The Digs | Past vs Present

Past vs Present

Using photographs from the Pittsburgh City Photographer archive, compare Pittsburgh's decades-long transition from an early-20th century industrial city to its modern day culture.

Photography & research John Hamilton

November 12, 2018

With more than 150,000 photos taken over 120 years, the Pittsburgh City Photographer collection is a historic record of a changing and developing city.

But when the city’s law department filed an assignment to photograph a sidewalk before a construction project, history was not on anyone’s mind. The city simply wanted a record so it wouldn’t lose a lawsuit.

“I don’t think anyone really ever thought at the time, ‘We’re documenting the city for posterity.’ It was just all inadvertent,” said Frank Kurtik, a photo archivist who began organizing the collection in 1981. “There’s quite a beauty to that.”

Held by the Archives & Special Collections at the University of Pittsburgh, the collection preserves photos and negatives created from 1890 to 2002 and hosts almost 15,000 images in a searchable online database. Most of the photos were captured by photographers working for the city’s Division of Photography, which received assignments from various departments.

Though the city still has a photographer, their job is essentially that of a police photographer. The city photographer position as it existed since 1907 was eliminated in 1971.

When Pitt hired Mr. Kurtik, the collection was in bad shape. The negatives were in crumbling envelopes, Mr. Kurtik said. His first task was to ensure the artifacts were properly stored and preserved. But he immediately recognized the collection’s importance.

“It was so significant in capturing the way the city looked over much of the 20th century, I immediately [let] people know I was working on the collection,” he said. “Word got around to scholars, students and the general public.”

As Pittsburgh continues a decades-long transition from being an industrial city, the Post-Gazette set out to see how different the city looks today compared to the early- and mid-20th century. Standing where the city photographer stood, we captured the same scene — some are hardly recognizable, others look almost the same. And behind each photo is a history of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, people and culture.

Clarification, posted Jan. 2, 2019: The University of Pittsburgh's Archive Services Center is now known as Archives & Special Collections. The text has been updated to reflect this change.




Federal Street flood


That’s the headline that greeted readers of The Pittsburgh Post on the morning of Friday, March 15, 1907 — the date this photo was taken.

“Looking from the offices of the weather bureau on the top of the Farmers bank building it seems as though thousands of homes, buildings, manufacturing plants and institutions are afloat on a big stagnant pond,” the Daily Post wrote.

In the months after this historic flood, the city photographer captured dozens of photos documenting the improvement to the North Side flood district. And it seems the street raising helped the area — the phrase “North Side flood district” has rarely appeared in Pittsburgh newspapers since the 1930s.


Beaver Avenue at Liverpool Street

The North Shore: Home to PNC Park, Heinz Field, Carnegie Science Center and Rivers Casino. Right? Wrong.

Two of those attractions, the casino and science center, aren’t on the North Shore at all — they’re located in the mysterious neighborhood of Chateau.

The lack of awareness of Chateau is understandable, considering only a handful of people live in the neighborhood. The 2000 census counted 39 residents, but in 2006, the Post-Gazette found just five homes in the entire neighborhood.

When this photo was taken in 1935, the city photographer correctly identified the neighborhood as Manchester. Chateau wouldn’t arrive until the 1960s when Route 65 sliced through the North Side neighborhood, separating it into Manchester and Chateau.

A satellite view of the two neighborhoods today shows the effects of the highway — the residential neighborhood of Manchester on one side, with the parking lots and warehouses of Chateau on the other.


Motor Square Garden

East Liberty’s Motor Square Garden has seen a lot of changes over its century-long life. Financed by the Mellons, the building opened at the turn of the 20th century as the East Liberty Market House.

But it quickly failed as a produce market. The Pittsburgh Press reported in January 1913 that the tenants were asked to vacate and find a new space. “This no doubt means that the building as a market space will soon be a thing of the past,” the Press predicted.

By March of the same year, the “bleak and bare produce market” was converted to a “glowing masterpiece of decorative art” for the building’s first auto show. The show — and subsequent ones — was a success, and by April, the Pittsburgh Daily Post reported that the building would “be known henceforth as ‘Motor Square Garden.’”

Along with car shows, the building was used as a sports venue: Pitt basketball played there until the Pitt Pavilion was built in 1925. The team’s general manager declared it the “finest basketball hall in the country, as well as being the largest,” in a 1920 Pittsburgh Press article.

