Ah, for the good old days, when we only needed to worry about easy-to-recognize threats like giant flying bombers. And when we had an industrial complex worth bombing. But yes: During the Second World War, Pittsburgh and its nearby mill towns were known as "Victory Valley"; it was the industrial heart of the Allied war effort, and as such war planners felt obliged to keep enemy planes in the dark about where they were.
You might think the dust and smoke from Pittsburgh's mills would be enough to blacken and obscure the buildings: Old-timers can recall the soot-seared surfaces of the Carnegie Museum, the Cathedral of Learning, and other buildings in the old days. But after Pearl Harbor, the government was taking no chances, and an extra layer of camouflage was given to skylights and other features that might be visible from the air. Among the structures to be painted was the distinctive barrel roof of what we now know as the Grand Concourse restaurant.
Back in the 1940s, the building was the passenger station for the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad, one of the more handsome public spaces in the city. But it was all but defunct by 1976, when the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation decided to turn it into the anchor for a new urban mixed-use development called Station Square. It was a landmark project in every sense of the word for Pittsburgh, and the preservationist group found a willing partner -- restaurateur Chuck Muir -- to use the building. To make the project happen, however, the group had to clean the station's ceiling.
A decades-old paint job wasn't the only problem. "The skylight used to leak when it rained," recalls Arthur Ziegler, head of the PH&LF. "So over the years the railroad just kept tarring it over" to seal it.
The dirt and tar were so thick, Ziegler recalls, that when the group first began the project, "most people thought it was a painted wooden ceiling." In fact, however, the station had two glass coverings: a glass skylight shielding a stained-glass window on the inside. "We removed the original skylight and put in a clear one, but the stained glass was so dirty it still looked black," Ziegler says.
This was really stained glass, and the task of cleaning it stumped preservationists. "We put up scaffolding [to clean it] but we couldn't find a way to get it clean," Ziegler says. "Finally, after four or five days one of the workers came in and said, 'My wife said to try this' -- and after we used 400 cans of Oven-Off, the skylight was clean."
Of course, the Grand Concourse wasn't the only structure whose roof was painted over in the dark days of World War II. Many of the city's renewal projects have needed -- both metaphorically and literally -- to scrape away the residue of the industrial past. When the Fulton Building downtown was converted into a Marriott Renaissance Hotel, for example, developers had to do a major clean-up of a 30-foot-diameter dome over the building's lobby. In addition to the World War II-vintage paint job, a March 2001 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story reported, crews had to remove some 300 pounds of coal dust.
All those wartime preparations were unnecessary in the end. No German bomber ever reached the East Coast, let alone Pittsburgh. And thanks to the genius of our domestic steel industry, we now have to worry that our industrial prowess will attract the attention of foreign powers. Anyone wanting to destroy our steel-making capacity these days would probably invade Japan. In some parts of town, you'd almost think the bomb had already gone off -- and that it had been dropped by the developers of the Waterfront.
Maybe somebody should have painted the mills black to conceal them from their owners.