Pittsburgh's rooftops provide quite the view


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Whether you're arriving on Downtown's doorstep through the Fort Pitt Tunnel or enjoying a ballgame and hot dog at PNC Park, the view of Pittsburgh's skyline never ceases to amaze.

But what about the view from the skyline? Along with PG photographers, I took to the rooftops and decks of some of Pittsburgh's most prominent buildings to find out what the city looks like from up there. While most of these perches are open only to owners, tenants and their guests, a few are open to the public and one might be someday. Until then, enjoy a bird's-eye view of the 'Burgh from some high places:

625 Stanwix Tower Apartments

"The architect ... had the vision that sooner or later this place was going to have a fantastic view," said Sol Gross, owner of 625 Stanwix Tower Apartments.

That architect was Tasso Katselas, award-winning designer of Pittsburgh International Airport and Carnegie Science Center. The building was called Allegheny Towers when it opened in 1966.

Now combining a parking garage, office space and apartments, the building's 14th-floor deck has the only rooftop swimming pool in Downtown. Tenants who go for a relaxing dip can also peer down at Pittsburgh's jammed streets and bustling sidewalks.

The views get even better as you go higher. Residents on the Allegheny River side of the building have breathtaking views of the Allegheny and the North Shore and lucky end-unit tenants can see Downtown as well. A past tenant of the 24th floor enjoyed his view of PNC Park so much that he put in steel bleachers and an indoor batting cage. Needless to say, he was the most popular guy in the building on game day.

Gulf Tower

There is nothing you can't see from the 38th floor observation deck of the Gulf Tower. I think I may have even spotted Philadelphia.

In 1932, Gulf Oil Co. and New York architects Trowbridge & Livingston debuted a 44-story skyscraper that at 582 feet high, was the tallest building in Pittsburgh until 1970. At its top was a system of colored lights that forecast the weather for the next day. Gulf sold the building after its 1984 merger with Chevron Corp. In July, owner Rugby Realty unveiled a system of energy-saving LED lights that not only forecasts the weather, it celebrates national holidays and local sporting triumphs.

Though no longer open to the public, the tower's deck wraps around the entire building and once featured coin-operated binoculars. Today, the Gulf Tower's deck looks up at BNY Mellon Center, PPG Place and the 64-story, 841-foot U.S. Steel Tower, where David Bear and Carnegie Mellon's Studio for Creative Inquiry hope to one day create a visitor's center called High Point Pittsburgh.

Fifth Avenue Place

When you walk out on Fifth Avenue Place's green roof, you have to remind yourself that you're three stories above the middle of Downtown.

Installed by Highmark in 2008, the living roof is made up of 180 tons of growth media and 25,000 plants, with sedum, aster and daylilies among the most prolific. Instead of adding to storm sewers' overflow during a torrential downpour, it uses most of Pittsburgh's 37 average inches of rainfall per year to sustain its own existence. The layer of growth also acts as insulation, helping to keep the building cool during the summer and warm during the winter. Flanked by Penn and Liberty avenues, the roof provides some great street perspectives, as well. These views are not routinely enjoyed, though, as it is off-limits to both employees and the public. It can only be seen by those in nearby buildings.

Reed Smith Centre

Why put in one rooftop patio when there is room for three? That was the thought process at the Reed Smith law firm. At 225 Fifth Ave., the Reed Smith Centre provides 11,804 square feet of Downtown decking.

Spanning the 12th and 13th floors, the terraces include an indoor reception area that hosted 110 happenings last year, ranging from charitable events for nonprofits to a performance by Pittsburgh Public Theater. The catch: Connections to the law firm are mandatory for use of the spectacular space.

The patios feature a 166-square-foot vegetable and herb garden, which is visited every morning by executive chef Jeff Shaffer in preparation for the day's meals. The rest of the 2,652 square feet of planting area is taken up by a long list of perennials and annuals, including periwinkle, cardinal flowers, and red hibiscus.

"You know the environment is in balance when you see a praying mantis, especially so in Downtown Pittsburgh," said James Rudisill, director of operations.

Fort Pitt Museum

Though only two stories off the ground, the deck at the Fort Pitt Museum overlooks a plot of land that affected the course of American and world history.

Once home to Fort Pitt, a key fortress during the French & Indian War and American Revolution, Point State Park now occupies the confluence of the three rivers. The only remnant of its turbulent past is the Fort Pitt Block House, a part of the stronghold complex that dates back to 1764, making it Pittsburgh's oldest architectural landmark.

The museum's second floor and deck were completed in 2003 as part of a three-year renovation that cost more than $2 million. Although the deck is not open to those touring the museum, it can be rented out for public use. Employees, however, can enjoy its proximity to the rivers for the annual regatta or one of Pittsburgh's numerous firework displays.

Midtown Towers

Col. Thomas J. Keenan Jr. never shied from the public's eye. He was the chief owner of a newspaper named The Penny Press when it was founded in 1885 and later called The Pittsburgh Press.

He lived in this penthouse, which, when completed in 1907, marked the uppermost space of the tallest skyscraper in Pittsburgh. The 18-story Keenan Building (made for Mr. Keenan, himself) also had a globe atop its copper-tiled dome and a gold eagle atop that.

A few things have changed since then: The sphere and statue are gone, the U.S. Steel Tower now is the tallest building Downtown and The Pittsburgh Press is only published online.

Renamed Midtown Towers in 1971, the tan building at 643 Liberty Ave. was modeled after San Francisco's Call Building (now Central Tower), which originally housed a daily paper, The San Francisco Call. Today, it serves as subsidized housing for moderate-income tenants.

John P. Robin Civic Building

Reaching the roof of the John P. Robin Civic Building after climbing a cramped and rickety spiral staircase made the morning views all the more special. First appeared the Bridge of Sighs, once a passageway for prisoners moving between the jail and Allegheny County Courthouse. To the south, the Monongahela River flexed its liquid muscles while still giving off a peaceful charm.

Originally the headquarters of Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., the 1907 sandstone ediface was bought by a group of public, civic and charitable organizations in April 1952 for $935,000, with the Community Chest of Allegheny County (now United Way) providing the largest amount at $388,422.25.

John P. Robin, an important catalyst of the transformation from "Smoky City" to "America's Most Livable" and first executive director of Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority, was honored through the building's expanded name in January 1983. Today, it is the home of numerous offices for the city of Pittsburgh and may become housing.

Other than marking the end of 12 stories, the rooftop's only use is to provide a great view for the occasional employee who is willing to ascend to the top.

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Rob Wennemer is a former Post-Gazette intern. First Published September 9, 2012 4:00 AM


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