Three years after this 1937 photo, the building became a used car dealership. In 1988, the American Automobile Association purchased the property and, after a quick stint as a shopping mall, it houses AAA’s Pittsburgh headquarters.


Forbes Avenue

Gus Miller was 12 years old when he began peddling newspapers on this Oakland corner in 1892. From the time he purchased his newsstand on Forbes Avenue in Oakland in 1907 until his death 60 years later, Gus’ establishment was an Oakland institution. His store was well-known for its assortment of magazines, newspapers, and novelties hanging from the ceiling. Gus was Oakland’s unofficial historian and famous prankster — he’d often put small explosives in cigars planted for shoplifters.

His birthday celebrations, which fell on St. Patrick’s Day, were more like block parties — city council members, Pirates players, the mayor, and the governor were said to have stopped by for one of the hundreds of slices of cake. President John F. Kennedy sent his regards in 1963, according to Gus’ P-G obituary.

The Post-Gazette called him “the city’s most illustrious newsboy,” but Gus was also a legend in the Pirates organization. He served as head usher of Forbes Field from the first game in 1909 until he retired in 1947. He started ushering when the Pirates played at Exposition Park in 1900. He worked every single Pirates home game for the next four decades, according to the Post-Gazette.

His devotion to his Oakland landmark was similar — fellow business owners told the P-G that Gus hadn’t missed a day in 50 years. After he retired from ushering, Gus was still working 14 hours a day, seven days a week at age 71.

Since this 1937 photo, a lot has changed in Oakland. The University of Pittsburgh and UPMC have grown. Litchfield Towers, which house nearly 2,000 students, popped up in 1963. Small businesses have been replaced by chain stores and office space. Gus was witness to the beginning of the neighborhood’s transformation.

Wanting to expand its campus, Pitt purchased Forbes Field in 1958 with an agreement to lease the ballpark to the Pirates until a replacement could be built. Though the Pirates wouldn’t move into Three Rivers Stadium until 1970, Gus knew his Oakland was changing.

“When Forbes Field goes, that’s when I quit,” he said in 1960. Gus worked at his shop for seven years after that until his death in June 1967.


First English Evangelical Lutheran Church

The focal point of this 1912 photo is the First English Evangelical Lutheran Church on Grant Street.

Grant Street was a new location for the congregation, which, as its name indicates, was founded in 1837 as the first English-speaking Lutheran church west of the Allegheny Mountains, according to its website. Originally located on Seventh Avenue, The Pittsburgh Daily Post in 1887 reported that the “magnificent Grant Street structure” would cost $80,000.

Today, the longstanding church is almost hidden among skyscrapers and heavy traffic.


Penn Avenue

Home to some of Pittsburgh’s most famous shops and restaurants, the Strip District is rich in history. But arguably, none of that history is as interesting as the 1938 spider bite that made the Post-Gazette’s front page.

Those boxes on the left of the city photographer’s photo, sold by Catalano Purpura Fruit Co., might have contained a tarantula. According to Peter Catalano, owner of the fruit wholesaler, most shipments of bananas were bound to have a tarantula or two.

“I’ve seen those spiders on bananas almost every other day,” he told the PG. But one day as he was selling to a customer out of the Strip’s produce terminal, Catalano felt a prick on his wrist and looked down to see a spider “the size of a child’s hand.”

Though these spiders were common at the produce terminal, it seemed surprising that someone would get bit. Catalano said he hadn’t ever heard of a bite and other workers at the terminal “had not heard of a tarantula poisoning a man for many years.”

The PG reported that Catalano was ready to disprove skeptics that say the tarantula isn’t dangerous, offering his swollen arm as proof. But those skeptics were actually correct — tarantulas aren’t dangerous to humans unless they have a allergic reaction to the mild venom, which Catalano seems to have had.

The article mentions an old Italian superstition that the only cure for a spider bite is to perform the tarantella, an Italian folk dance. Catalano hadn’t heard that. “I didn’t dance when that thing bit me,” he said. “I just yelled.”


