Where a Tycoon Made It Just to Give It Away
ANDREW CARNEGIE wasn't born in Pittsburgh, nor did he die there, but Pittsburgh was where he made his money, and making money was something very dear to Carnegie's heart. When it came time to dole it out — and for Carnegie that time occupied almost as many years as he spent earning it — Pittsburgh made out handsomely. Libraries, of course, a university, splendid museums, a gilded concert hall: Carnegie's largess to Pittsburgh is still overwhelming even a century after the previous Gilded Age.
But the steel tycoon's imprint on the city of three rivers goes deeper than buildings and bequests. The steel mills that once lined those rivers are mostly gone, and the curtains of soot they spewed have lifted to reveal a vibrant 21st-century city. Even so, Pittsburgh remains a place where the gulf between capital and labor is large. Nobody had more capital there than Carnegie, and nobody tried harder to bridge the gulf, though his efforts were not altogether welcome. The fact that the region's only steel industry museum commemorates not Carnegie's success but his failure to resolve the bloody Homestead Strike is a sign of how controversial his legacy remains.
Modern Pittsburgh may be unimaginable without Carnegie, but intimate traces of the man are somewhat elusive. He was 12 in 1848 when his father, William, transplanted the family from Fife in Scotland in the hopes of setting himself up as a cotton weaver. Carnegie senior never made much of a living, and the family lived modestly in Allegheny City (since absorbed into Pittsburgh as the North Side neighborhood across the river from downtown). The Carnegie house on Rebecca Street vanished when Heinz Field went up in the 1990s.
At the age of 33, Carnegie confided in his personal ledger that to continue devoting his life exclusively to “the amassing of wealth ... must degrade me beyond hope of permanent recovery,” but he really couldn't help himself. By the time he was 40, having propelled himself Horatio Alger-fashion from bobbin boy in a cotton factory to shrewd investor in growth industries, Carnegie had almost total control of steel production in western Pennsylvania, and he spent the next 25 years squeezing every penny he could out of his mills. “Watch the costs and the profits will take care of themselves” was Carnegie's famous motto, and it worked wonderfully well for him. When he sold out to J. P. Morgan for half a billion dollars in 1901, he was the richest man in the world.
“I have made my fortune here,” Carnegie told a Pittsburgh crowd in 1890, “and by the aid of very enterprising partners, I find myself busily engaged in investing it here. I link my fortunes with Pittsburghers — stand and fall with them.” As long as he didn't have to live with them. As soon as he could afford it, Carnegie moved his family out to the salubrious suburb of Point Breeze. By 1870, he had relocated to New York, leaving his less enterprising brother, Tom, to look after the family properties at Point Breeze. Today, all that remains of the Carnegie estates is Tom's carriage house, at 222 Carnegie Place.
To get a sense of Carnegie's life at Point Breeze, visit Clayton, the neighboring estate (now open to the public) that Carnegie's partner-turned-enemy Henry Clay Frick bought in 1882. Actually, estate is too grand a word for the stodgy Frenchified house and its five acres of rustling shade trees, roses, hydrangeas and lawns. Compared with the “cottages” going up at Newport and the mansion Frick built himself on Fifth Avenue in New York, Clayton is decidedly lacking in plutocratic verve.
“Carnegie, unlike Frick, never really cared about personal artifacts or splendid houses,” according to the Pittsburgh historian Robert Gangewere. “He was more interested in giving stuff away.” What he gave to Pittsburgh was, pre-eminently, the 10-acre complex of museums, music hall and library at the heart of the Oakland neighborhood east of downtown. “Carnegie firmly believed that those who made the money were the best qualified to give it away,” Mr. Gangewere said. “He was convinced that workers would just drink higher wages away, whereas he would spend it wisely to benefit mankind.”
A century later, that uneasy mix of condescension and open-handedness is still apparent in the Beaux-Arts complex in Oakland. In the Art Museum, pride of place is given to the immense plaster casts of classical and European statues and buildings like the lion gate at Mycenae and the facade of the French abbey church of St.-Gilles-du-Gard. As a frugal Scot, Carnegie reasoned that copies were better than nothing for art students who could not afford to see the originals.
Frugality also impelled Carnegie to forgo old masters in favor of works by his contemporaries like Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent and the French Impressionists. The galleries have since been refreshed with works by the likes of Marsden Hartley, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, but somehow the museum fails to deliver the concentrated punch of the best collections. The Natural History Museum, on the other hand, ranks with the finest, particularly the display of dinosaur bones.
As for the Music Hall, the best part is not the rather pinched auditorium but its gilded green marble foyer, a kind of robber baron's throne room where a life-size statue of the great Scot himself sits ramrod straight and glaring. Even more redolent of the Gilded Age aura is the nearby Founders Room with its hanging alabaster lamps and gold picture frames.
