Entombing History | Community Profile | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Entombing History

What is Fort Pitt? You might think it's the earth-and-masonry construction, originally a sprawling, five-pointed enclosure, at the Point. The British built it in 1759 after capturing the smaller, daintier and simply more French Fort Duquesne. But now, centuries later, the French must be snickering at us condescendingly, yet again. They may have abandoned their military encampment, but we seem to have abandoned the meaning of ours. Not coincidentally, this abdication puts us at risk of losing an important part of Fort Pitt, at least as we now understand it.


At issue here is the fate of the Music Bastion, the reconstructed partial remains of one "point" of the fort. Located near the Downtown side of Point State Park, the zigzagging ditch creates an arrow-head-like form in the earth, outlining the bastion and suggesting its fragmentary presence with a 3-foot-high wall of brick at its edge.


The cadre of preservationists advocating to keep the Music Bastion, including Richard W. Lang, Wilfred T. Rouleau and Michael V. Nixon, rightly emphasize the piece's symbolic value. They note its status as a battlefield ... "hallowed ground where many fought and died," according to their Web site, www.savefortpitt.org ... and compare it to the Arlington National Cemetery.

The preservationists also appeal to authenticity, but that is a trickier proposition. Certainly, this is the site of the original fort, but only a few of the bricks come from the original structure. The original bricks that were not sold off in the early 19th century were largely swiped as souvenirs in the mid-20th.  Still, this reconstruction by architect Charles Stotz is a significant early effort in historical archaeology. In 2008, the reconstruction itself will be eligible for designation as an historic landmark.


But alas, the wall is not the right height or depth. Nor does the trench reflect the configuration of the original moat. "[W]e think it is a reconstruction that is not 100 percent accurate," Donna Williams, director of the Bureau of Historic Sites and Museums for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Moreover, a collective of state and local officials asserted in a published statement, "The walls of Fort Pitt Museum themselves express the scale of the original fort." So it's apparently OK to refill the trench and cover the bastion.


Oh yeah? The museum, built on the site of another bastion, is a completely modern construction, and at utterly the wrong height as well. If authenticity is your concern, then things like glass windows and the intruding superhighway hardly reflect the original structure. Plus, in the complex and nuanced realm of preservation, anyone measuring authenticity by dimensions alone is asking for trouble. Quite frequently, fragmented remains with the patina of the ages are much more evocative than a sterile replica designed to exact measurements. The Music Bastion clearly evokes the sense of a nearly lost history revealed in fragments through digging. This quality is just as true to the history of the Fort as is accuracy in height or width.


Let's be honest. The project to completely redesign Point State Park (under the leadership of the state's Department of Conservation of Natural Resources, the Riverlife Task Force and others) is just beginning construction. To their great credit, planners undertook a five-year process to consult experts and solicit public opinion. This does indeed constitute due diligence in terms of making people aware of their plans. And if it's more important to have more room for vendors and concerts ... history be damned ... then officials ought to just say so.


But to criticize the reconstructed Music Bastion for inaccuracy is disingenuous. To claim that it is an archaeological dig, and that re-burying it is acceptable (as state officials did in City Paper last week) is simply laughable. To deny the looming historical significance of the reconstruction itself is short-sighted.


But it might be too late to stop. At the time of this writing, the Pennsylvania Department of General Services had just announced the awarding of a $7.1 million contract for plumbing, electrical work and general contracting ... including filling in the Music Bastion.  According to the Post-Gazette, a meeting between Barbara Franco, director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and the preservationists behind www.savefortpitt.org won't happen until the burial of the site begins.


That's a shame. Buried meanings might be acceptable for texts, but not for historical sites.