PITTSBURGH, Pa. — The Pennsylvanian is the third building to occupy the prominent site at the eastern end of Grant Street and Liberty Avenue.
A second structure was quickly built, but it lacked anything memorable in its design. It was likened to a “country barn” by critics.
In the 1890s, Daniel Burnham designed the third station, a 13-story, neo-baroque terracotta and stone building. It was known as Union Station, Pennsylvania Station or Penn Station, though the building never actually served customers traveling on competing railroads, so “union” was actually a misnomer.
Burnham was a big catch for the railroad. A preeminent architect of the time, Burnham was fresh from his work at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. After completing the station, Burnham would return to Pittsburgh to design other landmarks, including the Frick and Oliver buildings. He would also parlay his initial sketches for Pittsburgh’s station into Union Station in Washington, D.C.
Construction took place between 1898 and 1903, with the Beaux-Arts building rising majestically over a large glass train platform shed (since removed). Passenger operations at the new station began on Oct. 12, 1901. The upper floors housed the railroad’s hotel, which was a common amenity for railroad passengers during that era.
The station became most renowned for its dramatic entry rotunda. The rotunda provided shelter for horse carriages (and later taxis) as they disembarked and embarked passengers at the main doors. Of note, the rotunda’s engravings reflect that they took place during the brief period of time when Pittsburgh was lacking its “H.” The rotunda’s 40-foot vault is topped with a skylight and stands over hand-laid brick flooring.
The building was one of four significant railroad stations in the downtown area and is the only surviving station in active use by a railroad. Station Square, for example, is where the former Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad Station is located, but it has been converted fully into non-railroad functions.
The Pennsylvania Railroad announced extensive renovations to the building in 1954, but just a decade later, the building and rotunda were nearly swept away in 1966. As “urban renewal” schemes gripped Pittsburgh, just like it did many other cities at the time, the railroad announced plans to demolish the landmark. Fortunately, the newly formed Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation stalled the project long enough to preserve the station.
The building’s fate remained precarious throughout the 1970s and 1980s. As rail travel diminished, the building was largely vacant and in disrepair when it was shopped around and eventually bought by the U.S. General Services Administration. Proposals to repurpose the building included everything from a senior citizens apartment building to a new city hall. It was also considered as the site for the already-planned David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
Finally, in 1984, the future of the station was assured when the Buncher Development Company announced plans to convert the building into apartments. Amtrak would continue to use the base of the building for its Pittsburgh station, but the rest of the structure, including its concourse, were closed off from the public.
On May 23, 1988, the building reopened and became known as the Pennsylvanian. The grand opening party was intended to be a huge social event, but 1,500 demonstrators crashed the occasion. Union demonstrators were upset at the developer’s use of nonunion labor and the disturbance prompted several dignitaries who were expected to attend to change their plans, among them Gov. Bob Casey, Mayor Sophie Masloff and the entire River City Brass Band.
Despite its tense debut, the complex’s 241 units -- consisting of studio, one- and two- bedroom apartments and penthouse suites -- have enjoyed high occupancy rates. There are also office spaces in the building and large banquet areas available for events.
Though now closed to vehicular traffic, the rotunda has become a favorite location for wedding photographers and tourists.
Amtrak’s operations remain in the building, though train service has dwindled to one train a day. An annex nearby allows for passengers on the Port Authority’s bus and light rail lines to make connections.
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