ShareThis Page

Not just for visitors, tours show off another side of Downtown Pittsburgh

| Saturday, June 29, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
A highlight of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation tour of Downtown is the First Presbyterian Church, on Sixth Street, where stained glass windows represent the work of William Willet, a famous Pittsbugh artist, as well as the Tiffany Studio and others.
Philip G. Pavely
The Allegheny County Juvenile Court, now in its 75th year, played host for an annual orientation of the historic facility October 8, 2008. (Philip G. Pavely/Tribune-Review) PGP Trees 09 3 (Goes w/ Kerlik story)
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Triangle Park, near the intersection of Liberty Avenue and Fifth Avenue in front of Three PNC Plaza, opened in 2009, one of several newer small parks in the neighborhood. The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks tour emphasizes these new park spaces as well as the restored historical building and storefront that faces it, at top right.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
The delights of Downtown Pittsburgh on a beautiful summer day are heightened by new fountains built there over the past 10 years, like the one at PPG Place, and the many new spaces created for outdoor dining.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
The First Presbyterian Church is located on Sixth Avenue, Downtown, Friday, June 21, 2013.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Downtown has a collection of striking architecture from the mid-19th century on. The Regional Enterprise Tower, shown here, was once the headquarters of Alcoa and, when it opened in 1953 was nationally famous for its innovative aluminum curtain wall and other features.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
The doors are open at the First Presbyterian Church, Downtown, Friday, June 21, 2013.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Kay Pickard, a docent with Pittsburgh History and Landmarks, leads her tour group through the graveyard between Trinity Cathedral and the First Presbyterian Church, Downtown, Friday, June 21, 2013.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Kay Pickard, a docent with Pittsburgh History and Landmarks, offers information about the First Presbyterian Church, Downtown, Friday, June 21, 2013.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Trinity Cathedral, on Sixth Street, stands our against the skyline distinguished by its single mid-Victorian spire. Along with its next-door neighbor, the First Presbyterian Church, and the Duquesne Club across the street, it creates a striking reminiscence of late 19th century Pittsburgh.
Renee Rosensteel
Giant cartoonish statues of musicians stand outside the Toonseum on Liberty Avenue.

If Pittsburgh were situated somewhere in the heart of Europe, tourists would eagerly journey hundreds of miles out of their way to visit it.”

That oft-repeated quote from Brendan Gill, the late architecture critic of The New Yorker, dates to 1989, but it has never been truer than it is today, particularly with respect to our city's Downtown.

That's because Pittsburgh has developed in recent years one of the strongest downtowns of any major city in the country.

It has been turned into a walkable, beautiful and, yes, celebratory center for our city.

Downtown in summer is rich in visual treats. There are plenty of comfortable spaces for strolling or sitting; pleasant sidewalk cafes in Market Square, on Penn Avenue and elsewhere; and some fascinating public art.

Everywhere you turn these days, it seems there's a park, a parklet, or one of at least 10 appealing public fountains to be found in our compact Downtown. Add to all this great architecture, rebuilt streets and sidewalks, restored historic storefronts — and, well, you've got something that's truly special.

At this point, I'm sure there are still some readers out there scoffing or wondering what I am smoking. But if that's the case, I'll bet it's because you haven't been Downtown in a while on a nice summer day. So come Downtown and give it a try.

The best way to take it all in at first, and not miss anything important in the process, is through walking tours — either self-guided or with groups. Then you can spend some time later just wandering about, seeing for a second time whatever it is you enjoy most.

I was reminded of all of this last week, when I joined a new tour of Downtown being offered by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation called “Downtown's Best.” It's only one of about a half-dozen Downtown tours that History & Landmarks offers periodically through the year, but this is the longest and, unlike most of the others, it's not free (cost is $15) and it requires a reservation.

But it will be offered every Friday morning through July. It takes about two hours, emphasizing architectural landmarks, spectacular interiors and significant urban spaces. The tour projects a sort of cultural history of Pittsburgh, showing how the city evolved over time from a military outpost, to an industrial and financial giant, and now to a city that seems to be preparing itself well for the 21st century.

I was joined on the tour by about a dozen mostly out-of-towners. Included were a city planner from Charlottesville, Va.; a tourist from Raleigh, N.C.; and an architect from San Francisco. Two visiting couples had come in for the day from Pulaski and Ellwood City, in Beaver and Lawrence counties, respectively.

All were awed by some of the interiors — like the Union Trust Rotunda — and pleasantly surprised to end up in Market Square and PPG Place, dense with lunchtime crowds. No stereotypes anyone had ever learned about Pittsburgh could possibly survive such a beautiful summer day.

Perhaps the most interesting comment came from Kathy Chirdon of Pulaski, who related that she and her husband first started coming to Pittsburgh regularly several years ago, taking tours “until we got used to the city.” They eventually became engrossed in the history of the region, and still find the tours a worthwhile summer adventure.

There really are too many of us from the region for whom Downtown is still just something you cross to get to the stadiums, or something you rush in and out of, without looking around, when you come to Heinz Hall or the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. That really ought to change. This ought to be a tour not just for tourists, but for Pittsburghers and all other Western Pennsylvanians.

History & Landmarks is offering shorter free tours on Fridays of the Grant Street and Mellon Square areas in July, the Market Square area in August, and a Bridges and River Shores tour in September. In addition, there are regular free tours on Mondays of the spectacularly renovated old jail Downtown, now used as family courts.

Another Downtown tour that will surprise is offered by the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council. It has a newly updated edition of a booklet offering a self-guided tour of Downtown Pittsburgh's public art. This is one you definitely need a guidebook for, as you're unlikely to discover all the art on your own.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation can be reached at 412-471-5808, or reservations requested at, and the Council for the Arts at 412-391-2060, or the tour guide can be downloaded from its website at

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.