Heinz Hall, the home of the Pittsburgh Symphony, began its life as a 1920s movie palace. Although the decorative scheme was subdued somewhat in the restoration, there is still a strong element of fantasy in the interior.
It would be hard to explain Light-Up Night to an out-of-towner. The abstract idea of a night when Christmas lights are turned on for the season is not hard to convey, but no words could describe the seething mass of cheerful humanity that gathers downtown, stuffing trolleys like rolling sardine cans and tying up traffic for hours. It is a night when every good Pittsburgher feels obliged to pay his respects to the Golden Triangle. There are bands, orchestras, choirs, street performers, multiple fireworks displays, lights, ice skating, and even a few random acts of kindness. Every year it’s a bigger deal than last year.
The Horne’s Christmas tree, above, is a tradition that predates Light-Up Night by decades. The Horne’s department store is gone, but the owners of the building still graciously allow us to admire the famous tree that takes up a whole corner of what used to be our second-largest department store.
It’s a giant inflatable rubber ducky. Why? There may be no good answer to that question. But, to judge by the crowds at the Point today (the duck’s last weekend in the water), it seems that a giant inflatable rubber duck was just what Pittsburgh wanted. The Port Authority is running double streetcars and Subway Locals (which serve only from Station Square through downtown to Allegheny) to handle the traffic on the subway. Downtown is full of tourists from exotic places like Iowa who came to have their pictures taken in front of the rubber duck. Traffic jams surround the Point. Street vendors are selling bags and bags of rubber ducks. Restaurants downtown are packed. All because of a rubber ducky.
The Fulton Building, with its enormous arch, has been turned into a luxury hotel right in the heart of the theater district. It is so much in the heart, in fact, that the entrance to the Byham Theater goes right through the Fulton Building, and the marquee is on the Sixth Street front of it. Many theater-goers probably never realize that, by the time they have navigated the long foyer and ended up in the real lobby of the theater, they have gone all the way through one building and ended up in another. That low brick building to the left of the Fulton Building is the theater itself—downtown’s oldest working theater, built in 1903 as the Gayety vaudeville house (originally with its entrance on the river side), and later known as the Fulton until the Byham family paid for a major renovation in 1996. Behind the theater is the CNG Tower, a landmark of 1980s postmodernist architecture that presents radically different views from different angles.
Originally the main entrance and still the centerpiece of the vast Carnegie establishment in Oakland, this three-storey open space is decorated with murals by John White Alexander depicting the Apotheosis of Pittsburgh. Most museum visitors ignore them while hurrying on past to the dinosaurs, but the mural group is actually one of the museum’s great artistic treasures. It’s worth spending half an hour in the Grand Staircase picking out the details, like the faces of the damned in the billowing smoke.
This is the most breathtaking single room in the Western Hemisphere. That statement is likely to provoke some opposition, but Father Pitt is willing to defend it.
In the late nineteenth century, many museums collected plaster casts of the great monuments and sculptures of the past. The casting preserved the minutest details of the surface in three dimensions, so that a museum visitor can study every chisel mark on a famous Romanesque facade without having to hop on a steamer and travel to Europe.
In the twentieth century, the cult of originality persuaded most museum curators that these plaster casts were worthless. Almost all the great collections were broken up and thrown out. Only three of them remain in the world, and only one of them—this one—is still in the space that was built to house it, never having been shuffled from one wing to another or stored for years under a highway overpass.
Now, at last, some of the more enlightened art historians are beginning to understand the value of the casts. Here a Pittsburgher can study the whole history of Western architecture from Egypt to the Renaissance without so much as crossing the Monongahela. But even more important is the fact that these casts are more than a century old. The twentieth century, with its corrosive pollution and horrendous wars, was more destructive to ancient monuments than any other century. But here we can see exact replicas of these monuments as they were before all the corrosion and destruction. This collection is a unique cultural treasure, worth crossing a continent or an ocean to see.