The corner of a skyscraper covered in a diamond-shaped pattern made of metal beams appears to recede into a blue sky.

The United Steelworkers Building. Photo: Raymund Ryan

An Architectural Tour of a City on Pause: Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle

Every city needs a Franklin Toker, an informed observer of the buildings around us—the needs and ambitions that forged them, their relationship to the wider world of architecture, and the revealing details in craft or ornament that give each building its own particular character. A longtime professor of the history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, Toker published Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait in 1986. A second edition appeared in 1994.

The book is divided into seven chapters, with each chapter including three to seven subsections on particular neighborhoods. Toker starts, reasonably, at the Point, the confluence of Pittsburgh’s three rivers and the site of eighteenth century settlements by the French (as Fort Duquesne) and the British (as Fort Pitt). Our genial guide lingers there to contemplate this unique geographical nexus before heading off around the Golden Triangle and onward to Oakland, the South Side, the North Side, and beyond. He observes the buildings in front of him, referring to buildings that no longer survive and, on occasion, to buildings that were still in the design phase in the mid-1980s.

The most cherished guide books have a voice that allows readers to feel like they are being ushered by an empathetic expert. What comes across in Toker’s writing is an understanding of the urban structure of the city paired with his insight into multiple aspects of buildings that we think we know, or that we have somehow overlooked. He is alert to minor as well as major works, and open to obscure as well as famous architects.

In tracing Toker’s footsteps through his chapter on the Golden Triangle in 2020, a few buildings have disappeared and there are, inevitably, new buildings to admire. Here are some recent images of buildings and spaces that caught the good professor’s attention back in the 1980s and a sampling of his unique critical commentary.

The Point and Gateway Center

A concrete landing with a large medallion embedded in the foreground opens up onto an expansive body of water lined by trees and buildings.
The view west toward the Ohio River from Point State Park. Photo: Raymund Ryan

“France intended to make its settlement here the nerve center and possibly the capital of an empire that stretched from Montreal to New Orleans. This dream vanished when the British took the little fort in 1758 and replaced it with Fort Pitt, the largest, most costly, and most elaborate fortress constructed by England in the New World. Around it, similarly in honor of England’s prime minister, was designated the garrison town of Pitts-borough, or Pittsburgh.”1 

Three skyscrapers rise above trees and a courtyard.
Gateway Center; Otto Eggers and Daniel Higgins, architects, with Irwin Clavan; 1950–1953. Photo: Raymund Ryan

“One, Two, and Three Gateway were among the world’s most talked about buildings following World War II [. . .] Between seven and fifteen cruciform towers were originally projected, in traditional brick and limestone. At the last minute the designs were respecified for stainless steel, but scarcities during the Korean War required that chrome-alloyed steel be substituted.”2 

Market Square and Central Downtown

A skyscraper with a glass facade and dramatic, pointed turrets rises against a clear, bright sky while an awning creates an an angled shadow across the upper left of the image.
PPG Place (seen from underneath the United Steelworkers Building); Johnson/Burgee Architects; 1979–1984. Photo: Raymund Ryan

“The main precedent for Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s design was the Victoria Tower at the Houses of Parliament in London, which reaches to half of PPG’s height of 635 feet, but there is also a specific local precedent in Charles Klauder’s Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh [. . .] PPG Place is the best contribution to the Pittsburgh skyline since Richardson and Klauder.”3 

The facade of a building made of large blocks of sandstone, with a large archway above its main entrance.
Industrial Bank; Charles M. Bartberger, architect; 1903. When Toker wrote in the mid-1980s, this was a bar; its current status is unclear. Photo: Raymund Ryan

“For dramatic effect, Bartberger capriciously overscaled such elements as the penultimate triglyphs, which suddenly and irrationally droop down onto the masonry surface. Every element of the façade “speaks” as well as looks the part it was meant to play: the public banking hall below is marked by the two-story sweep of the entrance arch, and the boardroom above is denoted by the incisive punctuation of its fat colonettes.”4 

