When viewed from the West End, the collection of buildings that comprise the Golden Triangle look as if they are posing for a family portrait. The structures appear to be gathered closely, nearly shoulder to shoulder, with each building showing off its personality. Rising in the back, stern and dark, is the U.S. Steel Tower, a tall, proud father lording a collection of gleaming, often flamboyant youngsters.
(See the view from the tower’s roof at our Pittsburgh Revolution page.)
The tower has become one of the city’s defining elements. Can we imagine the Golden Triangle without its presence? Well, for those of us of a certain age, the answer is yes. Prior to 1970, the city had no dark father figure looming over Grant Street.
By the mid 1960s, many Pittsburghers feared the city’s Renaissance was losing steam. U.S. Steel’s proposal to build a 64-story headquarters building was viewed as a declaration of faith in the city’s future. “The giant steel tower will serve as a fitting symbol of this resurgent steel metropolis rising anew from its obsolescence of past years,” wrote The Pittsburgh Press. “Now, more than ever, Pittsburgh can be described as America’s Renaissance City.”
Groundbreaking ceremonies on March 15, 1967, featured more than 300 dignitaries and a radio-controlled bulldozer, which plowed into a cardboard construction shack.
Then the real work began. With it came a series of problems and surprises.
Excavation crews using jackhammers and air compressors made so much noise during the night that residents at the nearby Bigelow Apartments couldn’t get any sleep. The ear-splitting racket lasted sometimes until 2 a.m. One tenant claimed he slept wearing a headset designed to muffle the roar of jet engines. He indeed got some shuteye but complained he couldn’t hear his alarm clock.
Eventually, the city ordered work crews to keep noise levels down after 9 p.m.
During the excavation, workers uncovered an old Pennsylvania Canal tunnel, buried for well over 100 years. The 810-foot tunnel, made of huge sandstone blocks, had remained remarkably symmetrical — until heavy equipment operators reduced it to rubble.
Labor disputes sometimes slowed progress on the tower. In August 1969, an estimated 1,000 protesters seeking craft jobs for African-American men attempted to halt construction. They claimed contractors and unions were deliberately barring black workers from good-paying jobs. Protesters dodged objects, including water-filled bags, dropped by some workers on scaffolding 40 stories high.
In 1970, four fires damaged portions of the structure, but not enough to keep U.S. Steel from moving in.
And the stats? The tower rises 841 feet above Grant Street. This makes it the fourth tallest building in Pennsylvania and the 37th tallest in the U.S. Its shape is triangular, and each floor contains almost an acre of floor space. And the tower’s dark brown hue? It’s the result of a protective coating of rust that has formed on the special steel used in the building’s construction.