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John Heinz Regional History Center: Smithsonian’s Home in Pittsburgh

John Heinz Regional History Center Photo, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


In a restored warehouse building in the Strip District, John Heinz Regional History Center is not only a storehouse of Americana, but also a grouping of important exhibits on settling the frontier, the Whiskey Rebellion, the Underground Railroad, many American industries, sports, and even George Washington and Jonas Salk. Near the Allegheny River at 1212 Smallman Street, the banner on the front of the building announces, "The Smithsonian’s Home in Pittsburgh." The windswept roof of David Lawrence Convention Center, visible from the parking lot, reminds us of Pittsburgh’s innovative architecture, while the old warehouse speaks of the city’s preservation efforts. We’ll see six floors of both inside.

Nobody could miss the trolley on first floor. It isn’t there just to look at. We went inside, sat down, and turned on the audio, which recounts life in American cities in the era of trolleys, companies that made them, and more. Other Pittsburgh "firsts" are displayed on this floor and a bit of Americana, such as an old gas station pump and a ‘57 Chevy, some Isaly’s ice cream mementos, and Kennywood Park memorabilia. We were looking for more "hard core" history, so we hurried to the elevator.

One of the most spectacular museum exhibits I’ve ever seen, "Rediscovering Lewis and Clark: A Journey with the Rooney Family" is a must-see for any visitor to Pittsburgh. (Yes, it’s the same family who own the Pittsburgh Steelers.) The journey was commissioned by the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania for this display, but the Rooneys’ photographs, journals, and artifacts they collected are only a small part of what is on view. Although any IgoUgo guide would be excited about a press trip that received as much publicity as the Rooneys’ retracing of the journey of Lewis and Clark, I was more interested in the original expedition--and was not disappointed.

Literature explains the difficulties involved in getting the keelboat built at Greenough’s Boat Yard in Pittsburgh, and I remember that the builder drank a little too much to make deadlines! We learned about the details of getting together the crew and provisions, what they ate, even what they sang. Words to the river song "Trois Beaux Canards" (Three Beautiful Ducks) are posted, along with the journal entries of Patrick Gass from 1807. While we read, the soundtrack with original tunes that were played on the journey made the present time slip away, and we were travelling on the Ohio River in 1803 to Brunot’s Island, where poor Betsy Brunot was accidentally shot by her cousin with Lewis’ new airgun he had brought to demonstrate to her father, Dr. Felix Brunot, who had come to America with Lafayette.

Oils on canvas attributed to Charles Wilson Peale, famed portrait artist of Washington, Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Lewis and Clark, illustrate the incident and characters at Brunot’s Island, as well as Lewis’ return to civilization in a full-length ermine robe given to him by a Shoshone chief. Other artifacts and stories depict Pittsburgh as "The Gateway to the West."

As I said before, the soundtrack lulled us into another century, and soon it was closing time. However, we were impressed enough with this museum to return the next day and see the rest of it. Two hours was not enough. The Lewis and Clark exhibit will be on site until 2007, and there is much more.

Lovers of Americana will want to visit the Heinz Kitchen, reminiscent of a decade long ago, perhaps the 1940s or '50s. (Remember, this is the Heinz Center, so we paid our respects to the company.) Alcoa is also on site with artifacts from their contributions to American industry, such as fabrics for work suits for steel, space, and other industries. A photograph and scale model of the Alcoa Building in downtown Pittsburgh is displayed with an explanation of how the innovative aluminum structure influenced the course of architecture.

My favorite exhibits (outside of the Lewis and Clark) include those on the Whiskey Rebellion and the Underground Railroad. The flag of the rebellion and the drawing from 1794 of local rebels tarring and feathering an excise officer are absolutely amusing. (The burning of General John Neville’s, the tax collector’s, mansion sent federal troops to end the dispute.) More heartwarming is Allegheny County’s precocious freeing of all slaves so that there were none in the county by 1840, long before the Emancipation Proclamation. Visitors can sit on a rounded booth and turn on the audio to learn more about specific local businesses and their owners who housed slaves escaping from the South.

Other displays represent Henry Clay Frick’s fight with steelworkers before 1900. Photos of Pinkerton guards at Carnegie’s Homestead plant and of Frick in his office recreate the drama. (You can visit his mansion and art gallery in the Schenley Park neighborhood of Pittsburgh.) One group of artifacts records George Washington’s survey of the area, and even his leather pouch and equipment are here. Other displays narrate the tales of immigrant groups who came to the area to start businesses and trades. Among this latter group, as well as in the Pioneer exhibit, are names of prominent local families and place names that haven’t changed.

All of Pittsburgh’s history is divided into eras, from settling of the frontier, beginning in 1750, to recent decades, and each segment of time has its own exhibit. In its heyday, pictures of the popular city were reproduced on china all over the world, and one display features plates and other porcelain from 150 years ago with paintings of the three rivers and the city’s landscape. These are particularly valuable, since pictures before the fire of 1845 are rare. The china also played a part in promoting the city’s growth and reputation. Other displays are of glassware made in Pittsburgh, and a great amount of literature on the city’s glassware industry is posted.

We also saw the Smithsonian exhibit, "The American Presidents," which is now gone. I’m looking forward to the French and Indian War exhibit, which begins May 1st, and I believe "Breath of Hope," a history of Jonas Salk and others’ work to control disease, has already started, as well as "A History of Western Pennsylvania’s Italian Americans." The Blum Collection of wrought iron work is on top floor. (The Blum company made doors and other items for European palaces, such as Versailles.) Other special ethnic and sports collections are expanding, and so is the museum. The new sports museum, which will occupy two floors, is slated to open soon. You can visit the Heinz History Center’s website to see schedules, times, and directions here.

One cannot see all the treasures in just an hour or even two. Plan at least a half day, maybe longer with a break for lunch. We were gratified to find good, cheap food in the little cafeteria on first floor, and the atmophere is nostalgic, in keeping with an old Isaly’s ice cream parlor. As we enjoyed our delicious chili and bread pudding, we expressed our amazement at the amount of important history this mid-size city boasts.

The museum is relatively new, opened in 1996, but it is constantly expanding before our eyes. With the new wing just opened at the end of 2004, more Smithsonian traveling collections are now on view. One can look for the Heinz Regional History Center to be a growing force in the preservation and display of this nation’s history, and because of it, the history of western Pennsylvania looms ever more important. At any rate, the Heinz History Center is the largest history museum in the state of Pennsylvania. Every visit is sure to be an exciting one!

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