Take A Stroll Through Historic Lawrenceville
Lawrenceville is one of Pittsburgh’s oldest and largest neighborhoods. Founded in 1814, it was named for Captain James Lawrence, who served in the War of 1812 (of “Don’t Give Up The Ship!” fame).
Approx. 40 minutes. Begin at 3339 Penn Avenue.
The neighborhood was home to the Allegheny Arsenal, a significant manufacturing facility for the Union Army during the Civil War. It’s also a registered historic district, with thousands of designated historic parcels scattered throughout Lower, Central and Upper Lawrenceville.
Begin outside the Clemente Museum at 3339 Penn Avenue between 34th Street and Haskell Way. Roberto Clemente is one of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ most famous players. The Puerto Rican right fielder was the first Latin American and Caribbean player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and helped lead the Pirates to World Series victories in 1960 and 1971.
The museum itself is located in the former Engine Station No. 25, one of three firehouses in Lawrenceville. It was rehabilitated and now contains one of the largest collections of Clemente photographs, jerseys and other memorabilia.
Tours are currently postponed, but the exterior of the building, with its bright red doors and brick facade is impressive. According to the Lawrenceville Historical Society, Engine Station No. 25 was built by architect William Brady in Beaux Arts Romanesque style.
Continue up Penn Avenue until you reach its intersection with Butler Street. Cross the street onto the triangular space with the statue. This is Doughboy Square, named for the war memorial you see in front of you. This monument was erected after World War I with money originally raised to send to the men in service. But by the time the money was collected, the war was over, so the community decided to create the statue instead, according to the Lawrenceville Historical Society.
“Doughboy” was a popular nickname for infantrymen during the first World War. The monument was dedicated in 1921.
Behind you to the right is Doughboy Park. Keep looking in that direction. Can you find three Pacmen sitting in windows?
The large building in front of you is the former Pennsylvania National Bank building. Desmone Architects have occupied the 7,500-square-foot space since the 1990s, before Lawrenceville underwent a significant development.
The bank was built at the intersection in 1903, also in Beaux-Arts style, with terracotta ornaments and detailing on its pillars and around its entrance. If you look up, you can see the state’s keystone emblem near the roof.
Keep walking up Penn Avenue and look to your right. The current location of Pittsburgh Juice Company is in a renovated Art Deco-style building. The PJC owners kept most of the original facade, but gave the structure a modern feel.
Take a peak to your left at the extension to the bank building. Desmone Architects built several years ago. The top of the building reads: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” a quote by Winston Churchill referring to the rebuilding of the House of Commons after World War II.
When you reach the intersection with 36th Street, look to your right. This is the former home of composer Stephen Foster. His father, William Foster, was a prominent land owner in the neighborhood. Stephen Foster is remembered for his American tunes, including “Oh! Susanna” and “My Old Kentucky Home.”
This house was occupied by several manufacturing company owners throughout the years, then it was turned into a funeral home and apartments. Now there’s a historical marker in the front yard.
Keep going up Penn until you reach 37th Street. Turn left.
Churches and views
When you turn onto 37th Street, you’re met by the juxtaposition of old and new in Lawrenceville. On your left are recently renovated townhouses and across the street on your right is a building that says “1903 Cinderella” above the awning. This structure of apartments was made in 1903 by John Fink.
The view in front of you is a favorite perspectives of the neighborhood for Tom Powers with the historical society.
“It harkens back to Europe and you get a nice view of Troy Hill across the river,” Powers said.
The view includes St. Augustine Church, recently merged to create Our Lady of the Angels parish, which will be visible on your left. The Catholic church was built in 1901 and is built in Romanesque Revival style. German Americans founded the parish in 1863. Notice the ornamental reliefs just above the entrance.
“The people who were part owners of the Iron City Brewery financed the building of St. Augustine’s,” Powers said.
To your right is the 152-year-old Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church.
When you reach the bottom of the hill, turn right onto Butler Street.
This stretch of Lawrenceville has undergone significant development in the past couple of decades. Many of the original facades on Butler Street have been preserved. As you reach the intersection with 38th Street, glance behind you toward the river, do you see a mural?
The curvy building at the intersection there is Round Corner Cantina, a bar and restaurant known for its South American cuisine and drinks. It was built as the Round Corner Hotel in the mid-19th century.
“It’s actually one of the oldest continuous businesses,” Powers said. “That dates back from the Civil War era.”
As you cross over 38th Street, you’ll see Piccolo Forno restaurant. This space was once a grocery store, according to Powers.
Turn right onto 39th Street.
You’re coming up next to Arsenal Pre-K-5 and 6-8, a Pittsburgh Public School. Walk up the hill next to the school. The facility was built in 1932 on the site of the former Allegheny Arsenal. The arsenal helped define Lawrenceville, and occupied much of the neighborhood during the Civil War.
“The arsenal was the keystone of what would eventually become Lawrenceville,” Powers said. “[The neighborhood] built up around it.”
Soon you’ll see Arsenal Park, where the bulk of the Allegheny Arsenal once stood. The arsenal was built on 30 acres in 1814. It stretched from Penn Avenue (at the top of the hill in front of you) all the way to the Allegheny River, so workers could easily transport the ammunition it manufactured there to boats on the water.
Go ahead and walk through the park, heading left toward 40th Street. The space is now used primarily as a park, and hosts events and farmers markets in warmer months. You’ll see an L-shaped building coming up, which was the Arsenal Powder Magazine, the arsenal’s oldest structure.
