Last weekend, Boy and I flew to Pittsburgh with our friends James and Calista Littlefield to see the sights.
"See the sights?" you might cry. "What on Earth is there to see in Pittsburgh
Rather a lot, as it turns out. We had a marvelous
|A postcard of downtown Pittsburgh|
Over the years I have traveled to Pittsburgh numerous times for business, flying in and out for meetings. And every time that I found myself there I wanted to spend more time in the city, investigating what it had to offer.
|Pittsburgh's downtown features an interesting mix|
of early- and late-twentieth century buildings
Our trip to Pittsburgh confirmed that it is a culturally rich, thriving city full of wonderful architecture, impressive museums, noteworthy restaurants, a plethora of entertainment options, and vibrant universities. It is a city that has benefitted from great philanthropy from the rich industrialists who made their fortunes there in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it features a generous supply of handsome civic architecture and monuments to prove it.
|Pittsburgh has handsome modern buildings, too|
Pittsburgh is well worth visiting for a weekend, with lots to see and do, and is only a quick and inexpensive flight from New York. Visiting Pittsburgh is very reasonable, too, with prices at hotels and restaurants below what one would have to pay for similar quality in Manhattan.
|We liked the onion domes on this building|
in downtown Pittsburgh
The four of us flew to Pittsburgh early Friday morning, picked up our "late model" Lincoln Town car rental (splurge!) at the airport, and drove downtown where we had a delightful lunch at the Original Oyster House
. And by delightful I mean the entire experience was delightful: decor, crowd, and food combined. A Pittsburgh institution, the Original Oyster House has been in business since 1870, serving up hearty platters of fried fish and oysters to an eclectic and diverse crowd of regulars, and it features some of the best beers west of the Hudson River.
|The Original Oyster House Restaurant and Bar|
image courtesy of Wikipedia
Decidedly rough around the edges, the restaurant has the charm of a tough broad with a heart of gold. The Oyster House was once owned by a man with the last name of Americus, who developed an obsession for the Miss America pageant, which he attended annually from the 1930s through the 1980s. The walls of the restaurant are still covered with dozens of his vintage framed photographs of Miss America pageant contestants that he put up when he owned the joint. We loved it!
|1950 Miss America contestants|
image courtesy of the Original Oyster House
After our lunch at the Oyster House we drove out into the country south of Pittsburgh to visit one of the icons
of American architecture: Falling Water
. Designed by the biggest ego that profession ever produced (and that's saying a lot), Frank Lloyd Wright, as a weekend house for the Pittsburgh-based department store owning Kauffman family, Falling Water exceeded our expectations, and then some. Incredible.
|The view approaching Falling Water|
photo by James Littlefield
Oh, to be as rich as the Kauffmans were and to commission and live in such a structure in such surroundings. Even though Falling Water has a number of irritating quirks to it, clearly imposed by the iron-willed architect (such as claustrophobically low ceilings and uncomfortably squat built-in furniture), the house and setting are breathtaking. Who cares if it isn't livable--it's a work of art! How marvelous that the Kauffmans gave it to us to visit and enjoy, opening it to the public. Here's a bit of trivia that we learned: Wright originally proposed covering Falling Water's exterior stucco walls with gold leaf, instead of painting them. If asked, I'd have sided with Mr. Kauffman, who nixed the idea.
|The classic view of Falling Water from below|
photo by James Littlefield
After visiting Falling Water we drove back in to Pittsburgh and checked in to the William Penn Hotel
, which is now an Omni, and will always be the Grand Dame of Pittsburgh's hotels. Although the William Penn may have seen better days, she's still holding up pretty well (and hasn't been ruined, thankfully, like many of her ilk). We enjoyed our stay there.
|The William Penn Hotel, Pittsburgh, ca. 1914|
image courtesy of The Henry Clay Frick Houses
Our rooms were perfectly nice with wonderfully comfortable beds and plump down pillows. The William Penn has a terrific buffet breakfast at only $18.50 a head, which is a great way to start the day. Oh, and they serve a mean martini in the lobby lounge after 5 p.m., too. What's not to like?
|Looking across the square in front of the hotel|
with a view of PPG headquarters in the distance
After a round (or was it two?) of cocktails we headed out to the Strip District where we had an excellent dinner at Eleven
, a modern, loft-like restaurant that stands up to most of the restaurants in the Flatiron District here in New York that I've eaten at in recent years. While I remember enjoying my appetizer (delicious), much beyond that is a bit of a blur, I must admit.
|The Carnegie Museum of Art and Natural History|
image courtesy of same
The next day, Saturday, was our museum day. We started off with a visit to the Carnegie Museum of Art
, an enormous, encyclopædic repository of art and decorative arts, with holdings fantastically enriched by the philanthropy of the Carnegies, Fricks, Mellons, and Heinzes. It contains a jaw-dropping collection of art, spanning from ancient times to the modern day.
