Pittsburgh’s Modernist Moment

SOM
SOM
Sep 19 · 12 min read
SOM’s Pittsburgh story starts with the H.J. Heinz Company (above) and expands into the civic realm during a transformative period in the city’s history. Image © Ezra Stoller | ESTO

Few considered Pittsburgh an attractive place in the early 20th century. In fact, the smoke-belching, flood-prone city’s survival in postwar America would require moving beyond its dependence on heavy industries. Some of those changes arrived via the drawing boards at SOM.

Inspired by the release of Imagining the Modern: Architecture and Urbanism of the Pittsburgh Renaissance, we went through the filing cabinets inside the New York office and sent out a few emails to see what else we could add to the fascinating collection of archival materials the authors Michael Kubo, Chris Grimley, and Rami el Samahi assembled for their project. Not all of SOM’s midcentury projects in Pittsburgh were realized, but the legacy of each one provides a better understanding of the city’s transformation from V-Day through the Civil Rights Movement.

A renewal recipe emerges

SOM’s Pittsburgh story starts with the H.J. Heinz Company. Before the end of World War II, the food conglomerate first commissioned the firm to build a processing plant in Tracy, California. Meanwhile, in western Pennsylvania, Heinz was reconsidering its future.

Pittsburgh’s St. Patrick’s Day flood of 1936 killed 62 people, injured more than 500, left 135,000 homeless, and caused extensive damage throughout downtown — also known as the Golden Triangle — and the North Side. At Heinz’s sprawling plant along the Allegheny River, everything was 15-feet-deep in water. The company, as retold in Businessweek years later, vowed to “never spend another dime on expansion” in the city it had called home since its founding in 1869.

But a lot happened in the following years that would change their mind. New dams and reservoirs were built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; a regional planning association run by private and public sector officials known as the Allegheny Conference on Community Development was formed in 1944, bringing influential families like the Heinzes to the table on major infrastructure projects; the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) was formed shortly after; and a long-awaited Smoke-Control Ordinance of 1941 was fully enacted in 1946, drastically improving the city’s notorious air quality. Sensing a promising Pittsburgh on the horizon, Heinz asked SOM in 1948 for a master plan that would modernize their 27-block campus.

Modernism arrives at the workplace

With Gordon Bunshaft as lead designer, SOM remodeled one building and designed two new ones for Heinz during the 1950s. The project attracted press attention despite its industrial surroundings, separated from a booming downtown by the Allegheny River.

Upon its completion, the vinegar vat house was described by Architectural Forum as “the handsomest wall in Pittsburgh, the most sophisticated steel and glass curtain Skidmore, Owings & Merrill have yet put up.” Image © Ezra Stoller | ESTO.

The auditorium inside an Albert Kahn Associates building from the 1930s was gutted, redesigned, and reconfigured to accommodate additional employee services. A vinegar vat house was described by Architectural Forum upon its completion as “the handsomest wall in Pittsburgh, the most sophisticated steel and glass curtain Skidmore, Owings & Merrill have yet put up.” Glass — which appeared as an intense blue from the outside and milky white from inside — was used from floor to ceiling for the outer walls, and structural steel was left exposed except for a heavy covering of acid-resistant paint. In order to reduce glare and solar heat, exterior glass was heat-absorbent and aluminum was used for window sections. The building has been significantly altered since, but its original appearance lives on in Ezra Stoller’s photography. A favorite of Bunshaft, Stoller captured an especially memorable angle of the plant, in which a solitary red door in the foreground leads to a vast blue wall that eventually fades into Pittsburgh’s hilly landscape.

SOM also designed a new research and administrative building for Heinz, just one of many white-collar architectural additions to Pittsburgh’s skyline in the ’50s. The decade included the completion of 525 William Penn Place (1951, Harrison & Abramovitz), the first three Gateway Center towers (1952, Eggers & Higgins), and the Alcoa Building (1953, Harrison & Abramovitz). Despite the impressive competition, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette proclaimed that Heinz’s addition, “as much or more than any other new buildings in this district… capture[s] the spirit and atmosphere of the new Pittsburgh.”

Inside the main lobby of Heinz’s research and administrative building. Image © Ezra Stoller | ESTO.

At first glance, Bunshaft’s understated mid-rise design resembles the Pepsi-Cola Headquarters on Park Avenue, the most notable difference being an extra-wide base that connects to the surrounding buildings along the street level. With the tower’s wide ends facing the campus, the building maintains an elegant riverside presence. Inside, a basement level was intentionally designed to be empty for flood protection (original concepts for this project show a building raised on stilts to handle flooding), while typical underground machinery was housed on the top floor. A mural by Stuart Davis, Composition Concrete, was commissioned for the foyer and was visible from the outside. Architecture historian Nicholas Adams writes in his upcoming book, Gordon Bunshaft and SOM: Building Corporate Modernism, that H.J. “Jack” Heinz II never cared for the piece, but the architect was able to convince the client that “he could always get his money back.” After a flood scare in the late ’70s, the mural — Davis’ last one ever — was donated to the Carnegie Museum of Art. The H.J. Heinz Company later moved out of the campus entirely and is now headquartered downtown in the Philip Johnson-designed PPG Place, a landmark from the city’s “Renaissance II” of the 1980s. A Brooklyn-based developer is currently planning to convert the Bunshaft facility into apartments.

