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Summer Dreamers Discover Downtown History

By Jasmine Fletcher and CampDEC campers/counselors

Pittsburgh has a lot of art and interesting buildings and places that people usually just pass by without noticing. That’s what 23 CampDEC (Design Explore Create) campers discovered during five downtown scavenger hunts. We were part of the Pittsburgh Public School’s Summer Dreamers Academy; the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation planned our afternoon camp from July 11 to August 10. We discovered Pittsburgh, not just as a city, but as a historic place.

Street names like Fort Pitt Boulevard and Fort Duquesne Boulevard clue you into the fight between the British and French in the 1750s for control of the land at the forks of the Ohio River. We even found French Street right near CAPA, where CampDEC was located. Forbes Avenue is named for the British General John Forbes who took control of this region from the French in 1758 and named Pittsburgh for William Pitt, the British statesman who planned the winning military strategy. Stanwix Street is named for the British general who oversaw construction of Fort Pitt, completed in 1761. Wood Street is named for one of the surveyors from Philadelphia who laid out the streets in 1784, at the request of the Penn family. The Boulevard of the Allies honors the soldiers who fought in World War 1. We were truly walking on history as we explored downtown.

We discovered the meanings of many different statues, murals, and sculptures. One of our favorite sculptures is on the corner of Seventh Street and Fort Duquesne Boulevard. It’s made out of all the different bridges in downtown Pittsburgh. Another favorite sculpture is the jazz musicians and dog on Liberty Avenue, across from the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. The mural of the two Andy’s on Smithfield Street near Strawberry Way is the weirdest thing many of us saw. PNC’s living wall at Fifth Avenue and Wood Street was voted the most favorite mural by CampDEC campers.

The most colorful building exterior in downtown Pittsburgh is Nola restaurant in Market Square. (CAPA, the Harris Theater, and Theater Square also have colorful exteriors.) The longest escalator, although it was being repaired, is in One Oxford Centre. The building with the most arches is the Allegheny County Courthouse. The following buildings got votes for the most spectacular interiors: Union Trust, Point Park University Center, Omni William Penn Hotel, Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel, and PPG’s Wintergarden, where Santa Claus’ from around the world are exhibited in the winter.

Our favorite water feature is the fountain in PPG Place and our favorite green space/open space is Mellon Green on Grant Street. The corner parklet has beautiful landscaping and a dramatic fountain in the center. For the best soft serve ice cream in downtown Pittsburgh, go to a sea-creature’s house in a square, or find where a “world” and a “strawberry” survive near “Smith’s field.”

We noticed some unusual things, too. There are fake Magnolia trees across from a plaza with “eyeball” benches. There is a “B Street” in Pittsburgh––but we never found an “A” Street. The City-County Building includes a statue of William Pitt, a plaque with all the words of the Gettysburg Address, and a painting of Abraham Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation, plus elevator doors that illustrate our city halls and courthouses.

We would go out on days that were “hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk,” according to Caquan, because we were really determined to understand the history behind the city we lived in. We went out there to get connected to the city, to get deep into the history behind the famous “steel city.” Knowing more about the city makes us care about it more.

When we leave CampDEC, we will leave with a tremendous amount of knowledge. And, we’ll never just walk down a street again without noticing, looking up, finding “scars” that show how a building has changed over time, and reading the names of places and streets to figure out their meaning for Pittsburgh. We have learned to really evaluate what’s built because even the simplest details have a history behind them. Downtown Pittsburgh is a great place for scavenger hunts and explorations.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633