Revising History | City Guide 2008: Local Routes | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Revising History 

In Pittsburgh, almost everything old is new again

It's not exactly a secret: Native Pittsburghers take pride in their city's past, and they aren't always enthusiastic about letting go of what once was.

But where other cities have surrendered much of their heritage in the name of progress, some of the city's most interesting destinations are the direct result of Pittsburghers' desire to pay homage to the past -- and their ability to transform it into something new.

We begin with a place that once catered to Pittsburgh's industrial machine ... and now represents the essence of the city's emerging artistic identity. The Andy Warhol Museum (117 Sandusky St., 412-237-8300), built on the North Side in 1911, served as the Frick & Lindsay Company's warehouse for mining and steel supplies. It was transformed into the Volkwein's music store in the mid-1960s, but for more than a decade, the seven-story building has been home to the paintings, photographs and films of Andy Warhol, the world-renowned Pop artist and Pittsburgh native.

If the Warhol doesn't satisfy your craving for art, you'll find another artful reuse not far away. Tucked within the North Side's historic Mexican War Streets, The Mattress Factory (500 Sampsonia Way, 412-231-3169) used to be a storage space for ... well, take a guess. The old Stearns & Foster mattress warehouse now features room-sized installations created by artists from around the world.

Perhaps even more symbolically, the city houses its history museum, the Heinz History Center (1212 Smallman St., 412-454-6000) in a former ice warehouse across the Allegheny River, in the city's Strip District. Prior to the development of refrigerators, ice was trucked from the north and stored in this thick-walled building until it was needed in the summer months. Now the structure keeps memories fresh instead.

Elsewhere in the Strip, The Cork Factory (2349 Railroad St., 412-281-5556) offers luxury apartments inside the former Armstrong Cork Factory, constructed in 1901. This sprawling structure, which boasts beautiful views of the Allegheny River and Downtown, opened as an apartment building just last year, and maintains historic features like the factory's old smoke stack and engine room.

Not far away you'll find the Firehouse Lounge (2216 Penn Ave., 412-434-1230), perfect for a few cocktails. After having served as a firehouse from 1849 to 1949, the building later became a union hall for ironworkers. Today, it offers dancing and drinks, the latter of which can be ordered from an extensive list. But pace yourself: Your next stop's a brewery, about a dozen blocks up Liberty Avenue, which runs parallel to Penn through the Strip and into Lawrenceville.

In 1996, Lawrenceville's Church Brew Works (3525 Liberty Ave., 412-688-8200) replaced the former St. John the Baptist Church, which was built in 1902 and ended its holy run in 1993. Now the church is one of the city's most popular restaurants. Tasty house ales, lagers and stouts complement the Brew Works' American-cuisine menu. While the church has been desanctified, the interior still maintains many of the church's features. The bar you're resting your elbows on, for example, was made from the church's oak-plank pews.

If you're offended by the idea of converting a church into a brewery, consider visiting the South Side, where a brewery has been converted ... into an art space. Previously home to the Duquesne Brewery, maker of Duke-brand beer, the Brew House (2100 Mary St., 412-381-7767) was occupied by squatters who dwelled there, semi-officially, for years. Today the building -- recognizable for its giant neon clock -- is home to an art gallery and a warren of artist lofts.

Just a few minutes' walk away, meanwhile, a South Side bank has been turned into a bar. At Carson City Saloon (1401 E. Carson St., 412-481-3203), bartenders have replaced bank tellers. Constructed more than a century ago as the German Savings Deposit Bank, and later home to Mellon and Citizen's banks until 2005, Carson City architecturally maintains the building's history. Its neoclassical façade and marble walls, as well as the restored steel vault in the back of the bar, remind patrons of the past.

Highland Park's Union Project (801 N. Negley Ave., 412-363-4550) is another transformed church. The nonprofit Union Project acquired the deteriorating Union Baptist Church in 2001, transforming the building into a community center with auditorium, rental office space and art classes. On any given night, it's possible to stop here to attend a political debate, learn ceramics or simply have a cup of tea at the Eat UP café.

Nor has music been left out of the city's re-imagined landscape. Millvale's Mr. Small's Theatre (450 Lincoln Ave., 412-821-4447), is a 650-person-capacity, live-music venue housed in the former St. Anne's church. It hosts national touring acts and local bands alike, and the larger facility includes a skatepark. Needless to say, the walls no longer echo with the strains of "Ave Maria." You're more likely to hear thrash-metal band GWAR perform lyrics like, "Destroying everything you cherish, masturbating as you perish / Crush, kill, destroy!" But that, too, is just another reminder that in Pittsburgh, the more things stay the same, the more they change.


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