The Sixth–Oliver and Penn–Liberty Corridors

Side-by-side images show the facade of a building seen through the metal beams of a bridge and the same building seen from street level.
Left: the Fulton Building seen from the Sixth Street Bridge; right: the Fulton Building (now the Renaissance Hotel); Grosvenor Atterbury, architect; 1906. Photos: Raymund Ryan

“The Fulton’s open-mouth arch seven stories high (a restatement of the Dorilton Apartments façade in New York) is witty and perfect for a “portal” building into Pittsburgh; its shape undoubtedly influenced the open bracing of the Sixth Street Bridge when it was rebuilt in 1925. The Fulton is distinctive, too, in its obvious debt to Louis Sullivan for its ornament and in the disarming luxury of its marble-clad, skylit lobby.”5 

A domed structure made of stone, with an iron and glass window at its apex, spans a large driveway where several cars are parked.
Union Station (Penn Station) porte cochere; Daniel Burnham, architect; 1898–1902. Photo: Raymund Ryan

“The station is adequate, but the rotunda turned out to be one of the best things Burnham ever did [. . .] a fantastic domed rotunda that combined imperial Roman scale and a whiff of Art Nouveau in its surface decoration [. . .] It works perfectly as a gate here, beckoning travelers the whole length of Liberty Avenue with its bejeweled terra-cotta ornament and the voluptuousness of its supple curves.”6 

Grant Street and Mellon Square

A brass mailbox shaped like a miniature building mounted to a marble wall between two decorative metal grates.
Koppers Building (detail of lobby mailbox); Graham, Anderson, Probst & White with E. P. Mellon, architects; 1929. Photo: Raymund Ryan

“The lobby inside is tinted in green, brown, and red marble with bronze metalwork. The mailbox is a miniaturized Koppers Building, with stylized pineapples and an exaggerated roof, while the pilaster strips take on elements of Greek, Egyptian, Aztec, and Mayan designs.”7 

A wrought-iron arch topped with a lamp inset with stained-glass bands bearing the initials H, Y, and P spans a courtyard between two brick buildings, with the metal exterior of a skyscraper and the spire of a distant building in the background.
Harvard-Yale-Princeton Club, remodeled by Edward P. Lee in 1930, with the Alcoa Building (Harrison & Abramovitz, architects; 1953) and the aluminum spire of Smithfield United Church (Henry Hornbostel, architect; 1926) in the background. Photo: Raymund Ryan

“Until women were admitted here in 1980, only two female guests had been officially entertained. One was the actress Cornelia Otis Skinner, the other Mae West. West remarked on the occasion: “It’s rather difficult for me to think up things to say to Harvard-Yale-Princeton men collectively. Of course, I can think of plenty to say to men individually.”8 

A large stone archway spans a city street, connecting the buildings on either side of it.
Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail; Henry Hobson Richardson, architect; 1884–1888. Photo: Raymund Ryan

“On April 27, 1886, the master architect of America rose from his deathbed and said: “If they honor me for the pigmy things I have already done, what will they say when they see Pittsburgh finished? [. . .] Richardson made the Grant Street tower 300 feet high because in it he placed the fresh-air intake for his ventilation system: foul air was expunged from the Courthouse by ducts in the two back towers [. . .] Functional and artistic, poetic and profound, the Courthouse complex represents the marriage of the classical and the romantic—the two fundamental wellsprings of Western civilization.”9 


All quotations are from Franklin Toker, Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait (University Park, PA & London: The Pennsylvania State University Press), 1986.


Endnotes

  1. Franklin Toker, Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait (University Park, PA & London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986), 9.
  2. Toker, Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait, 26.
  3. Toker, Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait, 33.
  4. Toker, Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait, 40.
  5. Toker, Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait, 52.
  6. Toker, Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait, 60.
  7. Toker, Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait, 62.
  8. Toker, Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait, 65.
  9. Toker, Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait, 4, 75–76.