Walking Tour of Pittsburgh & Koppers Tower

This Fourth of July, my lovely girlfriend and I took a walking tour of Pittsburgh. I picked up the Whirlwind Walk guidebook from the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation as a gift for helping them out by offering up my critiquing skills.  I’d recommend the tour for any Pittsburgh patriots that want to be able to point out more than just PPG Place and the US Steel Tower from the top of the incline. There’s also a lot of good stuff in there for people interested in the history of downtown, too. You can snag the book from their store for $10, or you could ask me nicely and pinky swear to bring it back. It also looks like most of the locations are covered in their free tours, available as downloadable PDFs.

The tour takes you up and down Grant Street, which is Pittsburgh’s axis mundi of historical buildings. Today, it’s anchored at the south end by a new campus for PNC Bank (including a well-kept privately-owned park) and at the north end by Penn Station, which has been renovated into apartments and still sees limited use as a train station. In between those are buildings such as the US Steel Tower, the City-County building, and the Allegheny County Courthouse (and former jail). Fun fact about Grant Street: it used to hump up in the middle to a point higher than 15 feet from where it is now. When they cut it down to flatten it out, a lot of the existing buildings (including the famed courthouse) had to extend their facades down to the new street level. You’d never know it at first glance today, but if you know what you’re looking for you can see where the old street level was on the buildings. I already knew a fair amount about the more famous buildings I mentioned, but I was excited to get inside and explore a couple of the buildings I didn’t know so much about: the Omni William Penn Hotel and the Koppers Tower.

Both of these buildings have unique art-deco features. At the Omni William Penn we asked at the desk to see the Urban Room, and they sent us up unsupervised, which was a treat.

It was difficult to take a picture that conveyed the elegance of this room, but suffice to say I felt dramatically underdressed in my Hawaiian shirt.

The Koppers Tower is a building that I didn’t really know much about at all, but was really a gem once I started looking at it. When we found our way into the lobby and told the guard we were just there to look around, he walked us through the lobby and pointed out a few of the major features. He also apparently knew the dollar value of all of the lobby’s fixtures, including this $25,000 mailbox:

and this $100,000 chandelier:

The Koppers Tower was completed in 1929, making it a member of a class of buildings (such as the Empire State Building and the Chicago Board of Trade Building) started during the roaring ’20’s and completed just as the Great Depression hit. Here’s a drawing of it from when it first went up:

Click to see an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the building’s history.

Look familiar? It’s a big version of the mailbox in the lobby. Today, it’s nestled in among bigger buildings, so it doesn’t feature as prominently in the skyline as it did back then. In addition to letting us know about the cost of things in the lobby, the guard led us into a mini-museum of artifacts dealing with the building. Check out the view from the top in 1958:

CEO of Koppers Chemical, lord of used car lots as far as the eye can see. You may be saying to yourself, as Angela and I were, “wasn’t Pittsburgh more heavily developed by 1958?” The answer is, most likely, yes. I have an educated guess based on the date and the fact that you can see the Cathedral of Learning in the back towards the left: This was the swath of destruction left in advance of the Civic Arena. If that’s the case, what you’re looking at used to be the heart of the thriving Hill District.

While we were perusing the museum, the guard even photocopied us some literature for us to take home. He mentioned that he’s talked to people from all over the world who come to see the building. So, my advice would be to drop in on a Sunday, or any other day that the guard is likely to be bored and apt to accommodate curious building-goers.

If you take the tour yourself or have your own fun story about snooping around famous buildings (like alithearchitect does), let me hear about them below.

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4 thoughts on “Walking Tour of Pittsburgh & Koppers Tower

  1. Sounds like a fantastic trip around the city, Ray. I wasn’t even aware of the Kopper’s tower. I might have to print out this post and take it with me the next time I come down! And thanks for the shout-out; snooping and architecture are favorite pastimes of mine 🙂

    • I may have to make it a more regular pastime of mine, too. People were surprisingly willing to show us around, or at least let us in to places. On the one hand, that makes it a lot easier to see the interiors of these great buildings. On the other hand, I don’t get to follow through with my elaborate heist-like plans to get in and out undetected.

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