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City Places for City People
Lighting Up Pittsburgh

by Eric Miller

December, 2003--Pittsburgh astronomer John Brashear once said "we have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night." Brashear may not be fearful--or happy--in today's Pittsburgh, however. With all the lights, the stars are not something that we can see easily.

Pittsburgh is a city of lights. From the lighted fountain at the Point to the corporate logos and lighted tips on skyscrapers, it's a great city to see at night. That's true year-round, but during the winter holidays, the experience is even more…illuminating.

Each year the season begins with Light Up Night. The event is so spectacular it should be drawing far larger crowds. While there are many events going on downtown during Light Up Night, it is actually best not to be downtown if you want to view Light Up Night itself. I went to the North Shore for no better reason than that it's the closest place to my house where I can get a view of the downtown skyline. The best place to view most any celebration downtown is Mount Washington, however. In fact USA Today recently ranked the view of Pittsburgh at night from Mount Washington as the second most beautiful sight to see in the United States.

Lighted BridgeBridges are also a big part of Light Up Night and lighting in Pittsburgh. The city is making some progress in lighting up its long-darkened bridges. The first to receive lighting was the Smithfield Street Bridge. The 113-year-old Smithfield Street Bridge is a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and National Historic Landmark. You can see the bridge from Mount Washington or Station Square on the South Side.

In November 2001, Duquesne Light announced that it would provide the financial support permanently to illuminate the Sixth Street or the Roberto Clemente bridge. Most of the visible fixtures were selected for their historical accuracy, while others were chosen for their ability to illuminate the bridge's more notable architectural features. [More]

The addition of the 7th, 9th, 10th, and 16th Street Bridges would make for even more spectacular vistas for Light-Up Night and other events.

Pittsburgh's new baseball stadium (PNC Park) and football stadium (Heinz Field) both added wattage to Light-Up Night this year. The lights from PNC Park were almost too bright, taking something away from the fireworks display. The point of the event is light, however, and the event certainly met that criterion.

StadiumOther lights have been added to the city, with some controversy. For years corporations like Mellon Bank have held their monikers high above the Golden Triangle, but as the numbers of logos in the sky grew, some Pittsburghers felt they were taking something away. As the signs proliferated, the city council passed an ordinance aimed at keeping the skyline free of corporate graffiti. For a brief period, Pittsburgh's Art Commission enacted a complete ban on the display of corporate logos on banners in the City. It may have been the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers are also a corporate logo that saved the city from the ban. Steeler fans turned out in protest, resulting in the lifting of the ban in less than a month. [More]

Others, including the business community came, out to argue that the general public does not find business signage offensive. Besides, a few corporate logos help to identify a downtown. It benefits the skyline tremendously to have a United Steelworkers of America sign hovering over the United States Steel Building. Then there are banks, gas companies, building names, and a giant sign advertising the Tribune, whose sign replaced one promoting Clark candy bars, a sign preservationists would like to see returned.

One such corporate logo appeared in an otherwise dark skyline recently on the city's South Side. Equitable Gas Company restored a clock that hadn't been illuminated in decades and had kept the city at 6:30 for almost as long. The clock is a remnant from the Duquesne Brewery. The company said it chose to renovate the clock as it was seeking options for a sign bearing its name on the city skyline.

The passenger inclines, including the Monongahela and Duquesne, also add a unique touch to Pittsburgh as a city of light. The inclines were built to transport workers from the top of the hill to factories downtown and on the South Side. Both inclines include trackway lighting, creating stripes of light up the sides of Mount Washington.

One of the more unusual additions to the lighting of Pittsburgh is what would seem to be a blank billboard atop the former Horne's Department Store--building now known as Penn Avenue Place. The sign, a "Sign of Light" was erected by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust as part of a "light art" series and is meant to convey a floating triangle.

The first such project, "Lightwall," uses a downtown building as the canvas for a 140 x 140 foot area of projected light. Composed of a sequence of single horizontal bands of light moving in a field of colors, the projection comes from the roof of the nearby Pittsburgh Opera building.

Another glowing addition to the skyline is the moniker of the Carnegie Science Center. A huge lighted cone on the roof of the center, located on the North Shore, changes to colors including fluorescent green and red. A sign below advertising the science center also changes colors against a black sky.

The holidays are of course a special time for lighting in Pittsburgh. The most visible change be a huge string of lights forming a holiday tree near where the fountain would be roaring during warmer months in Point State Park.

TreeWhile Horne's Department Store may be gone, a huge tree adorning the side of the building used by the store still returns each year to celebrate the season. The tree is now known as the Unity Tree.

One of the most popular and recent additions to the holiday lights of Pittsburgh is a tree on an ice skating rink located at PPG Place. For years the world-renowned building surrounded a courtyard that was cold, and for the most part empty. Today the concrete has been warmed with a fountain in the summer and a tree and skating rink in the winter. The 104 foot by 104 foot diamond shaped Rink is decorated by the stunning 65' PPG Plaza Christmas tree, lighted continually through the Holiday season. [More]

In a city where the smoke was once so thick that the streetlights burnt in the noonday sun, there is now no shortage of light to brighten the night sky. For more information on holiday events in Pittsburgh, click here.

Text & photos by Eric Miller