Art Deco & Innovative Steelmaking: How Koppers Transformed Manufacturing And Pittsburgh's Skyline

Apr 7, 2020

From Grant Street in downtown Pittsburgh, the Koppers Building somewhat blends in with the city’s looming skyscrapers. But when it was first constructed, the 475-foot limestone and granite tower was one of the most distinctive buildings in Pittsburgh. 

Erected in 1929, its construction coincided with the region’s growing reputation for innovation, largely due to the research conducted by employees of Koppers.

The Koppers Building pictured during construction on Oct. 15, 1928.
Credit Trinity Court Studio / via Koppers Building Archive

At that time the city had more than 660,000 residents — and was one of the largest municipalities in the country, largely due to its steel production. Among those industry giants was Koppers, Inc., a global chemical and materials company and steel manufacturing innovator. 

Good Question! asker Dan Shay grew up in Dayton, Pa., about 60 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, and said as a child he toured the building on Seventh Avenue. 

“I visited it back in 1964,” Shay said. “Our science teacher would take us on bus trips in the spring to various sites and part of the Pittsburgh tour was the Koppers Building.”

He wondered about the building’s history and what impact the company had on the city’s manufacturing industry. 

Modernizing steel production

Good Question! asker Dan Shay says he remembers there being a slab mill in the basement of the downtown Koppers Building, but according to historians and experts on the structure, he's likely remember one of the company's research laboratories or factories. Pictures is the Koppers Company Research Lab in Verona, Pa.
Credit Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs / Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center

Koppers was founded in 1912 by German engineer Heinrich Koppers in Chicago. It moved to Pittsburgh a few years later, and undertook a number of chemical manufacturing endeavors, including coke production and wood treatment. 

One of its most notable innovations was its use of continuous, or strand, casting of steel. The process transforms molten metal to molded steel without stopping, according to a description in a 1954 edition of The Pittsburgh Press. Prior to the technique, manufacturers used ingot casting, which is when materials were poured into a large mold. Ingot casting was more time-consuming because it involved large molds becoming solid. 

Continuous casting relies on the steady flow of molten metal through a container called a tundish, followed by a mold and cooling spray. Its advantages included the early separation of waste materials, including slag, quality control of each slab and an overall cheaper process. 

Koppers first implemented the casting machines at plants in Canada and New York, and the technology quickly spread across the world. A 1960 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article found continuous casting machines saved manufacturers more than 15 percent in costs. 

Koppers once published updates about the company, complete with cartoon covers.
Credit Koppers Building Archives

Meanwhile, the company was further solidifying its reputation locally with plants in Bridgeville, Verona and West Virginia. By the 1980s, it was one of the largest industrial companies in the country. Koppers is still the largest supplier of railroad crossties (the wood block supports for tracks) in North America and a global developer of wood preservation and treatment chemicals. 

Redefining the skyline 

With its distinct Art Deco design, the Koppers Building was completed in 1929 and briefly held the title of Pittsburgh’s tallest building (the Grant Building opened around the same time and was 10 feet taller). 

The Koppers Building has a distinct chateau-like roof made of copper that rises about 475 feet from downtown Pittsburgh. It can be illuminated in different patterns at night.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

With funding from industrialist Andrew W. Mellon, Chicago architecture firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White — known for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the Terminal Tower in Cleveland — designed what the company described as “one of the last elongated chateau-type skyscrapers common at the time of its erection.”

It was built on a steel frame and includes setbacks on the 21st and 29th levels, so unlike the nearby Gulf Tower’s rectangular design, it displays a stair-like profile.

The green copper peaked roof stands out against the flat U.S. Steel Tower and the pointed Gulf Building. It’s made of copper sheets over quarry tile that can be illuminated with different lights and designs.

Inside the lobby, visitors are met with a three-story marble-lined atrium. The elevator doors, clocks and railings are all cast from bronze, and have been restored over the years to match the original Art Deco style.

According to a report in 2004, the Koppers Building elevators travel 68,000 miles and make 4,000,000 stops per year. There are 13 passenger and one freight elevator in the building. During a recent renovation, the original brass was revealed on the lifts.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

In 1973, the Koppers Building was designated as a historic landmark by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. As part of its nomination, its ornamentation was described as having “elegance and refinement.” 

During its 75th anniversary in 2004, the Koppers Building Conference Center newsletter created a round-up of facts and statistics, including that the structure has 1,500 windows and that its elevators travel 68,000 miles and make 4,000,000 stops each year. 

The Koppers Building remains a distinct member of Pittsburgh’s skyline and its namesake company helped revolutionize the manufacturing industry.

This is part of our Good Question! series where we investigate what you've always wondered about Pittsburgh, its people and its culture.