can help these sites survive. You also can show some love for our city’s past and present by taking a historic tour this summer. I guarantee you will not be disappointed!