The steel industry collapsed, but the U.S. Steel Tower stands tall 50 years after its dedication
Fifty years later, it’s still the king of the Downtown skyline.
The U.S. Steel Tower remains Pittsburgh’s tallest building as it marks the golden anniversary Thursday of its dedication, still sitting on one of the most prestigious addresses in the city — 600 Grant St.
Over the years, the brawny 64-story skyscraper has survived the hometown collapse of the very industry that brought it life, not to mention the recessions; the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; the vagaries of the real estate market; and a pandemic that virtually emptied its offices.
It has seen trends come and go, from bell bottoms to leisure suits. Hairstyles have changed, though an in-house barbershop is still around. It has celebrated six Super Bowl championships, two World Series titles and five Stanley Cups.
That’s not to say there haven’t been changes.
For one thing, the name atop the tower has nothing to do with steel. The rooftop helicopter that whisked former U.S. Steel CEO David Roderick to and from appointments has been gone for three decades. And the 62nd floor Top of the Triangle restaurant that served as a dramatic backdrop for weddings, engagements, and after-work drinking bouts is but a memory.
But it is by no means your grandfather’s skyscraper, according to local real estate experts.
“It has always been the crown jewel office building,” said Gregg Broujos, regional principal of the Colliers International real estate firm.
Mr. Broujos and others said the tower has managed to stay relevant even against competition from newer skyline additions — PPG Place, One Oxford Centre, EQT Plaza, Liberty Center, and BNY Mellon Center in the 1980s — and trendy state-of-the-art complexes built recently in the Strip District and beyond.
“I think the building is still very viable. It’s still considered a Class A building even after a lot of newer buildings were built,” said Gerard McLaughlin, Newmark executive managing director.
“I would say it’s withstood the test of time.”
Its own barbershop
Perhaps no one knows the imposing structure better than general manager Tom Harrington, who has spent 36 years working there. It’s a “little city unto itself,” he said.
The U.S. Steel Tower has its own barbershop (in the same spot for 50 years), its own connection to the Downtown subway system, a below-grade concourse level filled with restaurants and other amenities, and three levels of underground parking.
But the key to staying competitive, Mr. Harrington stressed, has been ongoing upgrades. Over the years, various owners have poured tens of millions of dollars into the structure.
The latest additions — at a cost of more than $10 million — include a fitness center replacing a 300-seat auditorium that has been part of the building since its opening. There’s also a new conference center, an executive board room, a game room and a training room for employees.
Over time, the tower’s spacious 60-foot lobby has been revamped, with a large video wall added, and the sprawling outdoor plaza beside the main entrance has been updated to include food vendors and tents.
“Every space in this building has been rebuilt at some point — and multiple times,” Mr. Harrington said.
The biggest adjustment, he noted, has been in the way tenants use the floor plates, each of which is about an acre in size.
In recent years, there has been a move to open up floor plans and create more collaborative spots — a big departure from the days when corporations like U.S. Steel and Rockwell stuffed the spaces with employees shoulder-to-shoulder.
And these days, tenants seem to be shrinking their footprints. Smart landlords, Mr. Harrington said, adapt with the times. That’s particularly true with the way the COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping the traditional office environment.
“You need to provide spaces attractive enough for employees to want to come to Downtown Pittsburgh as opposed to working out of their basement or their home,” Mr. Harrington said.
An anchor tenant shrinks
Perhaps the biggest change in the building over the years has had nothing to do with its infrastructure.
When the skyscraper was dedicated, U.S. Steel was by far the biggest tenant. It occupied 34 of the 64 floors, moving employees in from 11 different buildings around town, according to news reports at the time. It would have an entire workforce of more than 170,000 by the end of the decade.
But as the American steel industry began to falter in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, the company’s building footprint would gradually decrease. By 1997, it had dropped to 16 floors on Grant Street.
Today, the steelmaker has about nine, based on one source.
Pre-COVID, about 405 U.S. Steel employees worked in the tower, according to the company, which provided no other information. At the end of 2020, based on regulatory filings, U.S. Steel employed about 23,350 people total.
“Obviously U.S. Steel is not the company it was in 1971, but they are still a major tenant in the building and a main tenant of the building and it’s still their headquarters,” Mr. Harrington said.
At one point that was in doubt.
In 2014, U.S. Steel reached a deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins to move its headquarters out of its longtime home to the former Civic Arena site. A year later, faced with mounting financial woes, it scuttled those plans and stayed in the tower.
Nonetheless, these days, the steel company has been supplanted on its home turf by another big Pittsburgh institution — UPMC. The health care giant made the building its headquarters in 2008 and is now the largest tenant.
Not only that, the same year UPMC moved in, it festooned its name to the top of the skyscraper in big bright letters — the first time anyone had done so in the building’s history.
The 20-foot-high letters, about half the size allowed under city zoning laws, sparked some controversy. The sign can be seen from jets flying over the city and from as far away as Kennedy Township and a trail in the North Hills.
