Just three miles east of downtown Pittsburgh, the neighborhood of Oakland began in the 19th century as an enclave of wealthy Pittsburghers fleeing the city’s pollution and overcrowding. By the 1920s, the neighborhood had impressive hospitals, places of worship, a large public park, and important civic and cultural institutions, including two major universities and Carnegie Institute, home to the region’s preeminent museums and library. Oakland continued to grow through the 20th century, becoming the second-largest employment area in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Today, Oakland’s cosmopolitan character, intellectual capital, and cultural resources make the community an important engine for the region’s continuing revitalization. A number of significant historical factors account for Oakland’s appearance today. One such factor is the City Beautiful, a movement that guided city planning and urban design in the United States from the mid-1890s through the first decade of the 20th century. Advocates of the City Beautiful favored boulevards, parks, and formal civic buildings in the beaux-arts style, as well as more modest improvements in the streetscape.
Pittsburgh’s response to the City Beautiful movement was Franklin Nicola’s 1905 plan for the Oakland Civic Center, which included civic, social, residential, and educational zones along a boulevard that ran through the heart of the neighborhood. The nucleus of the proposal was a series of monumental buildings created in styles evoking ancient Greece and the Italian Renaissance. Although Nicola’s plan was not fully implemented, it produced such unmistakable neighborhood landmarks as the Allegheny County Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall (best known as the film site for Hannibal Lecter’s escape scene in the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs), the Masonic Temple (now the University of Pittsburgh’s Alumni Hall), and the Pittsburgh Athletic Association. The cultural heart of Oakland centers around the adjoining structures of Carnegie Museum of Natural History and Carnegie Museum of Art on Forbes Avenue, as well as the nearby Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. The Cathedral of Learning, a 42-story classroom and office building on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh is Oakland’s defining landmark today.
Oakland is easily accessible by car or by bus. The neighborhood’s commercial districts include hotels, numerous restaurants and coffee houses, as well as bookstores and specialty retailers.