Heinz History Center Tells Region’s Compelling Story

By Philip Botti

As people head down Smallman Street towardsthe Strip, they see a massive red-brick building topped by an eternally pouring neon Heinz ketchup bottle. Black banners hanging from the side announce that this is the Heinz History Center.

The warehouse opens up to a great hall with classic red and white fire trucks and ambulances. Kids and adults alike take pleasure in climbing aboard the restored red-and-white 1940’s Pittsburgh trolley.

History buff Paul E. Scheider has worked the admissions desk for three years. He gives visitors a ticket and a red sticker with the History Center’s emblem.

“It’s the biggest history museum in Pennsylvania,” he explains. The Great Hall introduces the massive space that holds 3,000 different artifacts related to the history of Western Pennsylvania.

The structure originally housed the Chautauqua Ice Company and when refrigeration made that enterprise unnecessary, it served as a storehouse for lumber. From XXXX to 1996 the building stood vacant, until the Historical Society of Pittsburgh moved in from Oakland.

The spacious seven-floor building boasts five floors of exhibits, such as “Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation” and The Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum. Pittsburgh sports fans can find the history of their favorite professional Pittsburgh teams, and high school sports from the region.

The Heinz History Center also documents extraordinary innovations made in Pittsburgh and Western PA, such as Jonas Salk’s invention of the polio vaccine. Vistors can also browse a number of artifacts from 200 years of regional glass making and Pittsburgh’s reign as America’s Glass City.


Photo by Katie Zack

Additional exhibits are dedicated to historic events with special importance to Pittsburgh’s history, like the French and Indian War, when Western Pennsylvania served as center stage for what some call the first world war. The History Center also caters to children and younger visitors with exhibits teaching them the history of Pittsburgh.

“We have different school groups in daily with different tour guides from the center,” Paul says. “And we have special events such as National History day.” The warehouse attracts history lovers from all over Pittsburgh, and tourists visiting Pittsburgh. Tourists and local Pittsburgh researchers and students are attracted to the Thomas & Katherine Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center. The library and archives house thousands of books, photographs and collection relating to the Pittsburgh area. “Researchers from out of town and even outside of the country come here,” says Michael Strauss, chief archivist at the History Center. Our Westinghouse archive draws a lot of local and out-of town researchers.”

Archivists catalog all the material to make it easier for researchers to find the extensive information.

“As an archive we have company records, materials, and documents that relate to the history of Western Pennsylvania,” Strauss explains.

The Library and Archives contain 700,000 photographs, prints and negatives, and has 3,500 archival collections of individual families, organizations, business and industries. The archives contain catalogs pertaining to George Westinghouse and the first factory he built to build air brakes in the Strip District.

“The area has a great history,” Strauss says. “A lot of the collections we have on industry and commercial business ties into the Strip District.”