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What I Didn’t Know About Pittsburgh, #1

Carrie Furnace and the Oakmont Country Club. George Westinghouse and the Pittsburgh Opera. These things go in pairs – Pittsburgh’s industrial history and its contemporary arts and cultural resources. Having written about Pittsburgh for close to 15 years, I’ve learned about a lot of those pairings. What’s good for the bank account often turns out to be good for the spirit.

The old Civic Arena (a/k/a Civic Auditorium), later the Mellon Arena and the long-time home of the Pittsburgh Penguins, was built initially as a home for the new Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.  The signature technology of Pittsburgh’s 20th century – steel – literally was on public display for decades as an emblem of arts and entertainment.

There is always more to discover.  Here are two pairings that I was unaware of, until recently:


The original building using by the Westinghouse Air Brake Company to manufacture George Westinghouse’s air brake system – the foundational (1860s) invention of the Westinghouse empire and one of the technological keys to the success of the late 19th and early 20th century US railroad system – is still standing.  It sits on Liberty Avenue in the Strip District, between 24th and 25th Streets.

The Westinghouse building is the home of the Pittsburgh Opera.  One of the signature technologies of Pittsburgh’s 19th century – the air brake – is still represented in Pittsburgh’s arts and entertainment community.  Hiding in plain sight, as it were.


The golf course at the fabled Oakmont Country Club was designed  just over 100 years ago by Henry Clay Fownes, who made the fortune that supported his interest in golf by selling the family business, the Carrie Furnace Company, to the Carnegie Steel Company.

I learned that by doing some followup research after reading this recent piece in Next Pittsburgh about future development plans for the current Carrie Furnace site.  (Who was Carrie, anyway?  I’ll save the answer for another day.)

That NP piece was a disappointment, in part because it failed to mention one of the most compelling parts of the modern Carrie story: the Iron Garden.  Old Pittsburgh industry helped to produce Oakmont, a kind of manufactured garden, a golfer’s Eden.  The remnants of old Pittsburgh industry have given us a new kind of garden, an emergent, unmanicured space.

In 2014, the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, which manages the Carrie site, partnered with the Penn State Master Gardeners of Allegheny County to inventory the flora that were reclaiming the site, bit by bit, and in the process were turning Carrie into a modern, urban, wild garden.  Their charge was to create a publicly accessible, walkable interpretive tour: a different sort of story of Pittsburgh’s renewal.  Joshua Reiman, a sculptor then in residence at CMU, cast a series of iron plaques to guide visitors to the siteand did so in a spectacular public iron pour. Hundreds of volunteer hours went into the inventory process and the design of the tour. Funding for the installation came in part from local philanthropy, notably The Sprout Fund and Awesome Pittsburgh.

The Iron Garden Walk is still there, of course, and touring the garden is possible, but access is restricted. The Iron Garden is now under the management of the new Rivers of Steel Arts wing. Visitors have to buy a ticket to the Carrie Furnace site and be led on a guided tour – and only on designated “Iron Garden Tour Dates,” unfortunately.  Let us hope that public discussion of Carrie’s future includes discussion of  its post-post-industrial aspects.  The doubling is intentional, meaning that one aspect of the plan should be to leave the Iron Garden intact – and to celebrate it.  Pittsburgh has some wonderful planned green spaces, many of them connected to its business history.  It needs a little wildness, too.