Imagine Pittsburgh as a body — its streets arteries, its rivers veins, its bones skyscrapers, and its brain the people. Its heart? Market Square.
Market Square has kept the pulse of Pittsburgh — a site for food, protest and gathering — since 1784, just as the city’s founders intended.
It’s a showpiece — “the front door of our city and of our region,” said Jeremy Waldrup, president of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.
It’s also a place that seems to be constantly in flux.
Most recently, Diamond Market restaurant closed, set to be replaced with a bank, and, naturally, people had feelings about that, with one person even joking about the bank’s happy hour specials. Also in the past few months: Poros became Molinaro’s, Moe’s expanded, Cherries moved across the Square, and a new owner bought NOLA on the Square and Perle.
Given those changes in such a high-traffic area, we wondered: Has Market Square always been in a state of evolution? What was the Market Square of years past? How did Pittsburghers before us use this space?
With history as a courthouse, a hulking public market, and the open-air piazza we know today, its look is constantly changing, but its roots as a place for the public have only grown deeper.
Let’s travel back in time, with help from the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and Heinz History Center to learn more.
As surveyors sketched plans for Downtown Pittsburgh, they set aside land for “The Diamond,” a Scots-Irish term meaning town square — “a place for people to gather and express their opinions,” said Leslie Przybylek, senior curator at Heinz History Center.
The first Allegheny County Courthouse and a jail were constructed on half of The Diamond, while vendors occupied the rest.
“It would have been a similar square that would have been found in towns throughout the area,” Przybylek said. “The spectacle of a courthouse and jail — anywhere there was a courthouse in early America, crowds were going to gather to hear the news.”
In addition to the news of the day, Pittsburghers could also find eating establishments, though not quite like restaurants we know today. Barhoppers could even find a tavern dating back to the 1820s.
With the completion of a new courthouse on Grant Street in 1841, the Square returned exclusively to its original intent as a public marketplace. But some Pittsburghers weren’t happy about the courthouse’s demolition because they already viewed it a part of Pittsburgh’s fabric.
“There are some great commentaries that ‘the city is tearing down the courthouse!’” Przybylek said. “It’s sense of a place. … Even in 1850, it was already perceived as this historic part of Pittsburgh.”
Though spared in the 1845 fire that consumed one-third of Downtown, the wooden market buildings were replaced by two substantial brick buildings, each covering half of the Square and operated by the city as the Diamond Market Houses.
Women often worked at the fruit stalls, and after work, they’d grab a beer — which riled some Pittsburghers, Przybylek said.
The Original Oyster House debuted. It was previously called Bear Tavern, which dates back to 1827. Pittsburgh’s oldest restaurant, the Oyster House is still standing today.
Not much has changed since the 1800s. Black-and-white photos on the wall show men lined up at the bar, and if you squint, you can imagine the same setting today.
But one thing has changed. When the restaurant opened, women weren’t allowed inside. When they finally were, women had to use a bathroom tucked away on the third floor next to the kitchen. Now, there’s a first-floor bathroom, Oyster House owner Jen Grippo said.
“Whenever the restaurant was established, women weren’t allowed in the bar,” she said. “How ironic 150 years later, a woman owns it.”
A giant new, 11,000-square foot Diamond Market building took over the Square. Twin structures allowed Diamond Street to pass below.
The buildings covered nearly the entire Square. Think of it as a big closed market hall with open stalls inside similar to Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market. Shoppers could find butcher shops, produce sales, and even live poultry vendors. Diamond Market was so big it even housed a roller rink.
“It was a gathering place, a place for people to get what they needed for their daily life at home,” Przybylek said.
Over the years, the behemoth public market building deteriorated so much that a piece even fell off and hit somebody.
“People started calling it the Great Wall of China, a sarcastic reference that it was this big thing blocking the square,” Przybylek said.
So after four decades, the “new” Diamond Market building faced the wrecking ball. Its demolition revealed once again an open space, which became a public park and meeting area.
Market Square became the city’s first historic district.
In the ’80s, the square went through what Przybylek described as “a period of decline.”
“There was a period in the ’80s where if you look through the newspaper coverage of Market Square, it was a problem area,” she said, adding that newspaper articles frequently referenced crime there and referred to the Square with words like beleaguered and chronic.
Then, PPG showed up with the idea to build a glass castle next to the Square, which didn’t go over well with everybody. Some derided the building calling it “Dracula’s castle” and worried about how the old Square could be preserved in the face of new development, Przybylek said. Questions arose about whether the Square should be redeveloped, and, if so, how much.
Market Square’s reputation as a problem area helped pave the way for PPG’s new plan, she added.
To keep with the Square’s historic look, PPG’s smaller buildings directly surround the space, rather than the company’s nearby skyscraper.
“PPG Place is really now this typical part of Pittsburgh,” Przybylek said. “It’s just as much of the fabric of the place as anywhere else.”
But even after PPG’s construction, the Square still faced challenges. The Tribune-Review called it “a seedy urban acre of litter, vagrants and bus fumes” and “a haunt for drifters and drug users” with “panhandlers and pigeons.” That began to change in the early 2000s when then-mayor Bob O’Connor initiated a crackdown on illegal activity, the Trib reported.
Construction began to transform the city-owned park into European-style plaza for dining, shopping, business meetings and leisure — the Market Square we know today. Its design prioritized pedestrians, and its central open space allows for farmers’ markets, holiday shops, concerts, public art, games, yoga, and activities from the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and other groups.
The Square’s businesses continue to change, but that’s not surprising, according to Leigh White, spokesperson for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.
“It’s not unusual to see uses flipping and changing — that sort of cyclical nature of real estate,” she said.
Waldrup describes it as the “epicenter of Downtown’s renewal,” particularly given the city’s growing food scene. “It’s been a very fun space to see evolve,” he said.
‘The spirit is still there’
Despite all of the changes noticeable to modern Pittsburghers, if you resurrected a Pittsburgher from the 1790s and dropped them into Market Square, Przybylek said, “they would recognize the spirit and the function of the place.”
Today’s Market Square would be even more recognizable to them than Market Square of the 1920s with its giant brick building.
“If you plopped them down in 1925 or 1930, I think that would be a little bit disconcerting to them like, ‘What did you do to our square?!’” she said.
Even back to the 1700s, Market Square has always been a place of commerce, people-watching, and different opinions and lives colliding — “a unique place in the city’s civic life,” Przybylek said.
It’s a place where people come together to celebrate the city and to call for change. In recent months, the Square has been home to a gun safety rally, protests over the death of Antwon Rose II, and a stopping point for the annual Pride March.
“It’s a place where you see people protest and you see people celebrate. It’s where we come to yell and scream about injustices we see in our world,” Waldrup said. “Those places are invaluable to cities, and you’ve seen that as long as cities have existed. It’s pretty special because a lot of places never had that or lost it many, many years ago.”
The Square contains memories for generations of Pittsburgers.
“It’s one of the those rare places that’s undergone change after change after change. But in the way it functions now, it still follows the motivations and the human factors to put it on the map in the first place,” Przybylek said. “The spirit is still there.”