Circa 1955: “Pittsburgh at Night”

Pittsburgh hasn’t always been beautiful in the harsh light of day. In her industrial years she was described as smoky, dirty, gritty and filthy. In fact, our lovely city once endured the reputation of  being “hell with the lid off.”

But by night, Pittsburgh has always been spectacular.  The industrial fires that sent smoke into our air and blackened our stone buildings also created stunning displays of light. Darkness provided a stark backdrop while concealing the city’s less appealing characteristics.

And of course Pittsburgh’s abundant hills served as fantastic viewing platforms.

The city’s business district, with its buildings clustered into a small triangle of land, has always gleamed in the night. Even in our dirtiest days, rivers poisoned with waste appeared as shimmering plates of glass and potholed streets emerged as ribbons of light. Above it all rose the Gulf Building, regal in its glowing crown.

Photographers took notice. The ugly city they knew by day magically transformed itself every night into a beautiful metropolis. Many set out to capture that beauty with their bulky cameras. Here are a few of the results.

The earliest picture was taken in 1939, as the country was climbing its way out of an economic depression. It shows what appears to be a church steeple silhouetted by the light of an unidentified steel mill. The optimistic caption in The Pittsburgh Press read, “A sure sign of better times in Pittsburgh is this nighttime scene on the industrial front, the sky lighted by belching furnaces.”

In an image made in 1946, the J&L steel mill on the South Side is so ablaze with light that it appears to harbor something angelic.

And at the official opening of the Civic Arena’s dome on July 4, 1962, Press photographer Dale Gleason was moved to shoot a time exposure of the event. As the great roof made its “epic journey,” Gleason opened his shutter a number of times, thereby “x-raying the Civic Arena,” declared the caption.

Much has changed since these pictures were made. The mills are gone, the Civic Arena is gone. We still have the Gulf Building, though, and the lights. And Pittsburgh has emerged as a city that looks great even on the brightest of days.

— Steve Mellon