Pittsburgh’s bridges exemplify strength and beauty of design
One of the most visually powerful aspects of Pittsburgh, once a visitor grasps that this is a city built among dramatic hills and rivers, is the plenitude of bridges that connect us.
There are big bridges over wide rivers and deep ravines. Smaller bridges over the gaps between neighborhoods. Highway bridges, railroad bridges and even an engaging pedestrian bridge or two. There are said to be about 540 bridges within the city boundaries alone. And maybe four times that when you count all of Allegheny County.
And even though we joke among ourselves about how we don’t like to cross rivers, one special delight many of us experience often is the views we have of these bridges — and the views from them, too. Sure, there are some boringly routine ones to look at, but by and large, Pittsburgh’s bridges represent both the beauty and the strength of good engineering and good architecture.
Consider the George Westinghouse Memorial Bridge that spans the Turtle Creek Valley. This is the huge concrete bridge that you see in the valley below you when you get up high on a ride at Kennywood.
When built in 1932, it was the longest concrete arch span in the United States. But it also has a sense of majesty that transcends its function. There is both grace and might in the five symmetrically arranged arches that support its deck 240 feet above the valley floor (that’s about the height of a 22-story office building). By crossing over the industrialized valley below, it reduced travel time by close to an hour between Pittsburgh and Greensburg on Route 30, something most of us wouldn’t even think about today.
The bridge was designed by the Allegheny County Department of Public Works, which in the 1920s and ’30s undertook a huge schedule of bridge-building, sometimes using very innovative designs. The principal designer on this project was George S. Richardson, an engineer who doesn’t get mentioned these days as often as he should. He did much to shape the city’s built environment. When you cross the Fort Pitt or Fort Duquesne bridges, you’re on a bridge he designed in the 1950s, and if you look downriver toward the West End Bridge, built in 1932, he was the principal designer of that, too.
Architectural features of the Westinghouse Bridge, such as the pylons at both ends, were contributed by Stanley Roush, who served in the 1920s and ’30s as the city’s official architect and then as the county architect. He did the architectural features of many other bridges built in that time as well.
This was bridge-building at its best, and it even inspired art. When painter Boardman Robinson wanted to depict a modern city for his murals on the first floor of the old Kaufmann’s department store, he prominently put a bridge like the Westinghouse Bridge, then under construction, in the background. And Pittsburgh’s noted primitive artist, John Kane, whose work is in museums across the country, often featured the city’s bridges in his paintings.
The association among art, architecture and engineering in Pittsburgh bridges is fascinating. The Three Sisters steel eyebar suspension bridges between Downtown and the North Shore were highly innovative in design and are still the only bridges of their specific type ever built in the United States. These are the Sixth, Seventh and Ninth street bridges, known as the Roberto Clemente, Andy Warhol and Rachel Carson bridges today. They, too, were designed in the county offices and won awards for their beauty when they were built in the 1920s.
Pittsburghers celebrate these three unique bridges, and outsiders admire them, too. When Rafael Vinoly, a prominent Philadelphia architect, designed the new David L. Lawrence Convention Center in the late 1990s, he explicitly said he was patterning the slope of its roof after the graceful shapes of the Three Sisters bridges.
When the New York-based architects Kohn Pedersen Fox designed the 34-story EQT Plaza Downtown in the early ’80s, they put a bridgelike structure around the barrel-vaulted top floor, roughly imitating the arched 16th Street Bridge — now the David McCullough Bridge — as a way of highlighting the new building’s place as part of the city.
Sometimes architects got involved in the total bridge design. Benno Janssen is best known here as the designer of buildings like the Mellon Institute in Oakland, the William Penn Hotel and the original Kaufmann’s department store. But he also was the designer, along with engineer Charles Stratton Davis, of the graceful Washington Crossing (or 40th Street) Bridge, built in the 1920s.
It took two architects and two engineers to design a relatively small bridge that many of us take for granted. That’s the portal bridge in Point State Park that so beautifully serves to frame the view of the Point as you walk underneath the highway that crosses the park. Local historicist architect Charles Morse Stotz and famous New York modernist Gordon Bunshaft collaborated on the design of an improbably low and wide archway under the six lanes of highway, while George Richardson worked to get the engineering right. He, in turn, collaborated with Eugene Freyssinet, a French expert in the type of unusual concrete construction that was required.
We’ve got massive bridges, quaint bridges and small bridges. A daily commute can take us over one or two large bridges and sometimes over bridges so small or unobtrusive that we don’t even know they are there. Some draw their beauty from purely elegant engineering, some from intentionally expressive architectural design. But in the rough topography that we call home, bridges become one more element of a beautiful city.
John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.