At the Turtle Creek Valley east of Pittsburgh, Turtle Creek passes through a topographical narrows before it empties into the Monongahela River. The narrows is an extreme geographical condition, but the floodplains along the creek and the river were well suited for railroads and industrial development. Andrew Carnegie established a steel mill here in 1875. George Westinghouse located the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company and other companies here beginning in 1889. The burgeoning steel industry gave name to the so-called Steel Valley (the Monongahela River Valley) and the electric industry to the so-called Electric Valley (the Turtle Creek Valley).
The Philadelphia to Pittsburgh turnpike had intersected the Turtle Creek Valley since the early nineteenth century. It descended and ascended the steep grades of the valley’s slopes, and followed a circuitous path across the valley floor. In 1915, the turnpike became part of the Lincoln Highway, the first automobile route to cross the United States. The popularity of the Lincoln Highway, proliferation of the automobile, and industrial growth in the valley soon made this segment of the road slow and dangerous; so a new route was devised to cross over the valley, in one great lateral and elevated stroke, at the height of the flanking hills.
This new route required 2.8 miles of new highway and a massive new bridge more than 1,500 feet long and over 200 feet high. The bridge spanned from bluff to bluff at a point where the valley narrowed but remained thick with infrastructure. George S. Richardson, who designed the bridge, acknowledged that concrete-arch construction was not technically best suited for the project, and would be more expensive than steel construction; yet he decided that concrete arches would assure a monumental structure appropriate to this place. As such, the bridge plays a prominent role in the landscape. It is massive in scale and a dominating focal point that organizes and focuses the landscape. It has been featured in work by artists including John Kane, Otto Kuhler, and Earnest Wilson Boyer. The bridge also serves as an elevated viewing platform that reveals the complexity and power of the industrial landscape below—Steel Valley to one hand, and Electric Valley to the other.
The Westinghouse Bridge is an amalgam of historic and archetypal precedents and a marvel of modern engineering. It readily recalls a Roman viaduct marching across the land. For those passing under the bridge on the valley floor it is a triumphal arch, a point of entry to greater Pittsburgh. At the same time the bridge embodied the latest in contemporary bridge-building technology. It boasted at least one superlative—the 460-foot center span was for a time the longest concrete arch in America. It was commonly compared with other monuments of contemporary engineering such as the Holland Tunnel, the Hudson River (George Washington) suspension bridge, and the Hoover Dam.
Large pylons at each end of the bridge display Art Deco sculptural reliefs designed by sculptor Frank Vittor. These feature stylized heroic figures, industrial motifs, and inscriptions that celebrate progress. Two of the reliefs represent the early settlers of the Turtle Creek Valley and the steel industry. The other two reliefs, representing electricity and transportation, are directly associated with George Westinghouse, in whose memory the bridge was named and dedicated.
By Martin Aurand, architecture librarian and archivist, Carnegie Mellon University
Bridges and Tunnels of Allegheny County and Pittsburgh, Pa. http://pghbridges.com/
Gay, Vernon and Marilyn Evert. Discovering Pittsburgh's Sculpture. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983.
Kidney, Walter C. Pittsburgh's Bridges: Architecture and Engineering. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, 1999.
Civil engineer George S. Richardson (1896-1988) served as assistant chief engineer of the Allegheny County Department of Public Works, designing major bridges including the George Westinghouse Bridge and the West End Bridge. Richardson launched his own firm, Richardson, Gordon and Associates, in 1939, which later proposed and developed the erection procedure and equipment for building the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Richardson is remembered in the George S. Richardson Medal of the International Bridge Conference, awarded “fora single, recent outstanding achievement in bridge engineering.”
Sculptor Frank Vittor (1888-1968) was born in Italy and studied in Paris with Auguste Rodin. He was invited to America by New York architect Stanford White, but soon relocated to Pittsburgh where he completed many statues, busts, fountains, war memorials, and reliefs on buildings and bridges. His work includes monuments to astronomer John Brashear, baseball player Honus Wagner, and explorer Christopher Columbus. Vittor once proposed a monumental sculpture of the steel-industry folk hero Joe Magarac to be installed at Pittsburgh’s Point.