Market Square truly is the many faceted jewel in the heart of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh was founded at The Point, where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers merged to form the Ohio Rivers, but it was at Market Square where Pittsburghers gathered. As the budding community at Fort Pitt grew beyond the settlement there, it became apparent that the developing city needed some direction. In 1784, Philadelphia surveyors George Woods and Thomas Vickroy were sent to layout the new city. The pair created a common area, which was known as the “Diamond,” a Scottish term for a public square. Eventually, this Diamond would become known as Market Square.
In 1794, the first Allegheny County Courthouse was located at the Diamond as well the first jail and the first newspaper published west of the Allegheny Mountains, The Pittsburgh Gazette. It also contained the original Market House, which was located on the eastern side of the square. In those days, goods were brought to the city by steamboat and offloaded at the Mon Wharf and brought to the square. Farmers and merchants also sold their wares.
As the city grew and expanded, the courthouse moved to Grant Street in 1841 and the square became exclusively a market district. In 1845. a raging fire destroyed one-third of the buildings in downtown Pittsburgh. Although the wooden market buildings were spared, they were soon replaced with two brick buildings, the Diamond Market Houses, which opened in 1852. Each of the buildings covered half of the square and were operated by the city.
The New Diamond Market
After 62 years, the Diamond Market Houses were demolished in 1914 and, once again, Market Square was reinvented with the opening of The New Diamond Market. An H-shaped building that occupied all four quadrants of the square and was built with openings that allowed Diamond Street traffic to pass below and intersect with Market Street. Grocers, bakers and florists attracted shoppers to the vast market. It featured an exhibition hall and a boxing ring on the second floor. And at one time, the market even had a roller-skating rink on the third floor.
However, as more people moved to the suburbs and shopping centers were built, the Diamond Market’s appeal as a shopping district lessened. In 1958, Mayor David L. Lawrence changed the name of Diamond Street to Forbes Avenue, to honor General John Forbes, who took this area from the French.
As the years passed, The New Diamond Market fell into disrepair, and in 1959 a cornice fell from the building, striking a woman and crushing her foot. This prompted an inspection of the building, which revealed to officials that the building needed extensive repairs and that it was inhabited by pigeons and covered with droppings.
In 1961, The New Diamond Market buildings were razed to create an open plaza, one composed of four grassy quadrants, which were crossed by Forbes Avenue and Market Street. It became a popular hangout for the lunch-time crowd and a place to feed pigeons. In 1972, Market Square was designated as the city’s first historic district. In 1977 Hartzell Memorial Fountain, constructed in 1909 by James E. Hartzell for his late wife Annie, which is inscribed with the words, “For Man, Beast and Bird,” was brought to the square, and it remained there until 1990. It served as a birdbath, public water fountain and often as a sink for the homeless to freshen up. It now resides on the North Side at North Commons and Federal Street.
When PPG Place was constructed the early 1980s, the old buildings surrounding the square in one of the quadrants were demolished to make way for the new PPG structures. Market Squares’ most recent iteration came in 2009. The intersection in the middle of the square was eliminated and traffic was diverted around the perimeter. The four grass quadrants were paved over, creating a larger European-style gathering place, ringed by restaurants and shops.
Market Square: Present Day
Today, Market Square continues to be Pittsburgh’s gathering place. It houses numerous shops and restaurants, including the Original Oyster House, which has been on the square since 1870, making it the oldest bar and restaurant in the city. During the holidays, the Peoples Gas Holiday Market entices shoppers to the square with its German-styled Christkindlmarkts. In the warmer months, like days gone by, a Farmers’ Market is held. People also gather in Market Square for Light-Up Night, the Irish Fair in the Square for St. Patrick’s Day and for pep rallies for the Penguins and Steelers as well as for free concerts and even Yoga in the Square.
Although this Diamond in the heart of the city has often needed polishing, Market Square has for more than two centuries managed to remain what it was designed to be—Pittsburgh’s gathering place.