Dobson Street and Revere Way

When the city photographer captured this scene in 1936, residents would have known the area as Herron Hill, or maybe simply “The Hill.” The Post-Gazette starts to reference “Polish Hill” in the 1960s, often writing something like, “in what is known as ‘Polish Hill.’” According to the Polish Hill Civic Association, residents petitioned the city to designate the area a separate neighborhood in 1969 or 1970. During that same period, and likely relevant to the name request, residents were fighting a fierce battle over the identity of the area.

In the late 1960s, Pittsburgh entered a federally funded Model Cities program, aimed at rooting out blight and other issues in some of the city’s neglected neighborhoods. The city included Polish Hill in the program, which many white residents in the neighborhood didn’t appreciate.

Polish Hill’s majority Polish population said they wanted to preserve the ethnic identity of the community. But the area’s increasing black population said the Model Cities program was their best hope for being involved in shaping the neighborhood’s future. Polish Hill had some blight and dilapidated houses, The Pittsburgh Press noted, but the white residents of the city claimed they lived in a picturesque community that didn’t need to be included with the “dirty neighborhoods.”

Though many residents were adamant in denying any racist motivations for resisting the program, others were more transparent — “We’ve got clean houses. Clean people,” one resident told the Press.

Polish Hill voted itself out of the program in 1968 and continued to fight any involvement over the next year.


Doughboy Memorial

Erected in 1921 at the corner of Penn Avenue and Butler Street, “The Doughboy” honored WWI veterans from the city’s sixth ward.

More than 20,000 people turned out at the unveiling of Allen G. Newman's bronze statue, according to the Post-Gazette.

But you’ll notice that between 1937 and today, there have been changes to the Lawrenceville statue. In 1947, the doughboy got a new marble and limestone base, and new tablets honoring veterans of World War II.


Webster Avenue

The Post-Gazette’s archive has a major blind spot: it seems photographers almost never captured images from the Hill District. The PG’s photo archive has folders for almost any person or place you could think of, but there’s no record of places like the Crawford Grill, a legendary jazz club that attracted stars from around the country.

Luckily, Pittsburgh had journalists like Charles “Teenie” Harris to document the rich culture of the Hill. Harris began shooting for the Pittsburgh Courier, a prominent black newspaper, in 1938, a few years after the city photographer captured this Hill District scene. Harris worked for the Courier for about four decades, building up a collection of images that documented the city’s African-American culture, from news events to intimate scenes of daily life.

Some of Harris’ work can be viewed at the University of Pittsburgh’s Historic Pittsburgh site, which also hosts of the City Photographer digital collection. The Carnegie Museum of Art houses Harris’ full collection, calling it “one of the most detailed and intimate records of the black urban experience known today.”


Manor Theater

The Manor was dubbed the “aristocrat of theaters” ahead of its opening on May 15, 1922. There was some serious hype in the Pittsburgh papers leading up to the big day. Art critics who toured the theater before it was completed said it was one of the most beautiful they’d ever seen, according to the Pittsburgh Daily Post.

The latest example of the “remarkable growth of the Squirrel Hill district within the last few years,” the grand opening brought important neighborhood figures and film executives from as far as New York City to the corner of Murray Avenue and Darlington Road.

The Post-Gazette reported that patrons on opening day uttered “only words of highest commendation” and that many people termed it “‘the ideal theater.’”

Though the interior is almost unrecognizable from the theater’s early days, today’s view of the outside looks remarkably similar to the City Photographer’s 1937 photo. And the Manor is still keeping up with the industry’s trends. In 2012, as it celebrated its 90th anniversary, owners Richard and Alexa Stern converted the theater to digital projection, added a bar and gave the lobby a face-lift.


Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge

In an August 2018 column, the Post-Gazette’s Brian O’Neill critiqued the “plane shame of our lame train service.” Pittsburgh only has one Amtrak train passing through each day, he noted, while the eastern section of the state enjoys much more frequent rail service.

But before 1964, Pittsburgh had an extensive commuter rail system — and two of the routes passed over Fifth Avenue at this bridge. Though the commuter lines are no longer active, today’s East Busway follows a track similar to the one the Pennsylvania Railway’s Pittsburgh Division did in the 1940s and ‘50s.

The East Busway was first proposed in 1970 as part of the failed Skybus project. It originally had an estimated cost of $21.5 million, according to a 1974 Post-Gazette article.