|One passes a Richard Serra sculpture when entering|
the museum (University of Pittsburgh tower in background)
We started in the museum's Hall of Architecture, full of casts of architectural fragments made at the turn of the last century, and then followed it by exploring gallery after gallery full of paintings and sculpture that knocked my socks off. There were Tieppolos, Rembrandts, Rubens, Watteaus, Gainsboroughs, Reynolds, Copleys, Monets, Manets, Van Goghs, Sargents, Vuillards, Bentons, Henris, Hassams, Rothkos, Pollacks, Stellas, Hockneys--the list goes on and on!
|The Hall of Architecture at the Carnegie Museum of Art|
Unlike the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which is intolerably crowded on weekends, the Carnegie was not overly full of visitors when we were there, because the vast museum is able to absorb thousands of visitors without crowding its galleries. There were times that we had rooms entirely to ourselves. Marvelous.
|Looking across the Grand Staircase at the museum,|
showing murals by John White Alexander
After a late lunch of moule frites
and beer in an ale-house restaurant in downtown, we then visited the Warhol Museum
. I have to admit that it (the museum) was better than I expected it would be, considering I'm not all that much of a fan of the man after whom it was named, or much of his art. While I'd gladly spend several days exploring the Carnegie Museum's collections, a couple of hours (at most) is sufficient for me for what the Warhol Museum has to offer. More hype than content, I think. I'm glad we went there, though, since it is a Pittsburgh landmark, and worth seeing.
|The Andy Warhol Museum|
image courtesy of Wikipedia
Returning to the William Penn at the end of the day and in sore need of cocktails, we sidled up to the lobby bar for a round of martinis before heading over to LeMont
, one of Pittsburgh's most remarkable restaurants, where we had reservations for dinner that night. LeMont (also known as The
LeMont), is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in business. It is a combination "fine dining establishment," wedding palace, and banquet hall right out of Married to the Mob
|The super-refined cocktail lounge at LeMont Restaurant|
image courtesy of Southwinds, Inc.
Garishly decorated and dripping with "Austrian crystal" chandeliers at every turn, LeMont has spectacular views of downtown Pittsburgh and is renowned for its table-side service of house specialties of the surf-n-turf and flaming cherries jubilee variety. The place was packed
with revelers out for A Big Night when we visited, with patrons spanning a wide swath of socio-economic groups, and dressed in anything from rental tuxedos and chiffon gowns (the wedding parties) to sweatshirts and Steelers tee shirts. And on top of the spectacle of the decor, the view, and the people, there's entertainment . . . and dancing! The band was really quite good, doing covers of hits from the last thirty years, including a rousing rendition of Laura Branigan's 1980s dance floor anthem "Gloria" that got the entire room, including the four of us, on the floor dancing and singing along. Hilarious! Reggie doesn't really remember much after that, as the rest of the evening gets rather blurry. Again. Thank goodness the clocks changed that night, as he needed the extra hour to recover from his hangover.
|Clayton, the Henry Clay Frick house in Pittsburgh|
image courtesy of the Frick Art & Historical Center
The next day we traveled to the outskirts of town to the Frick Art & Historical Center
, the somewhat trumped-up name for the former estate of Henry Clay Frick. Our main reason for going there was to visit Clayton, the rather vulgar house that Frick built in the 1880s after he first made it big, but before he got really
rich and moved to New York and built his palace on Fifth Avenue. Clayton is a big mess of a pile of the worst of Robber Baron "en suite" Victorian taste, and we found it to be oppressively heavy and unlivable, but it is a fascinating glimpse in to another world. I'm glad we visited it. I understand why they moved out of it, though.
|The Frick Art Museum at the Frick Art & Historical Center|
The Frick Center's setting is very pleasant, and includes lovely gardens and greenhouses. It also has a small, jewel-like, limestone art museum built in the late 1960s in the classical style by Frick's daughter, Helen. The museum is a miniature version of the picture galleries at the Frick Museum on Fifth Avenue in New York. It features a decent collection of Medieval, Old Master, and English Romantic paintings collected by the Fricks (Helen was an avid collector, too). Boy was particularly impressed that the walls in one of the galleries were entirely upholstered with deep green silk velvet, which set off the gilt-framed paintings on display to perfection.
|Our 2011 Lincoln Town Car Signature Edition|
After a pleasant lunch at the Frick Center's cafe, we spent the rest of the afternoon driving around the Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh areas in our Lincoln Town car, and were impressed by the handsome university buildings and grounds, as well as the surrounding neighborhoods full of commodious houses built in the early part of the twentieth century.
The flight back to New York lasted only sixty or so minutes, and we were able to pick up Pompey at the boarding kennel on our way home to our apartment on the Upper East Side. We topped off our weekend getaway with cocktails and dinner out at our favorite local Italian restaurant.
All in all, it was a very pleasant and diverting weekend. Pittsburgh is a charming city, and I highly recommend it to you, Dear Reader, as a worthy destination to visit and explore. I plan on going back.
Tell me, what cities have you recently visited that you enjoyed seeing?
All photos, except where noted, by Boy Fenwick