Chatham Center couldn’t have entered Pittsburgh’s skyline with any more fanfare.
“Here we go again, folks!” Gilbert Love wrote Oct. 20, 1964, in The Pittsburgh Press, ” …the Pittsburgh renaissance is a lot like a fireworks program. It dies down for a while and you think the spectacular part of it may be all over; then there’s a new display, often more dramatic than anything before it.”
Richard K. Mellon himself set off the fireworks from the 40th floor of what is now the Citizens Bank Tower, 525 William Penn Pl., heralding the beginning of Chatham’s construction and, of course, Pittsburgh’s continued renaissance.
The $22 million project was seen as a gateway to a key eastern point. “Before many years,” a Press columnist wrote, “an expanded downtown could meet an expanded Oakland, forming a city center five miles long.”
In spring 1965 after its groundbreaking, it was promoted as “the self-sufficient city within a city.”
Pittsburgh industrialist Leon Falk Jr. and New York realtor Morton Wolf invested in this “bright and sophisticated” part of the Lower Hill-Uptown urban renewal effort. The investment worked for many years, but as Mark Belko chronicled in September, its prospects dimmed considerably as tenants moved out.
Even before UPMC’s recent departure, the building had vacancy problems. Notably, the Chatham Cinema, which went up with the complex in the 1960s, was the first theater to be built in or near Downtown since the Stanley in 1927. After seeing the exquisite drawings, columnist Kaspar Monahan wrote, “I think I’m safe in predicting that the Chatham Cinema will be unique among theaters, not only of the local area but of the entire nation.”
In a way, he was proven correct. It was unique among theaters; there was little free parking nearby.
A 10 percent city amusement tax and suburban competition also doomed the Cinema. It closed in 1985, the fourth to shutter near Downtown since 1980.
Now, One Chatham Center will be sold Jan. 5 at a sheriff’s sale. Sadly, we predict few fireworks.
Top photo April 14, 1965: From the 12th floor of the Plaza Building, a view of the Epiphany Church and Uptown, where the site of Chatham Center was then being excavated. (The Pittsburgh Press)