Few Pittsburgh neighborhoods have seen development as rapidly and drastically as East Liberty. Since the construction of Forbes Road in 1758, to the construction of Pennsylvania Railroad lines to its modern and ongoing growth, East Liberty has long been an important neighborhood in the city.
Approx. 40 minutes
Oil and automobiles
Start at the corner of Baum Boulevard and St. Clair Street.
In this parking lot, you can find is a historical marker indicating the location of the country’s first drive-in service station. The Gulf Refining Co. constructed a one-stop-shop where automobile owners could fuel up, buy road maps and procure services like tube and tire installation.
The facility opened in 1913 and most of the nearby businesses revolved around automobiles. Baum Boulevard quickly became known as Automobile Row.
The Gulf Station was next to the Keystone Buick Co. and Oldsmobile Pittsburgh Co. and sat across the street from several motor companies, all owned by industrialist and banker Andrew Mellon.
Baum Boulevard is actually part of the Lincoln Highway, one of the earliest highways in America. When automobiles became popular in the early 20th century, dealerships started popping up along this stretch where travelers were likely to pass through Pittsburgh.
Continue up Baum Boulevard toward East Liberty (you’ll see a steeple in the distance) and on your left you’ll see the Spinning Plate Gallery. This site was once a showroom for Hupmobile, a Detroit-based company, and later Pontiac.
Keep moving along Baum Boulevard.
On your right, across the street, is what’s now the home of AAA. But its real name is Motor Square Garden. The building, a signature part of East Liberty’s skyline, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and includes a large steel-framed teal-blue dome built between 1898-1900. It was used for auto shows, boxing matches, and briefly, by the University of Pittsburgh’s basketball team.
Coming up on your left after the boxing gym is the office of Navarro Design Associates, an advertising, design and marketing firm. The entrance itself stands out, with horizontal wood and a bronze handle of a man seemingly holding onto the doorway. Pat Navarro, an interior designer, said the handle was crafted by local sculptor Paul Bowden. According to Bowden’s website, he focuses on the male figure, “along and in relation to other male figures.”
“Almost every day someone takes a picture of that handle,” Navarro said.
Above the entrance and windows is another figure, quite different from the one below. The carving is of the classical figure of Liberty and was originally part of the neighborhood’s Liberty Theatre. The performance space opened around 1915 and included 1,500 seats and 275 box seats. Admission was 10-15 cents.
Navarro said his father, who owned a construction business, took notice of the carving when the theater was being demolished in the 1960s and asked the workers there if he could take it with him. The younger Navarro decided to include it on his Baum Boulevard design business location.
Keep walking toward the giant church you see in front of you and take a slight left onto S. Whitfield Street.
East Liberty’s community and religious spaces
The sculpture in front of you is called Joy of Life. The steel fountain was designed by architect Virgil Cantini and dedicated in 1969. Its unifying shape of people holding onto each other was a nod to the civil rights movement. It was originally located at the East Liberty Mall, which we’ll talk about later, and moved to this site in 2010.
The building opposite the fountain is the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh East Liberty branch. The library originally opened a few blocks away in 1905 and was moved to its current location in 1968. It was renovated in 2010 and is now 9,000 square feet, LEED-Certified Silver.
Continue along S. Whitfield until you reach the Ace Hotel. This boutique hotel and the Whitfield restaurant on its first floor occupy the former YMCA. Look over the entrance and you’ll still see “Young Men’s Christian Association” engraved in the facade.
Inside, the three-story gym remains mostly unchanged, with the original walls and floors. Now, the space hosts events throughout the year. (Note, the hotel has suspended operations during the state’s shelter-at-home order.)
Across the street is one of the most recognizable buildings in the city of Pittsburgh: East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope. The first building to occupy this space was constructed in 1819 and four buildings followed until the current structure in the 1930s. The church is in Gothic style, like many cathedrals found in Europe.
According to the church’s website, the architecture “ is characterized by the use of pointed arches, the emphasis on light mediated through colored stained glass, and the cruciform floor plan.”
An interior 360-degree view can be found here.
Entertainment in East Liberty
Keep walking along S. Whitfield Street, crossing over Penn Avenue. Turn right onto Penn Avenue and you’ll soon be in front of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. The performing arts center is named after Pittsburgh natives Gene Kelly and Billy Strayhorn, whose contributions to music and the arts continue to influence performers today. The neon signs with the artists’ names are designed after the men’s signatures.
The theater originally opened in 1914 as the Regent Theatre, where silent films were shown. The 1,100-seat house included an organ to accompany the films.
