Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Reggie Road Trip: Pittsburgh

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 time.

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


  1. My sister and I recently spent a day in Pittsburgh following a family reunion in the countryside nearby, and had a marvellous time. We mostly traipsed around on foot from our hotel (the newly opened Four Seasons, which was divine) but did make it to the Warhol Museum, which like you, I found better than expected. I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of older and spanking new architecture downtown. We're looking forward to visiting again next year, and plan to spend more time to visit some of those museums.

  2. Delightful trip. Always wanted to see Pittsburg and Fallingwater, and always wind up going elsewhere. This convinces me to place it higher on the list.

    My last road trip was supposed to be to New York for a little Kip's Bay and Kulture, but time wouldn't permit, so it was a quickie to charming Providence and down to Newport to view the surprisingly fascinating loan exhibition of gothic art once owned by Alva Vanderbilt temporarily re-installed in its setting in Marble House, courtesy of the Ringling Museum. Then, near the end of the long drive home, a spontaneous decision to finally see the 50's frescoes at the Solon Meeting House, a long delayed pleasure, as per my last blog post.

  3. So glad you enjoyed your trip to my hometown! Did you see kentuck-knob along with Fallingwater; The FLW house now owned by Lord Palumbo? It really has amazing collections amassed by Palumbo.
    LeMont is where my family celebrates family occasions regularly: anniversaries, birthdays, out of town guests. It's always an experience as it can get a little rowdy with football fans as you point out - the 'yinzer' crowd as we call them!
    Did you see the hall of music at the carnegie museum, adjacent to the hall of sculpture? It truly is an amazing space and was used as the ballet school in 'flash dance'. It's not always open to museum guests.
    I'm sorry to hear you didn't enjoy Clayton, probably my favorite thing to visit in Pittsburgh. It is evocative of another time and while may not fit our more streamlined tastes today, always hits a chord with me. That was the time period where Pittsburgh became PITTSBURGH. If you visit the city again, be sure to have lunch at the Frick Cafe - between the mansion and the playhouse - really an amazingly good restaurant!

  4. Deja Psu: Thank you for your comment. We purposely chose the William Penn over other hotels because we wanted the "authentic" Pittsburgh experience, and figured that the city's Grand Dame hotel would provide it. And it did, indeed. Reggie recommends it the next time you visit the city.

    DED: I enjoyed your post on the Solon Meeting house, a building I was heretofore unfamiliar with. Thank you.

    Architect: Your posts on Pittsburgh were one of the inspirations for our trip! We did not attempt to see Kentuck Knob, as we figure one FLW masterpiece in a day was sufficient for our visit. Perhaps next time. We actually did enjoy Clayton; we were not blind to its charms, but it was not to our taste, and clearly became so to the Fricks who decamped to NY and a much grander life within a relatively short period afterwards. We had luncheon in the Cafe, and enjoyed it. Thank you for your comment, as always.

  5. The william penn is definitely the (faded) grande dame of Pittsburgh -I've been to many weddings there and my parents themselves had their reception there. I think it's high time it had a restoration. I've never stayed there myself and have always wondered what the rooms were like. Are they tiny, much like the palmer house in Chicago which is of a similar vintage?
    With the Fricks, I wonder how much their lifestyle change had to do with their continued increased wealth but also the time period they lived in. Their move to NYC was the time when the great mansions of Newport and elsewhere were being built and it seemed very 'au courant' to be building a marble palace. Have you seen the book "The Henry Clay Frick houses"? One of my favorites in my library.

  6. Onion Domes.
    I adore onion domes.
    London is my favourite city. But I'm beside myself with excitement for my upcoming trip to Marrakesh in February.

  7. I am originally from Pittsburgh. Other than stop-overs at the airport when flying USAir, I have not been back to Pittsburgh since I was 7. My parents were both graduates of the University. Your photos bring back fond memories as well as highlighting the changes. One of my favorite memories of the museums is behing lifted up by my late father to see the tiny gold statue of Athena in the small model of the Parthenon.

  8. Dear Reggie, What a perfect 'Saturday to Monday' filled with such fun and a bewitching mix of cultural activities. I know little of Pittsburgh and so have found your travelogue fascinating.
    So many cities and so little time in which to see them all......but somewhere you may not have heard of is Eger in Eastern Hungary. An absolute Baroque gem and nestling in the folds of vineyards which are the home of Egri Bikaver, the famous Hungarian Bull's Blood wine.

