The Rotunda at The Pennsylvanian on downtown Pittsburgh’s Liberty Avenue is so magnificent. It’s difficult to imagine that such a beautiful landmark was nearly demolished.
Pittsburgh was the original “Gateway to the West” long before St. Louis claimed the title. Our rivers made us the embarkation point for those heading to the unsettled land west of the area. With the advent of the railroad, a new gateway came to the city, this time a railroad gateway, in the Pennsylvania Railroad Station and its stunning Rotunda.
The first railroad station in the city was the Union Station, and it was located on the same spot as The Pennsylvanian. In 1877, the Union Station was burned during the Great Railroad Riots in the city, when striking railroad employees burned 39 buildings in Pittsburgh including the station, doing unfathomable damage.
As railroads were the primary mode of long-distance land travel back then, Pittsburgh needed a new station, and a utilitarian structure was constructed in 1882. But after the Pennsylvania Railroad built a spectacular station in Philadelphia as their headquarters, a move was made for a new station in Pittsburgh too. As rail travel grew and the mood for expansion in country grew with it, the developers of the proposed station wanted a new terminal befitting a city and country on the rise.
D. H. Burnham, who was noted for being the architect of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and for designing Pittsburgh’s Union Trust and Frick Buildings, was commissioned to design the new station. When the final plans were submitted, the new station comprised a 10-story office building and a rotunda where passengers could be dropped off and picked up.
The gorgeous new station opened in 1903. The office building featured a Grand Hall with arches, gleaming marble, and a vaulted ceiling with skylight. The Rotunda, constructed from brown terra cotta, had three wide, low, sweeping arches and corner turrets. The Rotunda was capped by a low dome and corner pendentives, each bearing the names of the four large cities served by the Pennsylvania Railroad—Pittsburgh, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. The arches were lit at night with electric light bulbs, using this invention for drama.
In 1954, the station was refurbished, and in 1966, the city almost lost the building and Rotunda when an urban renewal project called Penn Park was put forward, but that was tabled. As railroads fell out of favor as a primary form of travel, other proposals for the structure were bandied about including razing it and building the David Lawrence Convention Center there.
In 1986, the building was restored and converted into an apartment complex called The Pennsylvanian. The concourse is no longer open to the public and serves as a lobby and an event venue. The Pennsylvania has transformed from a train station to a historic residential building and stunning site to hold a special event, though on its lower level in an adjacent building the Amtrak Railroad Station there still reminds us of the complex’s first purpose.
The Rotunda has three things that make it one of the city’s most treasured landmarks—beauty, history, and utility. In recognition of that, in 1973, The Rotunda was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and in 1976, the Pennsylvania Railroad Station was listed as well.
Written by Janice Lane Palko