The arsenal is perhaps best known for the explosion that occurred there in 1862. Some believe a spark from an iron-rimmed wagon ignited gunpowder that had been spilled near the arsenal’s laboratory. The blaze quickly reached other sections of the arsenal, including many where young women were working. Women were often preferred in roles at the arsenal, as they were less likely to smoke tobacco and wouldn’t have been drafted into the Union Army. Seventy-eight workers died in the explosion, making it the largest civilian disaster during the Civil War. The cause is still unverified.
When you reach the end of the park, head back down 40th Street toward Butler Street. A long tunnel was rumored to run from the arsenal to the Allegheny River. The former military asset became folklore for people who grew up in Lawrenceville, including the story that gunpowder or other ammunition was taken underground on a rail system.
Several years ago, the Lawrenceville Historical Society took a trip under the neighborhood to see for themselves. They found that there was a passageway, but it was less like a tunnel and more like a series of small rooms. The historical society says the passage that still exists was likely a sewer system or hallway, and most of them were destroyed when the 40th Street Bridge (the span directly in front of you crossing the river) was constructed.
Bridges of Lawrenceville
Speaking of the arsenal site, you’re about to reach the intersection of Butler and 40th streets. Look to your left across the street where there is a relatively new apartment complex. While excavating this site, construction crews found at least 21 cannonballs.The police bomb squad responded to the scene, but decided to allow the construction company's subcontractor to remove the cannonballs.
In front of you is the 40th Street Bridge, which opened in 1924. It’s also called the Washington Crossing Bridge, to commemorate the time when General George Washington allegedly fell into the freezing Allegheny River in 1753.
The bridge itself includes 14 different seals affixed across the span from Lawrenceville to Millvale. They represent the 13 original colonies, and the seal of Allegheny County.
On the opening day of the new bridge, hundreds of schoolchildren, marching bands and automobiles paraded across the more than 2,366 foot span. It was an opportunity for car owners--still a rarity for many residents--to show off their vehicles, and for officials to demonstrate the strength of the steel bridge.
But before this bridge was constructed, another stood upstream, at 43rd Street. This was built by the Ewalt Bridge Company in 1870 and travelers had to pay a special token to cross. A sign at the top of the covered span advised passengers to “drive no faster than a walk” and charged a penalty of $5 to people who disobeyed.
Turn right onto Butler Street by the GetGo gas station.
Central Lawrenceville business district
Many of the original facades along this stretch have been maintained, although the businesses that occupy the buildings have changed.
Can you find the old “Telephone Building” inscription at the corner of Butler and Fisk streets?
Coming up on your left across the street is the Thunderbird Cafe.
“That started out life in the 1890s as a bakery,” Powers said. “If you go in the basement, you can sort of see where the old ovens were. They’re all bricked up, but you can see the patterns on the wall.”
In 1933, the space, then Michalski’s Cafe, was granted the city’s second liquor license after prohibition. Now, it’s a multi-story music venue and bar.
Next door in what’s now a state-owned liquor store, was Naser’s Tavern, thought to be one of the oldest surviving structures on Butler Street. It’s a designated historic landmark opened by German immigrant John Naser.
Keep walking down Butler Street and you’ll see what’s now a PNC Bank. This was once the Metropolitan National Bank, constructed in 1903 (you can see that date above the entrance) with Classical Revival details.
Continue down Butler Street and take a break on one of the benches between 42nd and 43rd Streets. If you look to your right, you’ll see Condado Tacos, a restaurant that’s located in the former Arsenal Bank, which was established in 1871.
Next door is a large mural of bowling pins and balls and the words “Arsenal Bowling.” Currently this space serves as a bowling alley and bar.
“Arsenal Lanes is actually two buildings in one,” Powers said. “The first part was an athletic and event space called Hanna’s Hall … they used to have boxing matches and basketball games in that building.”
Next door was Keane’s Auditorium, where political speakers or traveling authors would visit when they came through town. It was flipped into a bowling alley just after World War II.
Soon you’ll come upon the old Lawrenceville Branch of the YMCA, built in 1912. It was converted to the Pittsburgh Boys’ Club in the 1920s and eventually became part of the Boys & Girls Club of America. Now, it’s an apartment complex.
The new Boys & Girls Club of America is now located just after 46th Street. It once had two swimming pools and was next to St. Margaret’s Memorial Hospital.
Coming up to your left after Home Street is The Abbey on Butler. It’s now a bar and restaurant, but started its life as a gravestone maker’s shop and then became a funeral parlor.
Our journey ends here, at the Allegheny Cemetery. In 2019 the graveyard celebrated its 175th birthday. The cemetery was established in 1844 when the East End communities it touches were considered rural.
Soldiers from the Revolutionary War to modern-day conflicts are buried in the cemetery. It was the sixth incorporated cemetery in the United States.
“It’s really almost like a time capsule,” said Allegheny Cemetery Assistant to the President Nancy Foley. “Even as the neighboring communities change, even as the world around us changes, this space will always be sacred and we will always be a place of remembrance and burial.”
The cemetery is the final resting place for many local history-makers, including 28 Pittsburgh mayors, jazz saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, actress-singer Lillian Russell Moore, abolitionist Dr. Charles Avery, and Negro League player Josh Gibson.
“It’s really generations of our own families, our own family of Pittsburghers, who, generation after generation, year after year, have been coming to the same place to do the same thing,” Foley said.
This walk ends here, please enjoy this beautiful space!
*This story has been updated.