Sept. 18, 1933: "The Alpine heights atop the Grant Building"
A few years after the Grant Building was completed, one Pittsburgh newspaper sent a reporter to the structure’s observation deck to assess the value of visiting such a lofty perch.
The 37th floor deck was a “mecca,” the reporter wrote, visited by thousands who came from “every corner of the world and for every reason under the sun.”
One young man visited for medicinal reasons. His hearing was deteriorating, but spending time atop the Grant Building offered some sort of a cure. That’s what he believed, anyway. A “prominent businessman” visited the deck when needing inspiration to write compelling sales letters.
And “business girls” who’ve spent their noon hour on the observation deck “go back to their key-punching jobs with new vigor,” the reporter wrote.
It’s easy to chuckle at some of these notions today, but when the Grant Building was completed in 1930, it was Pittsburgh’s tallest building and therefore offered residents a never-before experienced view of their city and the surrounding countryside. Folks had reason to be giddy about it.
Construction on the building began in late September 1927 when two steam shovels poked into a plot of ground between Third and Fourth avenues on Grant Street. Builders promised offices with enclosed lavatories with hot and cold running water, clothes presses, and Western Union and Postal Telegraph call box connections. A tunnel under Fourth Avenue offered entrance to the City-County Building “without subjecting one to weather and traffic conditions.”
One of the structure’s innovations was a lighted beacon that sat atop the building and blinked out the word “Pittsburgh” in Morse code. The light, visible up to 125 miles away, was designed to keep night-flying pilots from crashing into the skyscraper.
During World War II, the beacon was extinguished for security reasons. And because city leaders declared they could install no air raid sirens whose wail could penetrate the Grant Building’s brick walls, sirens were instead installed inside the building.
The Grant Building has been renovated a few times — once in the 1960s, and again in the 1980s. But the beacon remains. For a while, a glitch in the aging technology caused the light to spell out “P-i-t-e-t-s-b-k-r-r-h.” Repairs were made in July 2009. And so, to all those gazing into the Golden Triangle at night, we are once again “Pittsburgh.”
(Top picture: Workers relax on the 37th floor observation deck in August 1933. Photo credit: Unknown)
Dec. 12, 1964: "The Bridge to Nowhere"The Fort Duquesne Bridge now serves as a connection between Downtown and the North Side, spanning the Allegheny River. But that wasn’t always the case.
The bridge’s main span was finished in 1963. However, according to an article in The Pittsburgh Press, “red tape and governmental disagreement” kept it from being completed for several more years, earning it the nickname “The Bridge to Nowhere.”
"Police estimated the uncompleted bridge stands about 100 feet over the Allegheny River while the dropoff is about 90 feet from the shoreline — measured straight ahead."
To prevent people from driving across the bridge and plunging to their death, barricades were set up at the Downtown side of the bridge and at the end of the span.
But that didn’t stop a daredevil Pitt student from attempting a “flight” from the end of the bridge to the North Shore.
On December 12, 1964, Frederick Williams, 21, of Basking Ridge, N.J. — a senior majoring in chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh — crashed through the barriers and raced across the span, his station wagon flying through space and landing upside down at the water’s edge.
Mr. Williams pulled himself from the wreckage, “shaken but unscathed.” He was taken to Allegheny General Hospital, where he was examined and released. According to the Pittsburgh Press article, he offered no explanation for his historic leap.
In the wake of the incident, the State Highways Department vowed to replace the broken barricades.
John S. Yard, assistant district engineer for the department, seemed dumbfounded.
"We didn’t think it was possible to do anything like that," he said.
For more on the Fort Duquesne Bridge and to explore the history of other bridges along the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh, check out the Post-Gazette’s interactive, with videos and photos from our archives.
(Photos: From the Heinz History Center, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development Collection)