The Pittsburgh skyline is unique and beautiful, with historic and modern architecture. The Gulf Tower is one of the city’s most iconic buildings, with it’s colored lights indicating Pittsburgh weather conditions and honoring holidays and other memorable or meaningful historic moments. When one travels outside of Pittsburgh, the Gulf Tower is frequently mentioned by visitors as one of the stalwarts of the skyline.
History of the Gulf Tower
The Gulf Tower, located at 707 Grant Street downtown, was completed in 1932 as the headquarters of the Gulf Oil Company. The site of the building had been the first oil refinery in the U.S., built by Samuel M. Kier along Seventh Avenue, and was designed by Trowbridge & Livingston at a cost of $10.5 million (roughly $140 million today). It stands 582 feet tall with 44 floors and 15 elevators, and the top six floors are designed with a step pyramid modeled after the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. The top used to feature the current weather conditions with the blue and orange colors of the Gulf Corporation. As Pittsburgh’s air quality began to improve, the tower needed to be sandblasted to remove the thick grime that had covered it.
The Gulf Tower was the tallest building in Pittsburgh from 1932 until 1970 when the U.S. Steel Building was completed. In 1973, it was listed as a Historic Landmark by Pittsburgh History & Landmarks. In 1974, a bomb was detonated on the 29th floor, which was attributed to the Weather Underground Organization and their protest of Gulf Oil’s involvement in the Portuguese colonial war in Angola. This event caused an increase in security measures. During the energy crisis of the late 1970’s, the weather beacon at the top of the building was discontinued.
The Gulf Tower has become home to the Peregrine Falcon. This species was listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1974 due to the drastic decrease in population caused by the use of pesticides such as DDT. A recovery program was introduced in 1970, and by 1999 the falcons were removed from the national endangered species list due to their successful recovery in the west. However, they have not fully recovered in Pennsylvania and remain on the Pennsylvania Endangered Species list. Peregrine Falcons were first seen in Pittsburgh during the winter of 1989-1990, and in 1990 the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy installed two nesting boxes on the upper balcony of the building. The peregrines have been nesting at the Gulf Tower ever since.
On July 4, 2012, the KDKA Weather Beacon was dedicated at the top of the tower. This is a revamped version of the original weather display, and it will change colors for holidays and important Pittsburgh sporting events. The installation of the lights caused the peregrine falcons to relocate their nest to 322 Fourth Avenue, though they returned to the Gulf Tower in 2014. The building has been an identifying part of the Pittsburgh skyline since its completion, and continues to play a vital role in the city.