Foundation leader loves to lead city walking tours

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As a child, Louise Sturgess hated being led around historical sites by a guide. Her family had moved from Pittsburgh to London when she was 11, and every chance they got, they would visit Europe‘‍s great monuments: the cathedrals at York, Salisbury, Notre-Dame, and Chartres; the Alhambra Palace, the Tower of London, Edinburgh Castle.

“I hated them all,” said Ms. Sturgess. “I had no structure, no framework to hang these facts on.“

Now, as executive director of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, the 58-year-old Mt. Lebanon resident tries to engage both kids and adults in the tours she gives. When working with Pittsburgh schoolchildren, she asks them to attribute characteristics to the buildings they explore: The City-County Building is responsible; the courthouse is upright and proud. She has them count stairs and walk up to the microphone before City Council to announce one strength and one challenge of their neighborhood. Some talk about bullying, others about noise keeping them up at night, others about stray animals that slink through the streets. 

Ms. Sturgess has been giving tours with the Landmarks foundation for 32 years. Armed with a headset microphone, a fanny-pack speaker and the enthusiasm of a Scout troop leader, Ms. Sturgess weaves through Downtown streets, explaining how topography and industry have come together to make the Steel City. The earliest images of Pittsburgh show a green hill rising above its steeple and pitched roofs. It was on top of this hill that the severed heads of British soldiers were displayed after Maj. James Grant was defeated by the French at the 1758 Battle of Fort Duquesne. 

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But between 1911 and 1914, the remaining incline of Grant’‍s Hill was cut away. Parts of buildings that had been underground were now visible. Entrances needed to be re-imagined. 

Ms. Sturgess loves to trace these changes for visitors. She loves pointing out hand-carved ripples in granite, and gray sandstone that used to be velvety black with industrial soot. “I want you to learn how to read buildings,“ she says to the visitors who come on her tours. No question seems strange to her. In summer, she leads her Downtown‘‍s Best tour every Wednesday, usually with 10 participants. But with a request and a minimum of five people, she will give that tour at any point in the year. 

She explains that the foundation has a double mission to preserve Pittsburgh‘‍s rich history and to stimulate the city’‍s economic growth through educational tours and brick-and-mortar restoration. Some of her favorite places in the city are those that she would like to see restored, such as the New Granada Theater in the Hill District. Windows through which passers-by once could hear strains of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway are now boarded up, and the building‘‍s jazz-era murals have faded.

But Ms. Sturgess hopes that this and other historic buildings can be brought back to life. 

Eric Boodman: or 412-263-3772. 

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