The ghost of Carnegie is a bit harder to track through downtown Pittsburgh. Franklin Toker, professor of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, notes that Carnegie did put up one small downtown skyscraper, but Frick, who became Carnegie's sworn enemy in the 1890s, deliberately dwarfed it with two of his own skyscrapers (the Frick Building at 437 Grant Street and the Allegheny Building at 429 Forbes Avenue). The Carnegie Building was torn down around 1950. Probably the best places downtown to channel the tycoon are the circa 1889 Duquesne Club at 325 Sixth Avenue and the Renaissance Hotel at 107 Sixth Street. Today, the Duquesne's Richardson Romanesque facade and the blackened gothic spires of Trinity Cathedral and First Presbyterian Church uphold a bit of Victorian gentility amid the drab downtown skyscrapers.
Generally, the Duquesne's interior may be enjoyed only by members and their guests, but the nearby Renaissance Hotel welcomes all. For the price of a drink, you can linger beneath the glass dome of the dim, palmy lobby and conjure up the image of Carnegie strutting up one of the red-carpeted twin staircases.
The historian David McCullough, who grew up in Pittsburgh, was surprised as a child to hear his father refer to Carnegie as “a mean little devil.” Local animosity to the steel baron remains common, the legacy, no doubt, of his role in the infamous Homestead Strike.
Carnegie was in Scotland in June 1892, when Frick, his partner, locked the disgruntled members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers out of the Homestead steel plant. Frick was determined to break the powerful union any way he could, and Carnegie, despite his cultivated image as a friend of labor, secretly backed his partner up. In the early hours of July 6, thousands of Homestead steelworkers and their families took to the streets and waterfront in order to prevent the 300 armed Pinkerton agents summoned by Frick from landing. Shots were exchanged and a pitched battle ensued. By late that afternoon, 10 men — three Pinkerton agents and seven workers — lay dead or dying, and Carnegie's humane reputation was irredeemably tarnished.
Today Homestead, a 20-minute drive east of Pittsburgh, has the forlorn air of a company town whose company has folded. Thrift shops and taverns line the main drag; the steeples of ethnic churches punctuate the hillside where the locked-out workers massed in 1892; big box stores and parking lots have replaced the steel mills. Only two relics remain — the 1892 Bost Building, which served as the union headquarters during the strike and now houses a museum devoted to the Battle of Homestead, and one of the riverside pump houses that supplied the vast volume of water needed to produce steel.
The pump house doesn't look like much — a low-slung red brick structure with arched windows — but it commands a notable spot in labor history. It was at the mooring directly below that the barges carrying the Pinkerton agents landed, and the shooting began.
In the aftermath of the strike, Carnegie gave the workers of Homestead a cultural complex incorporating a library, a music hall and a gym, “to heal the wounds,” as he put it. But some steelworker families still refuse to set foot in Carnegie's gift.
A dozen city blocks separate the imposing tawny-brick Carnegie building up on the hill from the pump house beside the Monongahela — blocks that descend with the slope from Gilded Age privilege to post-industrial urban decay. Homestead may be a far cry from American shrines like Williamsburg, Va., or Ellis Island, but there is no better place to ponder the legacy left by Andrew Carnegie in the getting and spending of so many millions of dollars.
The Frick Art and Historical Center, site of the Clayton estate, is at 7227 Reynolds Street, about 20 minutes east of downtown (412-371-0600; www.frickart.org). Closed Mondays. Admission, $12.
The Carnegie Museum of Art (www.cmoa.org) and the Carnegie Natural History Museum (www.carnegiemnh.org) are both at 4400 Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh, (412) 622-3131. Closed most Mondays; admission, $10.
The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is at the Bost Building, 623 East Eighth Avenue in Homestead (412-464-4020; www.riversofsteel.com). Ask for a walking guide to steel mill relics, including the old pump house.WHERE TO STAY
The Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel (107 Sixth Street; 412-562-1200; www.marriott.com) offers plush high-ceilinged guest rooms, some with spectacular views that take in the North Side neighborhood where Carnegie grew up. Doubles from $179.
The Omni William Penn Hotel (530 William Penn Place; 412-281-7100; www.omnihotels.com) has a Gilded Age lobby. Doubles from $159.
WHERE TO EAT
For a quick lunch near the Oakland museums, try Ali Baba (404 South Craig Street; 412-682-2829) with Middle Eastern fare like falafel ($4.45) and tabbouleh salad ($4.25).
Eleven (1150 Smallman Street; 412-201-5656; www.bigburrito.com/eleven) is a class act, from the leather and brocade banquettes to the soaring brick walls to the exquisite dinner fare. The menu changes often, but current starters include wild Texas shrimp ($12) and prime beef carpaccio ($11); entrees include white truffle cavatelli ($22) and black cod and lobster ($39).