Next door at the corner of Penn and Highland avenues is the former C.H. Rowe Department Store. Customers relied on the store for dry goods and wagon delivery in the late 19th and early 20th century. Now, part of it houses the Allegheny County Assistance Office.
Can you find lions in the terracotta decorations on the facade of the building?
Before you go further, turn around -- across the intersection you’ll see --The Milkshake Factory, next to it you’ll spot The Penn at Walnut on Highland luxury apartments.
Before the residential units were completed, it was the site of the East End Savings and Trust Company buildings. The Victorian-era building was constructed in 1913.
“It was designed by architect Frederick J. Osterling,” said Justin Greenawalt with the East Liberty Valley Historical Society. Osterling is known for designing a number of prominent Pittsburgh buildings, including the Arrott Building and Union Trust Building downtown, and Allegheny High School on the North Side, now Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Allegheny 6-8.
Behind the apartment complex is the Highland Building. The 13-story structure was completed in 1909 and designed by Daniel Burnham.
“Burnham was a famous Chicago architect who came to Pittsburgh and did many buildings downtown and all over,” Greenawalt said.
Pennsylvania Union Station and the Frick Building were designed by Burnham. He was also the director of works for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a world fair known best for planting the idea of Beaux Arts principles of design into city architecture. Burnham’s buildings abide by these principles, and they can also be seen throughout the neighborhood of Oakland.
The intersection of Highland and Penn avenues was also the site of Pittsburgh’s first traffic light. East Liberty and some of its adjacent communities were the first in the city to be fully electrified. According to the book “Henry Clay Frick: The Life of the Perfect Capitalist,” by Quentin R. Skrabec Jr., there were 3,000 cars in the city of Pittsburgh in 1906 and 2,000 of them were in the East End.
Turn away from the East Liberty Presybterian Church and walk down N. Highland Avenue. Coming up on your left is the Hotel Indigo, which sits on what used to be Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church. Do you see the circular paintings of famous Pittsburghers?
Urban renewal and the East Liberty Mall
The next block, after you cross Broad Street, has a small plaza. Several trees line the area and there are planters near the adjacent parking lot.
“This is one of those places where I’d say, see it while you can, because they’re going to be redoing it,” Greenawalt said. “That’s the last vestige of the East Liberty Mall.”
The construction of the East Liberty Mall is one of the most controversial development decisions in the neighborhood’s history. Planning began for the mall in the 1960s, and city councilors, developers and community members all voiced their reasons for and against the major renewal project. East Liberty had seen an economic decline, so some small businesses thought a new attraction would bring more shoppers to the area.
But other community members worried that the development would displace longtime residents. And it did. Urban renewal -- a trend popular in the 1950s and '60s that attempted to remake struggling neighborhoods, but is often linked with gentrification -- was en vogue in several Pittsburgh neighborhoods.
In East Liberty, this meant about 1,200 homes were removed and 3,800 people relocated. Many of the streets were realigned and renamed and a pedestrian mall was opened. But the shopping center didn’t yield the results city planners had hoped, and the neighborhood struggled for years to rebuild.
Now, this plaza is nearly all that remains of the mall.
“You can see some of the original planters and paving materials and things like that,” Greenawalt said.
Now, the Urban Redevelopment Authority is considering a redesign, based off of downtown’s Market Square, in which the plaza sidewalks would be widened and local food trucks and cafes would be brought in.
Keep walking down North Highland, crossing over the intersection with Harvard Avenue. To your left is the Bell Telephone building. The name, Bell, originates from Alexander Graham Bell, who is best known for his patent of the telephone. The company’s original headquarters was Downtown on Stanwix Street. Now, it’s home to Verizon.
On your right is Eastminster Presbyterian Church. The original structure was built around the turn of the 20th century as Sixth United Presbyterian Church. Take a right on Station Street. Check out the intricate stained glass window as you pass the church on the other side.
Changing East Liberty
You have a while until our next location, but this is an opportunity to learn a little more about the changes happening in East Liberty. A few blocks behind you, near Station Street and Euclid Avenue, is a three-acre parking lot known as Mellon’s Orchard South.
The location has seen the community change from when it was farmland to mansions to a thriving business district.
Soon you’ll see a Home Depot on your left. The store was one of the first to open under former Mayor Tom Murphy in an effort to revitalize the community in the late 1990s. It once housed a Sears, Roebuck and Co., which closed its doors in 1993. Murphy pushed for the hardware chain and it went on to become one of the first stores in an urban setting and now one of the best-selling in the city.
