Free tours showcase city’s special sites
Pittsburghers didn’t need USA Today to tell them the view from the Mt. Washington overlook is one of the best in the nation. But as they work, play and live among the modern skyscrapers and repurposed factory buildings that meld to form the city’s skyline, sometimes locals forget to look up.
“People don’t see a lot of the details and don’t realize the significance of the things we have in the city. Too often people are looking down,” says tour guide Drew Chelosky. “If you wrap a nice present, you put the bow on the top. Architecture designers work the same way.”
Eight free tours of Pittsburgh neighborhoods, offered by Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, will point out unique aspects to the city, like the first drive-through banking window at the Iron & Glass Bank on East Carson Street, South Side; the world’s second-tallest educational building in Oakland; and portraits of history makers like Mary Croghan Schenley and Andrew Carnegie on the facade of Midtown Towers at Liberty and Seventh, Downtown.
“I think the tours are very nice because they help people to appreciate how interesting a city Pittsburgh is,” says William Garrett, 78, who has been leading tours for the last decade. “They make people appreciate things they see frequently, but they may not realize the importance of.”
Like Fourth Avenue, Pittsburgh’s “Wall Street” at the turn of the 20th century that held more capital than the combined holdings of the banks of England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany and Russia. Or East Carson Street, one of only 58 “Great American Main Streets,” once travelled by John F. Kennedy.
“Our tours are of places that have a fascinating history and are a vibrant place today, or that is an area in transition — and this transition is making it into a vibrant place,” says Louise Sturgess, executive director of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks.
This is the first year the organization will lead tours through the civic center of Oakland, a neighborhood where tens of thousands of students, medical staff, business people and residents give life to the buildings, parks and institutions made possible by people like Schenley and Andrew Carnegie in the late 1800s.
“It was one of the first true civic centers of its kind in the country. It’s an area where some of the most influential people came together. You can literally stand in one spot and turn 360 degrees, without moving, and see so many important elements,” says Chelosky, who’s enthusiasm of Oakland’s treasures was the first step to creating the walking tour.
Those interested in exploring the civic center can meet him every Wednesday at noon next to Dippy, a life-sized replica of the Diplodocus carnegii that Andrew Carnegie scrambled to acquire for his Institute in 1898. The group will wind around Schenley Memorial Fountain, then walk the former baselines of Forbes Field — now site of the University of Pittsburgh’s Wesley W. Posvar Hall, home to social scientists and education students. Past Schenley Plaza, the tour will continue to the Cathedral of Learning and the William Pitt Student Union, the former Hotel Schenley where Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Babe Ruth were among the elite to check in.
Central Oakland’s history is a main element of the tour, but “we also talk about how it’s the core of a very vital district today,” says Sturgess. “We like to talk about this area in a very present-day way.”
It’s often residents of the region who take the History & Landmarks tours.
“We can see retired people, we can see business people from Downtown, and we can see students,” says Garrett. “They’re people who have some connection to the city and some source of information about it.”
As a child in the East End, Chelosky, 31, learned a hand-me-down history of Pittsburgh similar to that which many locals acquire.
“Growing up in Pittsburgh, people and their families have their own stories that they kind of tell,” he says.
His curiosity about local history led him to check the truth behind these stories, and as an employee at Pitt, and formerly at Carnegie Mellon University, Chelosky focused his research on Oakland. He has found plenty of historical significance to share during his hour-long tours.
“Oakland has that blend of a business area, a cultural area, learning institutions, residential areas and, of course, you have Schenley Park,” Chelosky says. “So within walking distance, you have a blend of everything.”
Free walking tours schedule
Old Allegheny County Jail Museum: 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Mondays through October
Oakland Civic Center: Noon-1 p.m. Wednesdays in June
Southside Strolls: 10:30-11:45 a.m. Saturdays in June
Downtown Walks: Noon-1 p.m. Fridays
June: Bridges and More
July: Penn-Liberty Cultural District
August: Fourth Avenue and PPG Place
September: Revitalizing Fifth and Forbes
Pittsburgh’s Parks: 4-5 p.m. Sundays in September
Sept. 2: Schenley Park
Sept. 9: Frick Park
Sept. 16: Highland Park
Sept. 23: Riverview Park
Sept. 30: Allegheny Commons
Special one-time tours:
August Wilson’s Hill District (walking tour), 2-4 p.m. June 23, $5
Pittsburgh’s Bridges from the Rivers (boat tour), 1:45-4 p.m. July 15, $45
Homewood’s Historic Landmarks (bus and walking tour), 1:30-4:30 p.m. Sept. 15, $45
Vandergrift, Pa. (bus and walking tour), 1:30-5 p.m. Oct. 13, $50
Details: 412-471-5808, ext. 527, or www.phlf.org