Fort Pitt Museum has new chief

The displays at the facility in Point State Park will reopen this weekend


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When the Gutchess family went on vacation, they were more likely to visit Gettysburg or Colonial Williamsburg than Cedar Point amusement park, Alan Gutchess recalls.

"As a result, I associate history with recreation," the Ohio native said.

Mr. Gutchess, 46, has turned his boyhood passion for the past into a series of related careers. The most recent is as the new site director of the Fort Pitt Museum, which will have its grand re-opening Saturday. His employer is the Heinz History Center, which will operate the museum under a 10-year renewable agreement with the state.

A gunsmith and model maker, he has spent more than 30 years immersed in what he describes as the "more entrepreneurial" side of history. At various times he has worked as a restorer and maker of antique firearms, master of a gunsmith's shop, consultant to the History Channel and the Public Broadcasting System on documentaries, installer of museum displays, maker of life-cast figures and organizer of history conferences. He has worked at Colonial Williamsburg and at Sauder Village in Ohio.

"The challenge was always finding ways to follow my obsession with the past and still be able to pay my mortgage and make car payments," he said.

An entrepreneur may be just what the Fort Pitt Museum needs.

The museum, located in Point State Park, is at one of the most historic pieces of real estate in Pennsylvania. It was built on the site of the original Fort Pitt and it looks out over the much-fought-over spot where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers join to become the Ohio.

But its location, next to the ramps for the Fort Pitt Bridge, isolates it from the rest of Downtown. Parking is hard to find and often expensive.

Additionally, large areas of Point State Park have been under renovation for several years and final work is not scheduled to be completed until 2012. A large dirt pile -- used for the latest park improvements -- stands temporarily between the museum and the nearby Fort Pitt Blockhouse, the city's oldest structure.

Mr. Gutchess said he isn't disheartened by the construction or parking complaints.

Much of the park has reopened to visitors, he said. Indeed, on a recent morning, it drew scores of joggers, walkers, picnickers and sunbathers.

Port Authority buses serve the area, he said. And when special events are under way, plans call for running shuttle buses between the Fort Pitt Museum and the Heinz History Center, about a mile away, he said.

Restoration work hasn't discouraged people from crowding onto the Point during special events, like free fireworks shows or concerts, he said.

"When Pittsburghers have a reason to come to Point State Park, they find a way to do it," he said.

He said he and his staff hope to offer additional reasons for people to visit.

People familiar with Fort Pitt know about its importance during the French and Indian War. Occupation of the Forks of the Ohio, which the British finally achieved in 1758 after four years of trying, was one of the main goals of the conflict.

Control of the fort and the area around it also was important during Pontiac's War -- an effort by Native Americans to force settlers back east across the Allegheny Mountains -- and during the American Revolution, he said. It also was one of the places where captives freed by the Indians were gathered before being returned to their families, and it served as a center for the very lucrative 18th century fur trade.

All those events could be the basis of conferences and exhibits, Mr. Gutchess said. He also is mulling plans for displays that might bring in a wider range of less traditional visitors. One topic that interests him, for example, is tattooing, which was done both by Native Americans and frontier settlers and traders.

"Alan is the right guy in the right place at the right time for the Fort Pitt Museum," said Andrew Masich, president of the Heinz History Center. He pointed to Mr. Gutchess' expertise in 18th century crafts, his experience in working with the public and "his artist's eye for creative exhibits."

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission ran the Fort Pitt Museum for many years until it was closed in August during a state budget crunch.

Visitors will see some familiar faces when it reopens on Saturday.

They include historical interpreters Jessica Cox and Fred Threlfall and maintenance engineer Gene Churma. Andrew Gardi, who is finishing up a graduate degree in museum studies in Cooperstown, N.Y., has been hired as educator.

Mr. Gutchess and his wife, Janice, have two children, a daughter, Amber, 13, and a son, Logan, 10. The couple met at Bowling Green State University, where Mr. Gutchess said he took a variety of history and English courses but never earned a degree. Their son is named for an 18th century Indian chief.

Since taking on his new job, Mr. Gutchess has been living on Mount Washington while his family has continued to reside near Ashland, Ohio. They plan to relocate to the Pittsburgh area as soon as they can sell their home there.

The tradition of visiting historic sites and battlefields on family vacations has continued into the third generation.

"Our children have been dragged to lots of museums," Mr. Gutchess said. "They understand this is just what Dad does."

The Fort Pitt Museum will reopen Saturday with a Colonial Fair offered jointly with the Heinz History Center. More information is available on the history center website, www.heinzhistorycenter.org, or by calling 412-454-6000.


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. First Published April 15, 2010 4:00 AM


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