Subway's new station is flooded with light and history

Architect brings vision to Gateway Center


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Architect Rob Pfaffmann said he wanted the newest addition to the Golden Triangle to be infused with some of its history.

That gave birth to the idea of putting an engraved map of the city's center on the plaza where the new Gateway Center subway station will begin service March 25. It's not just any map -- it's Pittsburgh as it was in 1795, when Fort Pitt still dominated the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. The map was sandblasted into granite pavers on the corner of the plaza where Penn and Liberty avenues converge. It shows that for all of the changes to Pittsburgh during the interceding 217 years, the Downtown street grid has remained mostly the same -- streets extending perpendicular from the Allegheny and the Mon, colliding at what was then Liberty Street and is now Liberty Avenue.

Wood, Smithfield and Grant streets were part of the 18th century grid, with Smithfield and Grant interrupted by Hogg's Pond, a large body of water long since dried up or buried. There was another pond along Liberty between Fourth and Fifth streets (now avenues).

The original map is believed to have been drawn by one A.G. Haumann, a civil and mining engineer headquartered on Smithfield Street. It is now part of a University of Pittsburgh collection of historic maps.

"I said, 'Let's figure out how we can imbue the landscape with some history,' " said Mr. Pfaffmann, whose company formed a joint venture with EDGE studio and won the contract to design the new subway station. They named it the Light/Motion Collaborative, and their design has emphasized the combination of those elements. Especially light.

The new station has curving glass walls that will flood the subway platform with light and provide views of the towering buildings that surround it. "We felt a responsibility to do something that wasn't a traditional subway station. We wanted something that's the equivalent of driving through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, that sense of arrival," he said.

"What we were looking to do is provide a piece of architecture that transcends the local environment, that allows Pittsburgh to think of itself as a world-class city," said Gary Carlough, partner in EDGE studio.

Both said they hoped the station will become a signature piece and possibly mute some of the criticism that the North Shore Connector project has drawn during its five years of construction. But they also recognize that by being innovative, they are likely to generate their own critics. "It's a progressive piece of architecture and not everybody is open [to that]," Mr. Carlough said.

Indeed, a recent letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette criticized the design for blending in with the gray, metallic appearance of surrounding buildings and said "the city needs color to soften its appearance and image. We need to stop building with steel and focus on pastel colors and surfaces that invite connection, not repulsion." Before long, EDGE had posted on its Facebook page a tongue-in-cheek revision with multicolored pastel glass, sunflowers and a rainbow, along with a link to the critical letter.

Visitors to the interior of the new station will get another taste of Pittsburgh history with the reinstallation of the Romare Bearden mural, which was faded and discolored when it was sawed out, tile by tile, from a concrete wall in the old Gateway station. It has been restored and cleaned and lighted. "It's so much brighter," Mr. Pfaffmann said. The mural, "Pittsburgh Recollections," depicts Pittsburgh in a sort of artistic timeline from the Revolutionary War days through the Industrial Revolution and its steel heyday to the advent of computers.

Both the mural and the granite map bear quirks: When the mural was installed in the old station, one 12-inch-by-12-inch tile was mounted upside down. Its reinstallation has preserved that flaw. On the map there appears to be a "Ha St." one block away from Fort Pitt. It should be "Hay St." but the "y" would've landed squarely in a caulk joint.

A gravel slope along the station is a tribute to the ancient river gravel that was excavated during the boring of twin tunnels under the Allegheny that will link Gateway Center to new stations near PNC Park and Heinz Field, Mr. Pfaffmann said. The plaza also will have a garden honoring the late Faith Gallo, former director of Citiparks.

With the Port Authority's North Shore Connector on a tight budget, foundations came forward to fund the plaza, he said. The Heinz Endowments gave $660,000 and brought the Colcom Foundation ($350,000) and Pittsburgh Foundation ($100,000) in. "Heinz was a very important player," Mr. Pfaffmann said. The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources provided $200,000 and a federal Transportation Enhancements grant of nearly $253,000 rounded out the plaza's $1.6 million funding package.


Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/roundabout . Twitter: @pgtraffic. First Published February 19, 2012 5:00 AM


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