Joint Jewish Education Program Explores Landmark Buildings
Pittsburgh’s Joint Jewish Education Program (JJEP), which included an elective class titled Landmark Art: Inspiration from Our Buildings, concluded in April. The class, an exploration of landmark buildings was taught by Sarah Greenwald, our organization’s co-director of education. The students in the program came from Congregations Beth Shalom and Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill and Oakland neighborhoods, respectively.
Sarah guided students as they studied the foundations of architecture, learned to “read” values reflected in artistic symbols found on and in our historic buildings, created art inspired by these buildings, and discussed the importance of historic preservation. As one student so eloquently stated: “If it is made with care, and has its own unique features, it [a building] can be art.”
“Seeing these students grow to appreciate the landmark buildings of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community was a highlight of this course,” Sarah said. “I was impressed with how deeply students used this elective to think about the historic buildings around them and understand how our buildings are works of art and how they reflect our values and carry them into the future.”
As part of this course, students were asked to share their thoughts on historic preservation: Is it important? Why or why not? Some of their insights include:
“Historic preservation is important. It [The historic structure] could educate people, house people, serve as a memorial. Like Pittsburgh’s bridges, we have a lot of bridges [and] we are known for our bridges, so we should save them. They are a part of who we are.”
“They [our buildings] are a part of history. It is important to save them. For example, if a movie theater survived a nuclear war, it would tell people who survived about the past.”
Students worked diligently from home during this virtual course, completing several art-based activities, and taking virtual explorations to jumpstart their learning. “I look forward to exploring the artistry of Pittsburgh’s landmark buildings in person, next time, with these students and others,” said Sarah.
“Building Pride, Building Character” Program Nurtures Citizenship Skills
As part of our Building Pride, Building Character EITC program, Pittsburgh Public School students from Dilworth met virtually on March 12, with City Councilwoman Deborah Gross to learn more about city government and to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their neighborhood.
After a 30-minute conversation, Dilworth teachers Stephanie Hornick, Cory Herschk, and Lauren Freeman, sent thank you notes created by the students to Councilwoman Gross and noted that “you gave us lots of great things to talk about during Social Studies class.”
“It was inspiring to hear third-grade students sharing their concerns about vacant buildings, roads, and green spaces in their neighborhoods,” said Co-director of Education Sarah Greenwald. “They clearly know and value their community and want to take care of it––and that is a primary goal of our EITC program.” This was the second virtual meeting between third-grade students and City Council representatives: students from Pittsburgh Roosevelt met with Blake Plavchak, Councilman Coghill’s Chief of Staff, on February 23.
We also recently released another educational video for use in third- and fourth-grade classrooms. The “Dollar Bank Heritage Center” video is the first stop on our virtual Pittsburgh People & Places field trip. “Through exhibits and artifacts housed in the remarkable Dollar Bank Heritage Center, we introduce the art of writing biographies to fourth-grade students,” said Education Advisor Louise Sturgess. “We especially thank Dorothy Spangler of Dollar Bank for providing historical images and information for our use.”
Videographer Randall Coleman and Tyler Vietmeier, a sound technician, are in the process of editing six more videos; three more architectural landmarks will be filmed in April, with editing to follow.
We thank S&T Bank for recently contributing to PHLF’s “Building Pride, Building Character” educational program, made possible through the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit program. Click here for a complete list of donors who are underwriting our virtual programming with the Pittsburgh Public Schools through mid-June.
Newcomers Explore Historic Neighborhoods
The Jewish Family & Community Services’ Newcomers Crew is a virtual after-school mentoring program for recently resettled refugee youth in Pittsburgh. JFCS staff, mentors, and participants share information about their respective cultures, learn about America, Pittsburgh, and their countries of origin.
Sarah Greenwald, PHLF co-director of education, introduced participants to their new hometown through several activities. Club members and their mentors used Neighborhood Stories, Including Mine, recently published by PHLF, to learn more about their family, neighborhood, and community. Then, they explored the Strip District with Sarah, who shared information about its historic landmarks, family-owned businesses, and cultural diversity. Club members then worked with their mentors to add a business to the Strip based on their culture. They envisioned Pizza, Legosã, specialty bakeries, clothes, and grocery stores, among other ideas.