But when the Post Authority broke ground, the busway carried a $110 million price tag. The five-year project was a massive undertaking — forcing rail companies to relocate tracks and causing two years of detours and delays for commuters from the east suburbs.

Finally, on Feb. 19, 1983, “VIPs” finally got a taste of rapid public transit. The Pittsburgh Press recounted the opening day celebration and noted the project’s slogan, “The East Busway — The Best Way.”

The Press’ front page article quotes state Sen. James Romanelli, the chair of PAT, as saying, “The secret of running a good bus company is to run it on time.” “The ceremonies, however, began 10 minutes late,” the newspaper reported.


Clyde Street

Just five months before this photo was captured in September 1905, the First Church of Christ, Scientist consecrated its new church on Clyde Street. Seen in the background of this photo, the Pittsburgh Press called the church a “notable addition to the architectural monuments in the city.” Following an unwritten Christian Science rule, the $83,500 building and property were completely paid off when it opened.

Designed by noted Chicago architect Solon Spencer Beman, the beauty of the Indiana limestone and intricate detail “must be seen to be appreciated,” the Press wrote.

The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation designated the building a Pittsburgh Historic Landmark in 1977.

The University of Pittsburgh purchased the building for about $1 million in 1992. After another $2 million in renovations, it opened in 1995 as the University Child Development Center.


Gettysburg Street at Reynolds Street

As the city of Pittsburgh was developing and expanding in the mid-19th century, the Point Breeze Hotel was a prominent tavern at the edge of the city. Planted at the corner of the Greensburg Pike and a country lane — later Penn and Fifth avenues — it stood for 50 years until it was torn down in 1886 to widen the two roads.

The Pittsburgh Press wrote that the inn was popular “with the younger people of the city” who “visited it to have a meal and a good time.” The Press in 1983 claimed that the tavern gave the neighborhood its name.

By the turn of the 20th century, Point Breeze was becoming home to many of the city’s wealthy industrialists, attracted partially by the clean air. Maps from the time show massive estates occupying entire city blocks owned by Richard Mellon, George Westinghouse, J.J. Vandergrift and other Pittsburgh elites.

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Mission Street Steps

In a 2017 column, the Post-Gazette’s Diana Nelson Jones called Pittsburgh’s steps “the city’s most enchanting transportation system.”

With 737 sets of steps, Pittsburgh has more than any other U.S. city, according to Bob Regan, author of “The Steps of Pittsburgh: Portrait of a City.” Like the city’s inclines, the steps were built to transport Pittsburghers from their homes in the hills to their industrial jobs by the rivers.

In 1937, the same year this photo was taken, journalist Ernie Pyle visited Pittsburgh, describing it as the “cockeyedest city in the United States.” And he noted the steps’ importance for Pittsburgh’s blue collar commuters.

“The well-to-do people drive to work,” he wrote. “The medium people go on streetcars and ‘inclines,’ which is what they call those cable cars. And the poor people walk up the steps.”


Monongahela River and Downtown

The Smithfield Street Bridge, pictured on the right side of these images, was once shrouded in myth — and misconception.

The bridge, one of Pittsburgh’s oldest, was said to have been designed by John Roebling — the engineer behind the Brooklyn Bridge. In 1975, Dave Lehrer set the record straight in the Post-Gazette:

After earlier versions of the bridge fell into the Monongahela and burned down, Roebling designed a wire suspension bridge that was too “shaky and loose” to handle increasing traffic. Gustav Lindenthal stepped in, and architected the bridge we see today.

-Marella Gayla, former PG intern


Elizabeth Street Bridge

Hazelwood was once at the center of Pittsburgh industry. In 1882, the J&L Steel Company opened a large industrial complex in the area, and by 1906, J&L added the world’s largest collection of beehive coke ovens to the plant, which continued to expand from there.

LTV Steel bought the complex from J&L in 1974. LTV went bankrupt in 1986, and the Hazelwood plant closed in 1998 as foreign competition and environmental concerns continued to hurt American steel.

Like many neighborhoods and towns along the Monongahela River, Hazelwood houses dramatically less people and businesses than it did at the height of the steel industry.