Heinz and Bunshaft strike again

A view of the Portal Bridge from Point State Park. Image courtesy the Heinz History Center, copyright unknown.

Heinz was quite satisfied with Bunshaft, asking him to design a manufacturing plant in the U.K. in the middle of their Pittsburgh upgrade. Their CEO, Jack, was also heavily involved in the city’s urban renewal, and his influence led to Bunshaft receiving additional work.

Around the same time as the Heinz expansion, Pittsburgh leaders were putting a tremendous amount of energy into revitalizing the tip of downtown known as The Point. Located at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, industrial buildings and railyards were cleared for high-speed roads and a signature public space that would provide leisure and emphasize the role Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne — both built on the site in the mid-1700s — had on the city’s foundation.

By 1953, designers Charles and Edward Stotz were struggling to make a mixing interchange — which would cut through the site and connect two new bridges through the lower Triangle — into something attractive and comfortable for pedestrians moving around the park and through downtown. Jack Heinz, a member of the Point State Park committee, suggested they collaborate with Bunshaft. And so they did. “[Bunshaft] recommended a very low, long, almost flat arch,” recalled Charles Stotz in Robert Alberts’ The Shaping of the Point: Pittsburgh’s Renaissance Park. “That’s a very difficult structure to build, because as an arch becomes flatter, the increased thrust at the spring line becomes critical. It could be done here because of new technology developed in prestressed reinforcing rods in the concrete structure,” he added. The final product, writes Alberts, was “attractive and dramatic,” providing “a clear, wide view to the park, fountain, rivers, and hills to the west.” Stotz further explained, “We made the pedestrian bridge 40 feet wide… much wider than a normal walkway, simply to have it large in scale, in proportion to the portal. You’ll notice those railings are great metal tubes supported by heavily anchored posts. I don’t think you feel a confinement because of the low clearance beneath the vaults. It’s part of the charm of it.”

The final result, completed in 1963, was well received. Engineering News-Record called it “a most unusual structure, a gracefully arched monumental gateway to the park.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette gave it even higher praise, writing, “This portal is handsome, a flowing band of concrete that reminds us of the use of reinforced concrete by such masters as [Minoru] Yamasaki in his science building at the Seattle World’s Fair and [Eero] Saarinen in the TWA terminal at Idlewild.” The editorial board concluded, “If there had to be a highway across the Point Park development, they at least have made the best of it.”

The Renaissance’s limitations

A model of Bunshaft’s unbuilt arts center for Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill District. Image © Ezra Stoller | ESTO.

Before Bunshaft was brought in by Heinz for the Portal Bridge, the Allegheny Conference briefly flirted with a Frank Lloyd Wright plan for a new civic center at the current day Point State Park instead. A favorite of local business leader Edgar Kaufmann, Wright had already designed the Fallingwater estate for the department store owner and Allegheny Conference member. The architect’s Point State Civic Center would have included an opera house, sports arena, convention hall, and movie theaters. Pittsburgh still wanted to see such facilities realized, however, and instead targeted the Hill District, a collection of mostly African-American neighborhoods just east of downtown. But the plan, firmly rooted in the immediate postwar period’s power dynamics, had been introduced as the rules and expectations of community planning were changing.

Relocation of Lower Hill residents began in 1956. By 1961, when Civic Arena (designed by Mitchell & Ritchey) opened, a total of 1,551 families, 458 individuals, and 416 businesses were relocated. The project checked off the Allegheny Conference’s wishes for a multipurpose arena. Looking to complete the renewal scheme, Jack Heinz brought Bunshaft to Pittsburgh yet again, this time for an arts center.

Envisioned as “a cultural Acropolis,” 100 acres of the Lower Hill District would be transformed as a hub of performing and visual arts, attracting moneyed locals, and improving its national reputation. The Heinz Endowment donated $8 million (anonymously at the time) for the project. It would contain a symphony hall, a park, a restaurant, pool, and an art museum on top of a parking garage and promenade park. With a significant amount of the project’s funding coming from Heinz, it is of little surprise that Bunshaft was brought into the fold.

Bunshaft had already done a similar project, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, but his Lincoln Center contribution was a collaboration with Eero Saarinen and just one of many buildings that comprise the Upper West Side cultural hub. For his Pittsburgh design, there would be no compromises. Nicholas Adams describes Bunshaft’s concept in his new book:

The symphony hall would have been massive: the columns (some 70 feet above the ground) supported a cellular, coffer-like roof; the roof of the symphony hall even extended beyond the upper-level podium, and the bases of the piers would have been found at a lower podium. Bronze pins managed the transition from pier to roof. In one of the SOM models the cornice is shown either undecorated or with stiffeners replacing the “triglyphs.” Between the peripteral piers and the curtain wall was an ambulatory. The construction material was concrete sheathed in Roman travertine. The art museum, not as completely worked out as the symphony hall, was a three-story-structure with a roof garden.