At the time of the tower’s debut, one wag dubbed it the Eye of Mordor, a reference to the “Lord of the Rings” series, so ever present was it on the city skyline.
A market stabilizer
Some believe UPMC’s move into the building was a godsend not only for the tower itself but also for Downtown as a whole. “It’s fortunate that they came. That helped not only stabilize the tenancy in that building, [but also] it helped to stabilize the whole market Downtown,” Mr. McLaughlin said.
According to UPMC, it has 4,500 employees in the building. It occupies nearly 1.1 million square feet of space and 29 floors, including the 62nd — the former home of the Top of the Triangle.
“It has always been the crown jewel office building.”
Gregg Broujos, Colliers International real estate firm
The 28,000-square-foot restaurant, with panoramic views of Pittsburgh and its rivers, closed in 2001 after a 30-year run. It was a favorite spot for popping the question, the ensuing wedding, anniversary dinners, business lunches and after-work gatherings.
Mr. Harrington said the decision not to renew the restaurant’s lease proved to be an infamous moment in the building’s history.
“I still get grief over that,” he said.
But having the space available “was a big key for us in landing UPMC a few years later,” he pointed out.
“It was probably the most valuable real estate in Downtown Pittsburgh.”
Water and antifreeze
Despite the many changes, the tower still retains some of its unique characteristics — and not just its 2.3 million-square-foot footprint, nearly twice that of any other Downtown skyscraper.
Its Corten steel columns have outlived the Homestead mill that manufactured them. They age naturally, with each surface developing a protective rust coating that requires no maintenance.
The 18 columns are fireproofed by filling them with a solution of water and antifreeze that circulates without mechanical help. In all, they hold about 400,000 gallons of water and 625 tons of potassium carbonate antifreeze, according to a building fact sheet.
U.S. Steel built it that way, Mr. Harrington said, because it wanted to showcase the Corten steel.
“It has achieved what they were trying to do,” he said.
On the roof — about an acre in size just like the floor plans — the one-of-a-kind heliport was in use up until the early 1990s.
“Roderick used it a lot. It was one of the cooler things to be on the roof when the helicopter was coming in or taking off or being in the plaza when one was taking off,” Mr. Harrington said. “That’s kind of a unique, cool feeling I haven’t experienced anywhere else.”
The rooftop was a subject of some fascination for Pittsburghers, with at least one engagement (and probably more) taking place there. About a decade ago, a former Post-Gazette travel editor proposed turning it into a “Park in the Sky,” but that never gained traction.
In all, U.S Steel Tower has 11,000 windows, 56 elevators (up two since its opening) and nine escalators (down one).
At one time, the building had a dozen phone booths. They are all gone. But oddly enough, one of the more popular features these days are small phone rooms on the 35th floor where employees can have private conversations.
“It seems to be very popular with the next generation here,” Mr. Harrington said.
Regaining its mojo
The building’s occupancy currently stands in the upper 80% range, he said, with about 40 tenants overall.
Despite the real estate downturn caused by COVID, leasing “is brisk right now. We’re seeing light at the end of the tunnel. It has picked up significantly.”
While much of the commercial activity has shifted more toward the center of Downtown over the past decade or so, Mr. Harrington believes Grant Street, a longtime corporate and government power corridor, will regain some of its mojo.
He sees the redevelopment of the nearby former Civic Arena site, where First National Bank is building a 26-story headquarters, playing a big role in that. That structure is slated to cost $240 million, nearly five times the $50 million that it took to build the U.S. Steel Tower five decades ago.
While Jeffrey Ackerman, CBRE managing director, doesn’t consider U.S. Steel Tower a “premium Class A building” anymore, he said it has held its own against the competition.
One thing it has had to overcome over the years was the prevailing corporate culture at the time it was built.
For example, he said, at one time on floors that housed engineers, there were two restrooms for men and only one for women because the majority of engineers were male.
“I think it’s aged well. It’s very well constructed, and the owner has kept up with making the capital improvements that were necessary,” he said, adding that the building still works well for big corporate users.
“One thing I do miss is the Top of the Triangle restaurant,” Mr. Ackerman added. “It was such a great amenity to be able to get on the elevator and go up to the top floor.”
CBRE has been a tenant in the building since 1998. But that soon will be changing. It is planning to move out in August, likely for One Oxford Centre. The real estate firm is leaving after losing its longtime job leasing U.S. Steel Tower. Cushman & Wakefield/Grant Street Associates now is the leasing agent.
Despite the competition from other Downtown properties and those in the Strip and elsewhere, Mr. Broujos at Collier International believes the venerable skyscraper will continue to hold its own.
“The property management there is the best in class. If a corporation wanted a premier business address in a premier building, U.S. Steel Tower has always been at the top of the list,” he said.
Whatever the future holds, it’s unlikely that the strapping tower — built of and for steel — will ever lose its distinction as Pittsburgh’s tallest.
“There just isn’t the demand today for that large of a building in Pittsburgh,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “But you should never say never.”
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