It may not look like much from a distance, but there’s plenty to see here, if you zoom in — into Pittsburgh’s past.
Go ahead. You are a spy satellite from the future. Click on the photo twice and when you come back, I’ll tell you what I see.
What I See
We are on Monument Hill looking out over Exposition Park toward downtown Pittsburgh. According to my watch, it’s a little before 1910.
I immediately notice that in those days wild sumac trees crowded undeveloped slopes. Wait a minute. They still do that now.
Something else hasn’t changed much. A lot of space is dedicated to baseball.
PNC Park today sits a little to the left of its predecessor. Exposition Park hosted the first World Series in 1903 between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Boston Americans. PNC Park still awaits its first World Series game.
The Pirates played their last game at Exposition Park on June 24, 1909, in front of 5,545 people. That may be what we are watching here. The stadium could seat 10,000. The next day, they moved to Forbes Field newly built in Oakland. It could hold twice as many fans.
That was good because a thousand or more fans were relegated to standing in the outfield during big games. They formed a gallery similar to those at golf tournaments. Ball into the crowd? No problem. Automatic double.
It was also good because the Allegheny River tended to stand in the outfield, as well. There are accounts of players in knee-deep water, of them making diving catches that were . . . well, rather splashy.
Semi-professional teams used the field after the Pirates left. The players at the well-attended game outside the stadium do not appear to be children, but the small outfield makes one wonder.
Abridged Story of a Bridge
The graceful lines of the Roberto Clemente Bridge are sorely missed in this view. It wasn’t built yet.
It’s plain-Jane predecessor connected Federal Street on the North Side with Sixth Street downtown. It would have cost you a penny or two to cross, unless you were a woman or a child. Then you could cross for free.
Two years after this photo, the county bought the privately owned toll bridge. Then there were no more tolls — just taxes.
The War Department, which was responsible for moving stuff during an invasion, determined the Sixth Street Bridge and many other Pittsburgh bridges should either be raised or replaced with higher spans.
So, by 1928, three elegant suspension bridges were built, arching over the river at Sixth, Seventh and Ninth streets. As a group, we call them the Three Sisters. Individually, they are now named in honor of baseball legend Roberto Clemente, artist Andy Warhol and environmental pioneer Rachel Carson.
The ugly-duckling bridge in photo did not just disappear. Sections were put on barges and floated downriver. They were then resurrected as a bridge connecting Coraopolis and Neville Island on a back channel of the Ohio River. It remained there until 1995.
The Skyline Phipps Built
Most are aware of the connection between Henry Phipps and the renowned plant place in Oakland bearing his name. Few know he is responsible for the cool, pierced building still standing on Sixth Street.
It is the Fulton Building, named by Phipps in honor of Robert Fulton, a developer of steam-powered boats that could not only travel from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, but back again, up river.
It dramatically spurred industrial and agricultural development in the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. Of course, it did the same throughout the world. But, it started here.
Such riverboats are still quite evident outside the Fulton Building in this photo a century later.
The building is only about five years old here. As you can see, it started out with a granite-and-brick partner across the street. The pair created a dramatic entry into downtown from the Northside, where Phipps grew up. It was torn down in 1964. A parking garage backed into the space.
Phipps could appreciate the value of a good partner. He started out in business with a boyhood neighbor, one Andrew Carnegie.
He was flush with cash after John D. Rockefeller bought out Carnegie Steel in 1901, and Phipps was the major investor in these riverfront buildings.
Next to the Sixth Street buildings is the towering Manufacturers Building, the one with natatorium signs on the roof. The swimming pool and associated turkish baths and massage rooms were actually in the four-story building to the rear.
It was among Phipps’ many efforts to give something back to the community that made him rich. In this case, he offered a place for Pittsburghers to thoroughly clean off the industrial grime and soot his factories wrought.
The Pittsburgh Natatorium seems to have spared nothing, according to a 1912 book on sanitation.
“. . .There is the shower and needle bath, the ‘sweat’ bath, the cold plunge, and luxurious couches bespeaking of cleanliness and comfort, where one can rest to their heart’s content.
“The ‘salt rub,’ the most refreshing of all baths and rubs ever invented, is becoming popular with this Natatorium. . . It is safe to say that with the introduction of this unique bath many women have brushed aside cosmetics and lotions, and are letting nature do its work unhindered by false appliances. . . On average, 500 women make use of the Natatorium on Thursdays in one bath or another, and attendants have handled at times 1,000 men on other days.”
All the water was continually refreshed from artesian wells. The price? $1.50. That would be about $36 in 2015 dollars. It included a “clean bed” and a private room, but I don’t think overnight stays were offered.
The natatorium was torn down in 1935. The odd reason given in the historic record — to reduce property taxes — seems more political statement than reason. It must not have been generating sufficient revenue in the midst of the Great Depression to cover costs, including taxes.
Otherwise the owners could have lowered their property taxes to a much greater degree by razing the Manufacturer’s Building, a 16-story loft tower attached to it. That didn’t happen until 1956. It was replaced by, you guessed it, a parking garage.
The Fulton Building thrives yet today though as the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel following a $45 million makeover completed in 2001.
All the buildings of Phipps skyline were designed by New York architect Grosvenor Atterbury.