Ahead will be a few brick buildings on your right. Those buildings are part of the East End Cooperative Ministry, a group founded in 1970 to help the community with housing programs, education and food distribution. One of its earliest activities was providing “interracial breakfast for [Pittsburgh Public] Peabody High School [now Pittsburgh Obama] students” in 1971.
Right before the actual building, you’ll see a thin strip of grass with some planters in a row. Take a right and walk through this little parklet so you reach Harvard Street on the other side (this turns into N. Sheridan Avenue). Walk by the auto parts store with the yellow brick on your left until you reach Broad Street. Take a left.
The parking lots and modern buildings, including Target, are products of the community’s most recent development efforts. Prior to Target’s construction in 2011, the site was a dense residential neighborhood throughout much of the 20th century, then a housing high-rise in the 1960s.
Filmmaker Chris Ivey explores the community’s changes in a series of productions called East of Liberty.
As you approach the intersection with Larimer Avenue, look to the space on your left. This is now a residential community, but the block once had a roller skating rink for East End families. It, too, was demolished sometime in the 1960s.
The colorful buildings on your left are the Cornerstone Village apartments. The 150 apartments and townhouses officially opened in 2019 and spaces are reserved mostly for low-income tenants. It’s a development that fits into the city’s mission to create more mixed-income housing and ideally avoid displacing people who rely on Section 8 vouchers.
You’ll be walking for a few more blocks, then reaching the intersection of Broad Street and E. Liberty Boulevard. Take a right on Liberty Boulevard. You’re nearing the path of the M.L.K. Jr. East Busway, which runs from Penn Station downtown to Swissvale.
The two-lane bus and emergency vehicle only highway stretches a little over 9 miles and follows the route of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Pittsburgh was one of the first cities in the U.S. to experiment with the concept of a dedicated bus rapid transit system. When the system opened in 1983, it was an immediate success, cutting down the time it took to ride from the borough of Wilkinsburg to Downtown Pittsburgh by nearly half-an-hour.
The tunnel you’re approaching was part of the original rail system. When you emerge, you’ll be next to a large shopping development on your right, which includes a Trader Joe’s, Staples and GNC. Prior to these stores, this was the site of East Liberty Station.
East Liberty Station was a passenger depot from the mid-19th century to its demolition in the 1960s. The Pennsylvania Railroad extended throughout the commonwealth and this stop was an opportunity for travelers to experience East Liberty, which was a growing hub for commerce and shopping. In the 1950s, it was the third-largest shopping center in the state.
At the intersection with Penn Avenue, look to your right and you can still see a ghost sign for the Consolidated Ice Co. Turn left.
The tall brick building in front of you is the development of Bakery Square, technically located in the neighborhood of Larimer. As the sign on that same building indicates, Google is an anchor tenant, but the space also houses UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh offices.
The main building in this development was a Nabisco (National Biscuit Company) factory from 1918-1998. Civil War veteran Sylvester Marvin started a bakery production business shortly after he arrived in the city in 1863. The company made crackers, cakes and breads and he’s sometimes referred to as “the Edison of manufacturing” for his baking innovation practices. He died in 1924 and is buried in Pittsburgh’s Homewood Cemetery.
The building was remodeled and reopened as office space in 2010. Can you find the NBC sign on the building?
The Bakery Square complex was also once home to the East End Hotel, purposefully situated near the Pennsylvania Railroad so travelers could take a break and spend some time here.
Cross the street so you’re opposite Bakery Square complex.
This is the last stop on our journey through East Liberty. Mellon Park, located in the neighborhood of Shadyside, is on the grounds of the former home of Richard B. Mellon (brother of Andrew Mellon), a prominent banker and industrialist in the city. Now, there are several recreational fields in the park, as well as walking trails and pieces of public art.
Get onto the sidewalk that winds through the park where the trees start near the baseball field and you’ll see a bit in the distance to your right what appear to be five silver geometric shapes. This is a piece of public art called Five Factors, and it was originally situated outside the Carnegie Library in Squirrel Hill. It was made by artist Peter Calaboyias, who described the piece as: “The period of post war abstract expressionism (1945-1979) produced works in sculpture that moved away from figurative subjects to the pursuit of forms and shapes on a large scale.”
Just ahead on the trail is another piece of public art called SteelCityScape, by Aaronel Deroy Gruber in 1976. It was once situated at the downtown City-County Building, but had to be moved because it was too heavy and was damaging the portico.
Not far from the structure is a tree stump with a plaque embedded. This is a nod to Forbes Road, one of the first streets built in the city. It was commissioned by General John Forbes in 1758 “on his military expedition against the French and Indians at Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh).”
East Liberty has a long and storied history, and now it’s time to relax in the park!