With PHLF, JFCS Newcomers Crew members also explored Pittsburgh’s Market Square, Forbes Avenue and Wood Street area, hearing from the local and woman-owned business Boutique La Passerelle, thanks to owner Adele Morelli. Additionally, club members learned more about the rich history of “Mystery Manor,” the National Negro Opera House in Homewood. Music and poetry came alive for participants in new ways through this particular historic structure and the rich legacy of Mary Cardwell Dawson. Inspired by Mary Cardwell Dawson’s story, some members created short poems in their native language, while others composed original music lyrics.
Each of these activities gave club members a sense of belonging in Pittsburgh. “I am always inspired by these club members,” said Sarah. “We learn from them as much as they learn from us. In the process, we all foster the sense that saving and sharing the historic fabric of our communities is important for our future.”
PHLF thanks the McSwigan Family Foundation Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation for supporting its place-based education programs.
15 Years of Our “Building Pride, Building Character” EITC Program
This spring, our fifteenth year of place-based education programs with Pittsburgh Public School students continues, with the creation of videos so this popular program can be experienced virtually. “We are also arranging virtual discussions with City Council representatives, working with SLB Radio Productions to record neighborhood stories written by students, and providing a series of PDFs based on our Career Awareness posters, and working with SLB Radio Productions to record stories written by students,” said Education Advisor Louise Sturgess.
Click here to hear third-grade students from Roosevelt PreK-5 share their neighborhood stories on SLB Radio.
PHLF released its first educational video on February 15 to a group of fifth-grade teachers in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. The 26-minute video, “The Bigham House on Mt. Washington: A Pittsburgh Connection to the Underground Railroad,” includes a walk through the woods and a tour of the mansion built in 1849 by abolitionist Thomas Bigham. Architect David Vater, a resident of Chatham Village, joined Louise Sturgess in narrating the video, and Chatham Village’s Board of Directors gave special permission so filming could take place inside the Bigham House. After watching the video, students from Pittsburgh Whittier completed writing prompts describing times in their lives when they felt free, and students from Pittsburgh Minadeo discussed how the video reinforced some of the experiences they had read about in the book, “The Road to Freedom.”
On February 23, PHLF facilitated a virtual conversation between Ms. Dulak’s third-grade students from Pittsburgh Roosevelt and Blake Plavchak, Chief of Staff for Councilman Anthony Coghill. Mr. Plavchak listened attentively to the students as they shared their ideas about what needs to be improved in Carrick and what is wonderful about their neighborhood. He told the students they were “completely accurate” in the concerns and attributes they noted, and encouraged them to keep talking with their elected officials. He appreciated how much they cared about their neighborhood and encouraged them to stay involved.
This program is made possible through the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program. We are grateful to Dollar Bank for contributing recently and to seven corporate donors who contributed between November and December 2020. Donations from the following are underwriting our “Building Pride, Building Character” virtual programming with the Pittsburgh Public Schools through mid-June:
- First National Bank of Pennsylvania
- The Buncher Company
- Dollar Bank
- PNC Bank
- Frank B. Fuhrer Wholesale Company
- Hefren-Tillotson, Inc.
- MaherDuessel, CPA
- Pickands Mather & Company
This program also receives foundation support from the:
- McSwigan Family Foundation Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation.
Society of Architectural Historians Grant to Support Education Programs
The Society of Architectural Historians has awarded the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation a $5,000 grant to fund programs for students from two Pittsburgh public schools to explore the architecture and history of the National Negro Opera House in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood.
The grant, made possible by the Society’s American Architecture and Landscape Field Trip program, together with funding from the McSwigan Family Foundation Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation, and PHLF, will fund this educational program and other significant African-American sites in Pittsburgh including the New Granada Theater, Crawford Grill, August Wilson House, and August Wilson African American Cultural Center.
