Pittsburgh’s Union Trust Building-Beautiful Inside and Out

During its century plus history, the Union Trust Building has been known by several different names, but one thing that has not changed about the building is its beauty. Located at 501 Grant Street in downtown Pittsburgh, the 11-story Union Trust building opened in 1917 as the Union Arcade. It was designed for Industrialist Henry Clay Frick by noted Pittsburgh architect Frederick Osterling, who also designed numerous other structures in the area.

Early History

The Union Arcade was constructed from 1915-1917 on land formerly occupied by St. Paul Catholic Cathedral, which then relocated to its present location in Oakland. The Union Arcade was designed in a Flemish-Gothic style, most distinguished by its mansard roof, terra cotta dormers, and numerous embellishments. It is believed to have been modeled after the Brussels Town Hall and the Leuven Town Hall in Belgium. But the building’s most distinguishing feature, that one that stands out in Pittsburgh’s skyline, is the illuminated pair of “little chapels” atop the building. Although they look like majestic houses of worship in the sky, they are actually camouflaged mechanical towers.

There is a legend that since the Union Arcade was built on the former site of the cathedral that Frick agreed to commemorate the former cathedral by putting the little chapels on top of his building, but that is the stuff of urban legends.

Before the days of shopping malls, people shopped downtown, and the Union Trust Building opened as a shopping arcade housing 240 shops. The building was also signified by a 10-story central rotunda that was capped by a stained-glass dome. The two-story shopping arcade was built to rival the successful Jenkins Arcade, which opened in 1911 and endured until 1984, when it was razed to construct Fifth Avenue Place. Unfortunately for Frick, the Union Arcade was not as successful as the Jenkins Arcade because it was too remote from the rest of the downtown shopping district.

Re-purposed and Remodeled

In 1923, the Union Trust Company, a securities transfer company headed by Andrew W. Mellon, purchased the building, renaming it the Union Trust Building and remodeling the shopping arcade into office spaces. But still, the building’s beauty was recognized because in 1974, the Union Trust Building was included in the National Register of Historic Places.

As Mellon Bank grew in the city and the Mellon Tower was built in the 1980s, the Union Trust Building also became known as Two Mellon Center. In 1984, Edward J. DeBartolo, Sr., who at that time owned the San Francisco 49ers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Pittsburgh Maulers, purchased the building.

The Union Building Today

In 2008, the building was sold again to a group of California investors. By 2012, the building was part of a bankruptcy proceedings, and over the years the building fell into disrepair. In 2014, the Union Trust Building went into foreclosure, and in March of that year Davis Companies, a real estate investment, development and management company from Boston, purchased the Union Trust building for $14 million. The company has invested $100 million into renovating the building, for which it has been recognized with the 2018 American Architecture Award for restoration by the by the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design,

The building was brought up to 21st century standards while at the same time preserving its original grandeur. The Union Trust Building now has a state-of the art conference room and fitness center and a restored auditorium to rival a majestic concert hall as well as a refurbished interior that all points to the 40-foot diameter Tiffany glass dome.

One hundred years after its original opening, the Union Trust Building is once again welcoming restaurants, shops, and office tenants proving poet John Keats’ observation that “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

By Janice Lane Palko

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