Look Up! And Go On a Free Downtown Walking Tour

"It's just something none of us do," says Jim Dawson, on the subject of looking up. Yep, we're talking the simple act of tilting-your-head-back and looking skyward.

"It's just something none of us do," says Jim Dawson, on the subject of looking up. Yep, we're talking the simple act of tilting-your-head-back and looking skyward. "You got to look up." And so begins the Downtown Pittsburgh Walking Tour, offered FREE every Friday at noon, by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation (PHLF). Up this month, so to speak, is the Market Square Area Tour. We meet across the street from the Fairmont Pittsburgh on a sweltering spring day. There are about 30 of us in all, so the group is subdivided in three; each led by a PHLF volunteer wearing a red cap and a nifty mouthpiece speaker so we can hear about our architectural past over the din of today's downtown lunch hour.

Buhl Building

"We're going to be a zigging and a zagging," Dawson tells the group. And, we do just that. Up Fifth Avenue, right on Wood Street, back down to Forbes Avenue, then to middle of Market Square – or the "Diamond" as it was dubbed in 1784, when there were market stalls and the first Allegheny County Courthouse. We begin by looking at the Arts & Crafts building originally designed for the Regal Shoe Company, now home to the menswear shop, Heinz Healy's. Then, it's one of my favorites: the Buhl Building, built in 1913 and clad in a blue and white terra cotta that has been described as looking like an "Italianate wedding cake." As much as I love cake, it's no wonder I love that building.

Next, we're entering the lobby of the lovely Fairmont Pittsburgh hotel. My old colleague, Jonathan Shapiro, gets a shout out for his 15-foot "Given to Nurture" sculpture, a sycamore tree carved to reflect our three rivers. Go Jonathan!

Then it's through the lobby and past an amazing display of a few dozen of the 26,000 artifacts recovered from the hotel site during excavation. On display are nineteenth century artifacts that were recovered from the site of the hotel during excavation. More than 26,000 objects were recovered by archeologists including glass bottles, elegant china and Kestner dolls. Go archeology!

Jim Dawson leading the tour

A former Mellon employee, Dawson, tells the story of industrialist Henry Clay Frick getting shot and stabbed in his Fifth Avenue office in July 1892 by a Russian anarchist, Alexander Berkman, who was embroiled in the battle in Homestead at the Carnegie Steel Works. I later learn that as Frick's wounds are being treated, he dictates a telegram to Andrew Carnegie, his partner, who was in Scotland at the time: "Was shot twice, but not dangerously. There is no necessity for you to come home. I am still in shape to fight the battle out."

As the story goes, Frick finished his work day and was taken to Clayton, his Point Breeze home to recuperate. Dawson tells us Frick was back to work the following Monday, but I read elsewhere that Frick returned to his office—by streetcar—about two weeks later on Aug. 5, a day after his son's funeral. Go crazy workaholics!

We learn about the rare cast-iron facades of several buildings along the tour. In front of the Skinny Building, I spread my long arms and can practically touch the 5-foot, 2-inch wide building from side to side. "How it got produced, we don't know," says our affable tour guide about the aptly named Skinny Buildling.

We walk by the PNC YMCA and hear Dawson talk again about "adaptive reuse." The nearby CVS earns a "D" grade from Dawson, who I think is being generous.

We’re nearly back to where we started in Market Square, when we hear that The Original Oyster House was built in 1870 – when beer sold for 10 cents a glass and oysters a penny. The Italianate-style building that houses Primanti's was built soon after Pittsburgh's Great Fire of 1845.

The tour is over now and we all thank Dawson for the great tour. One of the pair of friends from the Bridgeville area tries to hand him a $20 bill. But, Dawson turns it down. Go volunteerism!

And, most definitely go on a free Downtown Pittsburgh walking tour, compliments of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. Don't forget to strain your neck, and look up!

Downtown Pittsburgh: Guided Walking Tours

Every Friday, May through October (12-1 pm)

  • June: Market Square Area
  • July: Penn-Liberty Cultural District
  • August: Bridges & River Shores
  • September: Fourth Avenue & PPG Place
  • October: Gateway Center Renaissance Historic District