Welcome to Pittsburgh, the most amazing city, says Luke Ravenstahl. In 2006, when he was only 26, he became mayor and he is still the youngest mayor of any major city in the USA. Last time the gal was in town it was in the middle of one of its recessions and downtown was pretty much no-go. Now, the mayor has paid off nearly $300 million in city debt and the place is, well, thriving. As all the locals say, come here for art and culture, great restaurants, shows before they get to Broadway and so much more. Anything Goes, this week – with Rachel York – is pure magic. Bill Clinton is arriving in town to talk, very soon, as is former President of Mexico, Vicente Fox, and Nicola Benedetti is coming to play her violin, and ice-hockey legends the Pittsburgh Penguins have coming up, rest of this month, Buffalo, Ottawa, New Jersey and Carolina… The Penguins are owned by that pinnacle Canadian hockey-player Mario Lemieux and President Clinton’s good friend, Ron Burkle, who also owns most of the Soho House luxury club-hotels brand.
Pittsburgh, which has a population of 2.4 million, is big on sport. The city’s football team is the Steelers, still owned by the Rooney family, and for baseball there is the Pirates team, owned by Robert Nutting, who also owns Seven Springs Mountain Resort near here. Whatever the sport, when there is a home game, most visiting teams, and many supporters, stay at The Fairmont Pittsburgh, an incredible glass-and-steel sculpture of a hotel right in the centre of town. Well, this is glass, and steel, city, so it is all rrather appropriate. From your window, say Harris Suite 2021, you look across Market Square at part of the biggest glass house in the world, PPG Place, named for Pittsburgh Plate Glass.
Designed by architect Philip Johnson, PPG Place, opened 1984 at a cost of $200 million, is made of 19,750 sheets of glass. One tower rises to 40 floors, or 635 feet; the whole structure occupies 5.5 acres. It is supposedly highly energy-efficient. In summer heat is reflected away by the glass. In winter infrared heating is reflected and contained. There is lots of glass, too, at the Fairmont, designed by Gensler Group – the 185 rooms all have floor to ceiling windows, and the lobby is two-floor high glass, on two of its four walls. To balance what otherwise might be a glasshouse effect (excuse the pun), the lobby also has a gas-inset working fire, and lots of Warhol prints, and a four-foot wide blue sunburst painting.
Upstairs, on all floors by the elevators, there are displayed artefacts discovered when the contractors started digging foundations for the hotel. How far back do some of these go? Can any be traced to the British garrison, Fort Pitt, named for William Pitt the Elder (the Fort later gave its name to Pittsburgh, the only US city allowed an H at the end of ‘burg’)? The oldest structure in the city today is the Fort Pitt Blockhouse, dated 1764. Manufacturing of glass here started 1797, and at that time glass was blown, and cut, which results in historic window panes that are slightly curved. In 1883 Captain John Ford and John Pitcairn developed the plate-glass manufacturing method – and their company led to what is today PPG.
There are so many innovations out of Pittsburgh. A local resident, George Washington Gale Ferris Jr, designed and constructed a big wheel for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in 1893 – and gave his name to the Ferris Wheel. The Pennsylvania Turnpike, which runs from here to Philadelphia, is known as America’s first superhighway – it is route 76, for 1776 of course. Henry John Heinz, who developed the eponymous soup brand, was born here in 1844. Frank Conrad, born here in 1874, established what is called the first broadcasting station, KDKA. While working at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Jonas Salk developed a polo vaccine, in 1955.
Well, and now this amazing city has a truly innovative luxury hotel, the Fairmont, owned by PNC Bank, which is the result of the 1982 merger of Pittsburgh National Corporation and Provident National Corporation. Obviously, while staying here, I had to have a Pittsburgh steak, but that is another story….