The story of each of these places is important in the history of our region and our nation and will be shared by the people who know them best. After a virtual tour, Pittsburgh Public School students will develop inspiring creative projects based on these significant African-American landmarks.
The SAH American Architecture and Landscape Field Trip grant recognizes the value of our Legacy in Stone and Song field trip program. Every place has a story, and the National Negro Opera House (NNOH) is especially noteworthy. This Queen Anne style house was included on the list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2020.
Owned by William “Woogie” Harris, the house served as a home for the National Negro Opera Company, the nation’s first permanent all-Black opera company, led by the indomitable Madame Mary Cardwell Dawson. It also served as a temporary haven for national luminaries in entertainment and sports, many of whom were barred from white accommodations when traveling in Pittsburgh. Today, the National Opera House survives as the physical embodiment of Pittsburgh’s vibrant African American heritage.
Our organization’s education programs are always in need of your help! To support this program, please click HERE, and direct your contribution to “Education Programs.”
NEW! Virtual K-12 Walking Tours Now Available
PHLF Education is excited to announce that we are now offering two new virtual tours in addition to virtual tours of our popular in-person student tours. Thanks to open-source mapping technology (Google Maps), PHLF staff and docents can lead participants along a tour route in real-time, as if walking on the street, but within the space of a computer screen. The laminated historical images that enrich our in-person tours continue to provide context and evidence of change over time to the tour, and our conversations with learners will remain as engaging as ever. PHLF is grateful to the McSwigan Family Foundation Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation whose support of its educational programs this year is helping underwrite the development of these new initiatives. Keep reading to learn more about our new and existing offerings, and how to schedule yours today!
Pittsburgh’s Hill District
Inspired by August Wilson’s work, and using PHLF’s guidebook August Wilson: Pittsburgh Places in His Life and Plays, students explore landmarks of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, learning about the neighborhood’s history and the influence Pittsburgh had on the playwright’s work. This tour also comes with a complimentary copy of the guidebook for your classroom library, along with a digital copy of PHLF’s African American Legacy in Allegheny County: A Timeline of Key Events.
Pittsburgh’s history is intertwined with the history of many of our nation’s innovators in science, the arts, sports, philanthropy, and more. Their legacy lives on in the historic places around us––the many bridges, buildings, parks, and other structures bearing their names. This tour explores the determination and hard work of several of these pioneers through the places named for them––people like Andy Warhol, Rachel Carson, Roberto Clemente, HJ Heinz, and others. Along the way, students will “travel” across several historic bridges and explore Pittsburgh’s downtown and North Shore neighborhoods.
In addition to these tours, educators can also schedule a virtual tour of any of our traditional in-person tours. Search for Downtown Dragons and Other Creatures Carved in Stone; or travel the world in just a few blocks on our Strip District Stroll; match colorful architectural details to correct buildings and learn about the history of the North Side on our North Side’s Historic Neighborhoods tour––whatever your classroom needs, we have the tour to match!
Let us plan your field trip for any number of students (grades 2 and above) who want to explore the architecture and history of downtown Pittsburgh or of a local neighborhood. We have over 40 years of experience in planning school field trip tours—and many creative ideas. Click here to schedule a tour. Don’t see a tour that fits your classroom needs? Email co-director of education Sarah Greenwald firstname.lastname@example.org to tailor a tour.
Now Offering Virtual Architectural Tours
We are delighted to announce that we will resume offering tours of Pittsburgh’s extraordinary architecture, which have been a mainstay of our education program for decades, this month. Our staff and dedicated docents would love to be outdoors with you— even in the cold weather —after so many months of confinement. However, in respect of Allegheny County’s public health guidelines for tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, we will instead offer live virtual tours.
Our virtual tours will be offered via Zoom Conference. Thanks to open-source mapping technology (Google Maps), docents can lead participants along a tour route in real time, as if walking on the street, but within the space of your computer screen. The laminated historical images that bring texture to our in-person tours also are shown in our virtual tours, as interjections of PowerPoint slides in the docents’ live narrative. Through the chat function in Zoom Conference, participants can engage with the docents and each other, much as they would on the street.
