Circa 1930: “Gridlock on the nation’s most expensive road”

Famous American streets include Broadway in New York City, Chicago’s fashionable Michigan Avenue, Nevada’s long strip of casinos on Las Vegas Boulevard and California’s Sunset Boulevard. 

As part of his Pittsburgh Plan of 1911, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. designed the Boulevard of the Allies. The new roadway linked Downtown with Oakland and was dedicated on Veteran’s Day in 1922. Its name honors the allies who supported the United States in defeating Germany during World War I. 

When it was built during the 1920s, the boulevard was the most expensive road in the history of the world because each mile cost $1.6 million. Pittsburgh Mayor Edward Vose Babcock dismissed warnings about the potential dangers of constructing a highway on a hillside called the Duquesne Bluff.

“It is anchored in the bedrock of the hill and it will be as immutable as the hills themselves, and as permanent,” Mayor Babcock insisted. Time, erosion, weather and progress would conspire to prove him wrong.

At first, Model Ts clogged the boulevard at rush hour. Later, cars with rounder, sleeker bodies flew across Grant Street and up the ramp that still offers a fine view of the Monongahela River and the city’s South Side. 

More than 30 years after Mayor Babcock’s remark, construction of the Parkway East and erosion weakened the road, turning its underbelly into a boulevard of broken rocks. In the mid-1950s, tens of thousands of tons of earth were excavated from the hill’s base so the state could build the Parkway East, located below the boulevard.

On April 27, 1978, an early morning landslide sent 500 cubic yards of shale and sandstone tumbling onto the Parkway East, injuring a motorist. Seven years later, in March of 1985, the state Department of Transportation announced it would spend $2 million to shore up the boulevard’s structural stability. That work was done to prevent more rocks and earth from falling onto the Parkway East. 

Despite the difficulties in maintaining the highway, it still evokes an era suffused with patriotism. Flanking the boulevard at Grant Street are two fluted granite memorial columns topped by American eagles clasping a globe. A figure of Liberty, chiseled into each pedestal, is surrounded by flags, eagle wings, the oak, the laurel and the eternal flame. Frank Vittor, a prolific local sculptor, created the columns.

To see how the boulevard has changed, go to the PG’s Pittsburgh Then and Now page. And you can examine details of the boulevard in its early days at our Zoom page.

— Marylynne Pitz 

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