In his farewell address to Congress on April 19, 1951, legendary soldier General Douglas MacArthur said that, “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” No disrespect to the general, but Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood was founded to ensure that our soldiers and sailors and their selfless service never fade from our memories.
During the Reconstruction and healing of the nation after the Civil War, the area posts of the Grand Army of the Republic, composed of Union war veterans, proposed the idea of a memorial hall dedicated to honor those who served in the “War for the Suppression of the Rebellion of the Southern Slaveholders,” commonly known as the Civil War.
In 1906, land was purchased in Oakland on Fifth Avenue, and renowned architect Henry Hornbostel was retained to design the hall. Hornbostel had previously designed the buildings for what is now known as Carnegie Mellon University. He was trained in Europe and was a devotee of the Beaux Arts style, which embraced the grand classic styles of architecture. He designed Soldiers & Sailors after one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus in Asia Minor.
In 1910, the hall was dedicated “in honor of soldiers, sailors and marines from Allegheny County who served in defense of the Union.” The stately hall’s operation was overseen by a board of Civil War veterans.
While the hall was initially constructed to honor Civil War veterans, it has expanded during its more than century’s existence to include honoring men and women from all branches of service from all conflicts and wars. Its collection of personally donated artifacts and mementoes from those who have served since the Civil War, provide a unique perspective on our military history while telling personal stories of those who served. It is the largest memorial hall in the U.S. dedicated to honoring all branches of military service and its personnel.
In 1967, Pittsburgh History and Landmarks designed Soldiers & Sailors as a historic Landmark, and it is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Visitors may tour four exhibit halls: the North, West, East and Front. Union soldiers refused to name a hall the “South hall” and instead dubbed it the Front hall. Each hall is packed with military paraphernalia, uniforms, and personal mementoes. There are two additional halls: The Gettysburg room traces the “Slave to Soldier” journey and artifacts from the Battle of Gettysburg, while the Hall of Valor is dedicated to honoring Pennsylvanians who have received valor such as the Medal of Honor, Silver Star, Distinguished Service Cross, and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The hall also houses a 2,300-seat performance auditorium. Nelson Mandela and President Donald Trump are among the notables who have spoken in the hall. Eventually the Civil War veterans turned over care of the hall to Allegheny County, and after several decades it fell into neglect. In 2000, Soldiers & Sailors became a nonprofit organization, and through fundraising, made extensive renovations and opened some of its facilities for rent for occasions such as weddings and receptions.
The museum is open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. It offers free admission to military members serving on active duty, and in the Guard and Reserve; to those veterans who have served and retired military. It also offered to families and their guests if the family has an immediate family member deployed overseas serving in our current conflicts.