Steel and glass. “Hell with the lid off.” Fred Rogers. The Immaculate Reception.
These are some of the things that come to mind when people ponder Pittsburgh’s long history, and that’s probably not surprising to anyone. The industries that fueled Pittsburgh’s growth were riding high in the living memory of many of the region’s residents, the Immaculate Reception is fabled, and Rogers seems to stand outside time.
For a look at Pittsburgh’s deeper history – the history that stretches beyond soot and smokestacks, when many of our ancestors were still in Poland, Italy, Germany, Syria and hundreds of other points – a trip is in order to the Fort Pitt Museum in Point State Park. It details how this area was settled when a powderhorn was a necessity, along with a flintlock rifle, skinning knife and spinning wheel. The museum also digs into the strategic role the region played in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution.
First opening its doors on June 30, 1969, at what is now Point State Park, the museum will be celebrating its 50th anniversary this month. Arriving in the season of Apollo 11, Woodstock, Charles Manson and “Easy Rider,” the Fort Pitt Museum came into being just as downtown Pittsburgh was experiencing a kind of rebirth thanks to the construction of the Fort Duquesne Bridge and, in 1970, the arrival of the U.S. Steel Tower and Three Rivers Stadium.
“It’s the place where Pittsburgh began,” said Andy Masich, the president and CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center, which oversees the Fort Pitt Museum. “There’s much more to the history of Pittsburgh, and the Fort Pitt Museum tells that story.” Fort Pitt itself stood at what is now Point State Park for a relatively short time, lasting from 1759 until 1792. It started life as a British outpost in untamed territory, but became the western headquarters of the Continental Army during the American Revolution.
When the Fort Pitt Museum opened a half-century ago, it was the product of efforts by the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania that stretched back as far as the 1930s. Upon its opening, The Pittsburgh Press proclaimed that “the museum ranks as one of the significant accomplishments of Pittsburgh’s renaissance.”
By the end of the last decade, though, it wasn’t entirely clear that the Fort Pitt Museum would make it to the half-century mark. Managed by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, it closed its doors in August 2009, a victim of a Harrisburg budget imbroglio. For many local residents, it had gained a reputation as a museum where time stood still, where exhibits never changed and there weren’t many reasons to visit more than once.
It closed until a deal was struck with the Senator John Heinz History Center, which agreed to make it part of its system of museums, along with the Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village outside Avella and the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum. It then brought in Alan Gutchess, an Ohio native, to serve as the Fort Pitt Museum’s site director. Gutchess had previously worked as a gunsmith and at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia.
“With the History Center’s resources, we’ve breathed a little more life into it,” Gutchess said.
The museum was given a spit-and-polish and its programming was spiffied up. Special exhibits have been brought in, such as a 2013 exhibit that looked at the Cecil B. DeMille film “Unconquered,” which depicted events around Fort Pitt in the 1700s.
“Our goal is that every time you come back, there’s something new to see,” according to Mike Burke, the museum’s exhibit specialist.
The Fort Pitt Museum draws about 25,000 ticketed customers every year, and legions of students from regional schools. It’s also a hub for scholars of the period, who can pore over relics and manuscripts. Gutchess also pointed out that, in the half-century since the Fort Pitt Museum opened, greater effort has been made to tell the story of American Indians who populated the region in middle part of the 18th century, and not just offer a narrative from the perspective of settlers.
“We try to talk about more than warfare,” he explained.
The celebration of the museum’s 50th anniversary will start Saturday with an after-hours 21-plus night. The evening will feature Virginia Stotz, who will speak about her father, the architect Charles M. Stotz, and his influence on the museum’s development. Then, on Sunday, the museum’s admission will be 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children aged 6 to 17, the original admission prices when the museum opened 50 years ago. The museum will offer tours, 18th-century military demonstrations presented by re-enactors and hands-on activities throughout the day.
For information, go online to www.heinzhistorycenter.org/fort-pitt.