But, as retold by William Mallett in an article for Pittsburgh History, an academic journal, the Heinz contribution was contingent on even more of the Hill District being cleared out. The Pittsburgh Press noted at the time that “the people most needed [for financial donations] want to make certain that the proposed cultural center is not built next to a seething slum; they want renewal for the Upper Hill to protect their donations.” Supporting apartment towers were left mostly unrealized for similar reasons. Zeckendorf Developers went bankrupt before it could build out the housing it planned to build next to the Center for the Arts. Alcoa, the Pittsburgh-based aluminum giant, took over the site with the intention of finishing what Zeckendorf started but, its president told the URA in 1966, “if the Upper Hill is not to be improved in a major way, it will stop us in our tracks.” Of the remaining Hill residents, there was little trust left in the Urban Redevelopment Authority or those funding its initiatives in the late ’60s. So instead, Loew’s Penn Theater downtown, abandoned in 1964, was selected to become Heinz Hall. Work started on the new home of the Pittsburgh Orchestra in 1967 and was completed in 1971. Today, the 14-block area surrounding it is known as the Cultural District, with galleries, restaurants, shops, and seven theaters, including one named after the Hill District’s very own, playwright August Wilson.

In hindsight, Bunshaft’s building may have added life to the Lower Hill in the way that Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center — a similar facility in usage, scale, and inherited site complications — contributes to the Foggy Bottom neighborhood. A nightly influx of the region’s elites driving into a parking garage, attending an event, then driving home would not have provided the same vitality that downtown’s Cultural District ended up generating in the following decades. And its monolithic appearance at street level, a rational response to the Lower Hill’s topography and the arts center’s programming, would have likely become a symbol of the disconnect between white and black Pittsburgh — an architectural intervention on behalf of Pittsburgh’s elites at the expense of the city’s most marginalized community, who failed to see much gain from any sort of “Renaissance.” The Civic Arena was demolished in 2012, leaving the entire Lower Hill site vacant and contested while a new master plan awaits approval.

Beyond Bunshaft

Walter Netsch worked on plans for a downtown People Mover run by Westinghouse, but the project was never built. Image © SOM

SOM’s Pittsburgh work was not limited to the Heinz-Bunshaft relationship. Westinghouse, another influential and locally-headquartered company, tapped the firm’s Chicago office to build an addition to their research and development center in the suburban Churchill Borough. Walter Netsch, a partner who designed some of its most dynamic postwar buildings including the Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel, took on the project. Working with him were James DeStefano and Adrian Smith, eventual partners at SOM before both starting their own practices later on. The project won a Chicago AIA Distinguished Building Award in 1974. Westinghouse also asked Netsch to design a downtown rapid transit system around the same time. The innovative architect recalled in a 1995 interview for the Chicago Architects Oral History Project that the study was quite exciting:

We devised… the idea of great, big, long trusses that went from the end of one block to the other. Inside this huge, U-shaped truss at the top we were going to put in power and water and everything so that you didn’t have to dig up the streets into the future… And all the new electronic power things that were supposed to go in the future — telephone, and so forth. And then below it we hung the trolley, so it was suspended over, and you could look down into the urban area and look into the shops and so forth.

But the People Mover never came to be. “It had some sense of reality because they tried it out,” recalled Netsch, “but I think in our search for the panacea for urban society we hooked so much onto it, it got more and more expensive and sort of fell of its own weight.” Westinghouse pursued an automated bus system instead, only to lose out to the Port Authority’s light rail proposal which eventually opened in 1984.

The downtown YWCA was done in collaboration with Pietro Belluschi and completed in 1963. Image © Ezra Stoller | ESTO.

Other SOM projects, like a downtown YWCA (1963, in collaboration with Pietro Belluschi) and a Pittsburgh National Bank branch in the Oakland neighborhood (1966) were handsome additions to the cityscape. A second Renaissance in the 1980s also involved SOM, with the design of the Equibank Tower and the National Steel Center downtown.

A Pittsburgh National Bank branch in the Oakland neighborhood opened in 1966. Image © SOM.

Its contributions to Pittsburgh’s postwar transformation were a reflection of determined private and public interests collaborating in the pursuit of modernity and civic beauty. Projects like the Portal Bridge and the Heinz campus demonstrate the best of such efforts, while the rejection of its arts center reflects a rising mistrust among the urban public of the top-down planning process that was wearing out its welcome across the U.S. at the time.

More than half a century removed from this period of great change, the team behind Imagining the Modern has recaptured the moment for a new generation of Pittsburghers and urban scholars. It also gave this architecture firm a nice motive to revisit its own history—a surprisingly vast one for a city in which it has never had an office.


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Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is one of the leading architecture, interior design, engineering, and urban planning firms in the world. For more, visit www.som.com.

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