Recently, Hazelwood has seen increased media attention after Amazon named Pittsburgh as a finalist for its second headquarters. The Hazelwood Green — the site of the former steel complex — is considered a likely choice if the retail giant picked the Steel City. The vacant area will probably see development and change either way.



Pittsburghers in 1937 would hardly recognize the view from Mount Washington today, but the vista has long been the pride of the city.

The Post-Gazette poetically described one spring day on Mount Washington in 1918.

“Mount Washington also was the mecca of hundreds of people out for a breath of spring air and a solar back under the bright March sun, Grandview Avenue bring a favorite place for walking.”

The paper continued, “Many carried cameras and if their owners did not obtain good pictures of the downtown sky-line it was the fault of the lens, the plate or the operator, as nature certainly was doing her best to ‘look pleasant,’ the air being remarkably free from anything resembling a haze, due probably to the saucy but not annoying breeze.”

During WWII, the PG’s war correspondent, writing from “somewhere in England,” tried to bring international fame to the view. Talking with two employees at the factory that built the famous Spitfire airplanes, Charles F. Danver said neither had been to Pittsburgh.

“ I invited them to see the best thing in America — I mean the next best thing in the world, dammit — the view from Mount Washington.”


Carson Street

The South Side has always had its fair share of bars, but the patrons have changed drastically over the past few decades. The bars, which today service the city’s students and young professionals, started as post-work watering holes for workers from the nearby steel mills.

Many of those workers flocked to the South Side Flats after their shift ended at J&L Steel’s South Side Works. Drinking after work is nothing new, but the brutal job of a steel mill worker is credited with encouraging the practice. A common order in the mill bars was a boilermaker — a shot of whiskey and a beer — which some experts credit Pennsylvania steelworkers with popularizing.

In his book “The Joy of Mixology,” Gary Regan notes why the drink was popular among mill workers after a long shift: “It's not a story with a lot of romance. It was such a horrible job, you'd just want to slam a whisky before you had your beer."

Though it's difficult to find many newspaper stories exposing the conditions of Pittsburgh steel plants, the obituaries and death notices paint a grim picture.

June 6, 1923: “Mill Worker dies of burns … when a gas main exploded in the plant”

July 19, 1935: “Steel mill worker dies in slag blast … company officials said property damage was slight and that other workmen escaped injury.”

April 19, 1952: “Millworker dies of plant injuries … he was crushed between two machines at the J&L Steel Corporation's Southside plant.”

March 28, 1940: “Mill worker dies … injured by a piece of flying ingot at the Iron City Coal Co. plant.”


Honor Roll

Anyone who’s ever driven around the hilly, narrow streets of Beechview knows it can be a challenge to navigate, as one truck driver learned in July 1925.

“Patriotic citizens of Beechview hastened to the rescue yesterday morning when an ice truck, getting beyond the control of its driver, backed into the sidewalk at Beechview and Hampshire avenues and overturned Beechview memorial to its war heroes,” reads a caption under a photo of the accident in the Pittsburgh Daily Post.

The memorial had a tough time from the beginning.

The Post-Gazette reported on May 27, 1919, that the Beechview Honor Roll Association was organized “for the purpose of raising funds to erect a memorial tablet in the district in honor off the 250 men of Beechview who participated in the world war.” They planned a weeklong street carnival to raise the money. Then, controversy erupted.

“Beechview is warring over the method of raising funds,” the Pittsburgh Daily Post claimed on June 22. The battle was between the Beechview Honor Roll Association and the Women’s League of Beechview. The issue? Gambling.

“Do you want a soldiers’ memorial erected from the proceeds of a week of gambling and disorder,” read a leaflet distributed to the neighborhood's “anti-carnival faction.”

A committee — which some said was not representative of the residents’ wishes — said it would go to court unless the mayor intervened. After days of protests and constant newspaper coverage, the mayor did just that. “Beechview carnival withdrawn by mayor after agitation by church folk,” the Post-Gazette reported on July 26.

But the next day there was a compromise — the carnival was to be held on side streets and without any “paddle wheels and other gambling devices.” In the end, the carnival was a hit — the Daily Post said the last day was a record crowd for the town and declared that “Beechview was as the sacred city.”

The tablet was unveiled Oct. 24, 1920, at the location seen in this photo. It currently rests in Beechview park — with a noticeable crack at the bottom.

Design & Developement Zack Tanner

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