Peculiar Pittsburgh

Cold War to cold brews: Pittsburgh’s nuclear history is becoming a brewery’s new home

The surprising story behind the missile defense around the Steel City.

Nike Missile Command
Courtesy of Grist House Craft Brewery
MJ Slaby

When the team at Grist House Craft Brewery first learned about a potential second site in Collier Township, all they knew was it was big enough — really too big — for what they wanted. But then, they learned about its past as a Nike Missile Command Center during the Cold War.

After that, “nothing else was going to work,” said Bailey Allegretti, marketing manager at Grist House. They had to have it.

Although it was vacant for a few years and previously used as rented office space, she said there are remnants of its former life — math written on the walls in the basement and brackets on the walls to hang bunk beds. There’s even a huge switchboard with a big red button.

“I don’t think it’s *the* red button, but it’s still cool,” Allegretti told The Incline.

The Nike Missile Command Center was one of 12 that surrounded the Pittsburgh region, and the one in Collier is a physical reminder of America’s mindset at the beginning of the Cold War.

These sites were, and in some cases still are, hidden in plain sight, and aren’t something that the average person knows much about, said Anne Madarasz, chief historian at the Heinz History Center.

And that included the staff at Grist House. Allegretti said she’s starting to look into the history more, but added: “When you think of a target in the Cold War, you wouldn’t think of Pittsburgh.”

Lockers inside the former Nike Missile Command Center

Lockers inside the former Nike Missile Command Center

Courtesy of Grist House Craft Brewery

Pittsburgh during the Cold War: The early years

Pittsburgh in the 1950s was a very different place than Pittsburgh today.

The city was the 12th largest in the country, and its nickname during World War II was “Victory Valley,” said Madarasz. She said it made sense that the U.S. government wanted to protect Pennsylvania — Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were two of the biggest cities in the country. Philly had a Navy shipyard and Pittsburgh had steel, but it also had Westinghouse Electric Corporation, which was working on nuclear technology.

The defense system that the U.S. created was born out of WWII when the military realized that the oceans don’t mean anything when it came to using the latest missiles, Madarasz said. Plus, after the U.S. dropped the atom bomb, the expectation was that it would take 10 years for the Soviets to develop a similar bomb — instead, they did it in half the time.

The military wanted to be able to bring down a bomber plane that was flying at speeds of up to 600 mph and altitudes of 20,000 to 60,000 feet, she said.

“So the military contracts a report for a system for defense protection,” Madarasz said. “And that’s what results in the Nike program.”

There were more than 260 Nike sites — with missiles ready to bring down planes if needed — mostly along the coasts in places like New York, D.C., Florida, Louisiana, Texas and California.

These were huge sites, with more than 100 men at each, along with space for underground missiles, guard houses, radar towers, kennels for canine units, housing and mess halls, she said.

In the Pittsburgh area, the sites were in Allegheny, Westmoreland and Washington counties, usually on hills in heavily wooded areas, according to a Post-Gazette article from 2001. According to its new owners, the Collier site was built in 1957 and became operational in 1960.

The sites also helped provide reassurance to those in the Pittsburgh area, per the PG. Then-Mayor Mayor David Lawrence toured an underground missile bunker in 1958 and remarked: “I, for one am going to sleep better because of what I saw.”

But as quickly as the Nike sites appeared in the early 1950s, the technology was outdated, Madarasz said. And when the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, “that changes our space program.”

“Sputnik makes us realize that whoever controls space, controls nuclear weapons,” she said. Plus, the Soviet Union would no longer have to send missiles across the ocean — they could send them from Cuba.

In the mid-1960s, the threat of steel mills being bombed faded, and the nuclear weapons around Pittsburgh were expensive to maintain and not useful anymore, Madarasz said. Plus, the military needed funds for the Vietnam War.

So the Nike Command Centers started closing, and by 1968, all the ones in the Pittsburgh area closed. The last ones in the U.S. were in Florida and Alaska, but by 1974, all the sites were obsolete, she said.

A look inside

A look inside

Courtesy of Grist House Craft Brewery

Post-Cold War at the missile command in Collier

Many of the sites in the region have already transformed to things like public safety training sites, a YMCA, and new housing, according to the PG.

In Collier, the site stayed an active Army base with National Guard training and a commissary where active military members and veterans could shop until about 10 years ago, Sal Sirabella, president of the Collier Historical Society and former township manager, told The Incline.

When the Army fully closed the base, it was split into parcels. The township negotiated 78 acres for its first-ever community center and recreation areas for basketball, tennis, and soccer, Sirabella said.

He added that about 10 buildings were demolished for the fields and courts, but the former officers’ club and an office building were connected by adding a gymnasium in the middle to create the community center, which opened about four years ago. A marker at the entrance of the community center honors its history.

There are plans for Collier to build a public safety building on another part of the former base, and one section is still in use by the Federal Aviation Administration, Sirabella said.

And the last piece is the one that the Army sold and was most recently bought by Grist House. That’s the part where the missiles were kept and was the most difficult portion to develop, in part because of how deep the building goes, Sirabella said.

The 55,000 square foot building bought by Grist House had been empty since 2014, Allegretti said. The space is large enough to become the brewery’s main production facility with a barrel aging program, a large taproom, and retail space.

While the team is just getting started on design ideas, Allegretti added that there are plans to honor the history of the building by preserving features they find.

“We’re kinda into the idea of taking something old and making it new,” she said.

In addition to the building, she added the history could spark new beer names such as one suggestion of “Dooms Day Double IPA.”

Plus, Allegretti pointed out the brewery already had “Black in the USSR,” a Russian Imperial Stout, so it was almost a “head start.”

But the renovations could take a while, she warned, saying the opening could be a year and a half or two years away. It’s a lot of work, and Allegretti plans to post monthly updates on the brewery’s website. She added that the team was faced with a decision of keeping their plans a secret or keeping people informed along the way — they chose the latter.

“We would be terrible spies,” she laughed.

Plus, Allegretti is ready to dive into the history.

“It’s really kind of cool to be celebrating the power that Pittsburgh was with [what] it is now.”