  9. Wright originally proposed covering Falling Water's exterior stucco walls with gold leaf, instead of painting them.

    Talk about gilding the lily.

    (Someday I want to meet an architect who isn't compulsively reckless with other people's money.)

  10. Reggie, you are so right about Pittsburgh.

    You certainly made interesting choices on places to visit and dine. I'm glad you found Eleven. It's wonderful.

    When you go back, try Tessaro's. It's a genuine Pittsburgh neighborhood (Bloomfield) bar/restaurant; no corporate menu, no formula decor, no deep fryer. In a similar class as the Oyster House, only meat oriented. Tessaro's has their own in-house butcher and their legendary burgers are grilled over a hardwood fire.

    A word to the wise: If someone tells you to try Primanti's, don't. Trust me, I'm a foodie, and I know about these things.

  11. I felt the same way when my sister's husband was transferred to Pittsburgh - as in, "Now we need to go to PITTSBURGH!?" But we too were pleasantly surprised. You've hit on some old favorites here, and some I am adding on my list to visit when we go back. Great post.

  12. Dear Reggie,

    Wish you could have included a clip of "Gloria"! Sounds like a blast! I never knew I would like to see Pittsburgh as much as I do now

    Thanks Reggie.

  13. Reggie, you can make a trip to the dentist sound like the Grand Tour.

    Now I want to go to Pittsburgh - who knew? You knew!

  14. Anon: I love pirmantis! A great quick stop for lunch is the chicken sandwich with coleslaw and french fries on it - pittsburgh style. It's a pittsburgh icon!

  15. ArchitectDesign: Our room at the William Penn was modestly sized, but very comfortable, and was on a corner with windows on two walls, which was very nice. The bathroom was recently updated, and quite nice, too. We bought a copy of the book on the Frick houses at the Frick Center, and I look forward to really delving in to it.

    Pamela: It's hard to compete with either London or Marakesh!

    DocP: The interior of the model of the Parthenon was not lighted when we were there, so I couldn't see the statue, even though I looked for it.

    Edith Hope: Reggie would adore to visit Hungary at some point, a place he longs to see.

    Ancient: Isn't that a bizarre tidbit of information?

    Anon 9:45: I shall be sure to check out your suggestions the next time I visit Pittsburgh.

    Stephanie: Thank you.

  16. Thanks for the heads up on Pittsburgh. My son has just moved there and I look forward to exploring it with him.

  17. Did you check out the caned linen closet shelves at Falling Water? It's been years, but I still fantasize about having shelves like that!

  18. Janfaw: It was a good thing that noone was filming that evening, it would have been worthy of blackmail, I suspect. I will now always associate "Gloria" with our LeMont extravaganza.

    Patsy: Thank you.

    Anonymos 11:41: There is certainly lots to explore in Pittsburgh, and my readers have added even more to the list. Have a great time.

    Yoga Teacher: Yes, they did show the caned shelving, it was quite impressive. Thank you for noting it.

  19. I love the idea of Helen Clay Frick, Henry's thoroughly unpleasant daughter, moving back to Clayton in her dottage, to live out her final days in her old nursery, the house completely untouched from the day her father died, his prescriptions still carefully lined up in his medicine cabinet.

    It sounds like a wonderful trip.

  20. It was such a pleasure to wait on you and your friends. I am so glad that you enjoyed your time in Pittsburgh and of course The Original Oyster House! Take care. Jennifer

  21. the park across from the William Penn is my favorite! I love the Alcoa building (next to brooks brothers)

    next time you're in town check out Toadflax on Walnut street in Shadyside. Grab dinner at Eleven... or my personal favorite, Willow

  22. I am responding late to your visit to Pittsburgh. I am embarrassed to admit as a life long resident of Pittsburgh that I have never noticed the "Onion Domes" on the building in your picture. Maybe it is because I am always looking at the old churches that are about a 1/2 block from where you took the picture. They have a small cemetery between the two churches that have tombstones from the Revolutionary War. In the middle of the city. I am familiar with your interest (?) in squirrels. Next time make a trip to Oakmont Country Club which uses the squirrel as its logo.


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