The result is a true multimedia presentation that allows participants to enjoy architecture tours from the comfort of their own homes. In fact, comfort is the operative term. As docent and former PHLF staff member has Karen Cahall pointed out, “on virtual tours, we can avoid things like bad weather, uneven or narrow sidewalks, and noise from traffic that sometimes challenge us on in-person tours.”
Google Maps also provides views that can’t be seen on in-person tours, by allowing us to scroll up a building to see details, zoom out for an aerial view, and travel farther than our feet could normally carry us in a single hour.
“We are truly excited to be able to offer tours again,” said Tracy Myers, co-director of education at PHLF. “I don’t believe any of our counterparts are doing tours in this way, and we’re eager to see how participants react to them. We’ve had to re-think each tour a little bit to accommodate the format, and as in every tech-enabled activity, there are occasional glitches. Our docents are working hard, though, to create authentic experiences, to remind us all why we love Pittsburgh’s architecture and history.”
Registration for tours will open on Saturday, December 5, and must be completed online. The fee is $7.50. For additional information, and to register, go to www.phlf.org/events.
Concrete Bridges of the Steel City
By Todd Wilson
While Pittsburgh may be known as “The Steel City,” many beautiful and significant concrete bridges were built here. Concrete is a rock-like mixture of fine and coarse aggregates (sand, gravel, stone) pasted together with a binder made up of Portland cement and water. Replacing natural cement, Portland cement (named for its resemblance to Portland stone from the Isle of Portland in England) is made from limestone, clay, and gypsum.
Portland cement was patented in 1824 and first manufactured in America in Lehigh County in 1871. As with stone structures, concrete is strong when compressed, but it is much weaker when being pulled apart in tension. A few concrete arch bridges started to be built in America in the 1870s, though it was not until steel reinforcement began to be added to concrete to withstand tensile forces starting around 1890, that the true potential of concrete structures could start to be realized.
The first large-scale concrete arch bridge was Luxembourg’s 1904 Pont Adolphe, with open spandrel walls and a 278-foot main span. Impressed, Philadelphia built a similar bridge in 1908, the Walnut Lane Bridge in Fairmount Park, having a 233-foot main span. Adorned with City Beautiful embellishments, it showcased how concrete could be used as an architectural material especially appropriate for parklike settings. The soaring arch avoided the need for intermediate supports infringing into the valley below, and using concrete instead of stone allowed for a more economical bridge with a longer span.
The Walnut Lane Bridge was widely promoted in engineering literature of the day, and cities like Pittsburgh were quick to build similar structures. Locally, while utilitarian bridges continued to be built for typical ravine crossings, for a 40-year period beginning in 1910, concrete arch bridge designs were chosen for structures in parks, along boulevards and parkways, and at other prominent locations.
In the early 1900s, Pittsburgh was hoping to incorporate the valleys of the Negley Run watershed into Highland Park, where present-day Negley Run Boulevard and Washington Boulevard are located. This became the perfect location for the Pittsburgh Department of Public Works to experiment with concrete arch bridges. The city’s first bridge was built across present-day Negley Run Boulevard, extending Meadow Street from Larimer northward to the intersection of Stanton Avenue and Heberton Street in Highland Park.
Featuring decorative lampposts, paneled parapets, and other City Beautiful-era neoclassical details, the Meadow Street Bridge was built in 1910 with a 208-foot arch. From 1911 to 1912, the City replaced the Larimer Avenue streetcar viaduct over Washington Boulevard with a 300-foot arch, which according to its plaque, was the second longest arch bridge in the world upon completion in 1912 (presumably after New Zealand’s 1910 320-foot Grafton Bridge). A decorative plaque is located under the arch that was intended to be a monument along a park trail that was never built. The Larimer Avenue Bridge was determined to be historically significant in Pennsylvania’s first historic bridge survey in the 1980s and was awarded a Historic Landmark Plaque by Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation in 2019.
