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Great spaces: Celebrating the city's spectacular interiors

| Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011

Architecture is meant to be experienced, not just observed.

We all know Pittsburgh has lots of great architecture. You can see that readily from the edge of Mt. Washington or on a quick drive through Oakland. But, Pittsburgh also has lots of great architectural experiences -- interior spaces that can inspire you, excite you, calm you, make you feel part of a community, or stir personal thoughts and memories.

Given that, I asked several architects and others professionally interested in architecture to identify their favorite public "rooms" in Pittsburgh. Results ranged from the rococo to the sleekly modern and from the grand foyer of Benedum Center to an intimate coffee shop in an old bakery on the South Side. Here they are:

City Council Chambers, Grant Street. That the City-County Building is an exceptional piece of architecture is usually lost in the day-to-day details of government. But Mt. Washington architect David J. Vater rates the City Council Chambers, full of expressively intricate inlaid-wood paneling, as his favorite room in Pittsburgh. This classically inspired building was designed by Pittsburgh architect Henry Hornbostel in 1917 and boasts a Supreme Court courtroom that's supremely worth seeing, too.

The Union Trust Building Rotunda, Grant Street. Sometimes a great experience involves a great surprise. In the lobby of the Gothic-inspired Union Trust Building, 10 floors of circular space suddenly open up above you to make an astonishing rotunda. Discovering this space in an office building "absolutely wowed" Bill Callahan, the Western Pennsylvania representative of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, when he arrived here from Nebraska to take his job six years ago.

Terrace Room, Omni William Penn Hotel, William Penn Place. Anne Swager, executive director of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, remembers experiencing the quiet wood-paneled elegance of the Renaissance Revival-style Terrace Room restaurant when she first came to Pittsburgh for a job interview. "The city, the setting for the interview -- all this helped confirm for me that this was where I wanted to be," she says. Another landmark-worthy room at the hotel is the 17th floor Urban Room -- an Art Deco masterpiece from 1929 by stage designer Joseph Urban.

The Waiting Room at the Pennsylvanian, Liberty Avenue. Before there was a stunning entrance to the city through the Fort Pitt Tunnels, there was the Pennsylvania railroad station, now converted to offices and apartments. Its waiting room, though, is still there, used as a lobby. David Hoglund, principal and chief operating officer of Perkins Eastman Architects, which has its offices there, describes it: "The welcoming grandeur still speaks to history," he says. "We often hear stories from folks who left from here for war or military service, college or a honeymoon. Those experiences are now shadows, but the outline of the cafeteria counter and barstool bolt holes in the marble floor still speak to times of a quick bite, a sad goodbye or a welcoming hug." The once-busy 1902 building and its spectacular exterior rotunda were by famed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham.

Lobby, Fairmont Pittsburgh Hotel, Market Street. This is a brand-new hotel that's part of Three PNC Plaza, and architect Dutch MacDonald, vice president and chief operating officer of Maya Design Inc., readily cites its elegantly restrained modern lobby as his favorite interior space. "This is the contemporary equivalent of those grand old lobbies from early in the 20th century," he says.

Benedum Center, Seventh Street. Architect Tim Powers, president of the architecture division of Astorino, proposes the sumptuous barrel-vaulted foyer of the Benedum Center with its grand stairways and balconies. Reminiscent of great opera houses in Europe, the foyer is a place to see and be seen, making an evening at the opera or ballet a memorable social occasion. A similarly sumptuous interior can be found at Heinz Hall.

College of Fine Arts, Carnegie Mellon University. Martin Aurand is the architecture librarian and archivist at CMU and author of "The Spectator and the Topographical City." He cites the extraordinary Great Hall of CMU's Fine Arts building. Here, architect Henry Hornbostel created "dynamic changes of level and movement through space, capped with a decorative program of murals that serves as an encyclopedia of the arts." Also special in this building is the intimacy of the Kresge Theatre.

Founder's Room, Carnegie Music Hall. This rarely seen room, like the ornate foyer of the Carnegie Music Hall that it adjoins, is opulently dressed in marble and gilt, and equally rich in history. It's a favorite of University of Pittsburgh architectural history professor Franklin Toker, who wrote "Pittsburgh: A New Portrait."

Big Dog Coffee, Sarah Street, South Side. Tracy Myers, curator at the Heinz Architectural Center at the Carnegie Museum, finds special meaning in a busy neighborhood coffee shop, where a young couple restored an old bakery, keeping original cabinetry intact. "The physical place is comfortable, pleasant and handsome, but what makes it a great space," Myers says, "is the incredible sense of community, inclusivity and optimism that its owners cultivate. To my mind, buildings truly acquire meaning only through their use, and Big Dog has become meaningful by being a small world in a big neighborhood."

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Great spaces

Great spaces

Celebrating the city's spectacular interiors.

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