With the initial success of these first two open spandrel reinforced concrete arch bridges, the City of Pittsburgh Public Works Department built several more within the next few years—on Baum Boulevard over Junction Hollow between Bloomfield and Oakland (1913), on Murray Avenue over Beechwood Boulevard between Squirrel Hill and Greenfield (1914), on Washington Boulevard over Heth’s Run in Highland Park (1914), on Beechwood Boulevard over the Four Mile Run Valley entering Schenley Park (1923), and on P.J. McArdle Roadway over Sycamore Street along the Mt. Washington hillside (1928). Stanley Roush served as the architect for these bridges.
The city also built a large three-span solid spandrel concrete arch on Baum Boulevard over the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1913, with the design chosen due to the long, shallow ravine that was more suitable for multiple smaller arches. While the other concrete arch bridges used wooden falsework for arch centering to hold the concrete forms, this bridge used Blawforms, self-supporting steel arch centering, that held the formwork in place without obstructing the railroad below. They were made by the company, which started in 1906 as the Blaw Collapsible Steel Centering Company, and merged in 1917 to become the Blaw-Knox Company. Many of these Blawforms forms manufactured in Blawnox were used to construct major concrete arch bridges all over the country.
Most of the city’s grand concrete bridges were built under Mayor Joseph Armstrong’s administration (1914-1918), first with neoclassical that transitioned to Art Deco detailing by Stanley Roush. When Armstrong became a County Commissioner in 1924, he led a massive road and building campaign that included the construction of record-breaking open spandrel concrete arch bridges.
These included the 320-foot California Avenue Bridge over Jacks Run (1925), the John P. Moore Bridge over Bausman Street in Knoxville (1928), and six Ohio River Boulevard bridges, the largest being the 420-foot arch over Jacks Run (1931). The cumulation of Allegheny County’s concrete arch building campaign was the five-span George Westinghouse Memorial Bridge over Turtle Creek with its record-breaking 460-foot central arch (1932). The bridge was awarded a PHLF Landmark Plaque in 1984. The last major reinforced concrete arch to be built in Pittsburgh was the 1952 Penn-Lincoln Parkway East Bridge over Nine Mile Run in Frick Park by the Pennsylvania Department of Highways.
While reinforced concrete bridges were once marketed as long-lasting “permanent” bridges, the expectation of concrete being a maintenance-free material proved to be unrealistic, often due to moisture penetrating through the concrete to the steel reinforcement. Concrete spalling was observed on some of the city’s bridges within 15 years of opening, and by the 1960s the Meadow Street Bridge had to be entirely rebuilt above the arch ribs.
In the 1970s and 1980s, just about every arch bridge was either rehabilitated or replaced, and continued deterioration led to the demolition of two City-built bridges in the 2010s. Among the City-built structures, only the Meadow Street arch ribs and the Larimer Avenue Bridge still survive. The newer County-built bridges fared better, with only the John P. Moore Bridge and the Ohio River Boulevard over Jacks Run Bridge having been demolished. However, many of the remaining bridges are showing signs of deterioration and have weight restrictions, and they face an uncertain future if unable to successfully be repaired or to keep up with modern traffic demands.
Despite being built in a relatively short 40-year period, the Pittsburgh area’s reinforced concrete arch bridges were monuments to what a developing city aspired to become—one with grand structures promoting civic ideals beautifying parks, parkways, and boulevards. Built with innovative techniques and spanning record-breaking distances, Pittsburgh’s reinforced concrete arch bridges set the standard for what concrete arch bridges could become, as larger record-breaking examples continue to be built to this day.
About the author: Todd Wilson, MBA, PE, is a transportation engineer in the Pittsburgh area who has traveled to all 50 states and over 25 countries photographing bridges. Having been awarded a Landmarks Scholarship to Carnegie Mellon University for his high school manuscript on Pittsburgh’s Bridges, he has since co-authored two books on the area’s bridges: Images of America: Pittsburgh’s Bridges (Arcadia, 2015) and Engineering Pittsburgh: A History of Roads, Rails, Canals, Bridges and More (History Press, 2018). He has won several awards, including being named one of Pittsburgh’s 40 under 40 and one of the American Society of Civil Engineers New Faces of Civil Engineering, and he serves as a Trustee of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.