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North Hills Monthly

DOORS OPEN Pittsburgh Provides Insider Access to City Buildings

Dec 31, 2019 11:32AM ● By Vanessa Orr

Heinz Hall

Did you ever wander by a building and wonder what’s inside? Or admire an edifice’s architecture and wish you knew more about it? 

DOORS OPEN Pittsburgh, created by Bonnie Baxter in 2015, was designed to help satiate your curiosity. 

“Our mission is to get people into different neighborhoods to celebrate heritage, architecture and communities,” explained Baxter, who based her nonprofit on a similar program run out of Chicago. “Buildings tell us about our past, present and future, and a co-benefit of the organization is that it gets people to go into neighborhoods where they normally wouldn’t think to spend time. It gives them a reason to be there.”

Originally from Pittsburgh, Baxter lived in Chicago for five years before returning home. “It was there that I stumbled across the Open House Chicago event, and I was so taken with it! It made it realize that I had neglected to get to know my own hometown,” she explained.

“Usually, you just walk past buildings: you don’t go into churches unless it’s your denomination, or into hotels unless you’re a guest, or into office buildings unless you work there,” she added. “From my observation, people who really love Pittsburgh want to learn more.” 

DOORS OPEN Pittsburgh started as an annual event that takes place the first weekend in October, and has grown to include specialty tours that focus on a certain area or theme. The fall event invites people to visit two neighborhoods, where they have a choice of visiting 50 to 60 buildings. 

“People buy a general event ticket and then read about the buildings on our website to decide what they want their experience to be,” explained Baxter. “They create their own itinerary. Most people visit about nine buildings, and they can spend as much time in each building as they want.”

Depending on the building, participants can explore it on their own, or meet up with a docent to learn more about it. Some buildings offer semi-guided tours, and others are fully guided, offering a behind-the-scenes view.

“What’s really neat is that people who come to DOORS OPEN weekend are usually very curious and engaged, and excited to be there,” said Baxter. “Oftentimes, they are very surprised by what they’re seeing and learning.”

According to Baxter, DOORS OPEN visitors are split fairly evenly between men and women. Approximately 22 percent are tourists from outside of the city and state, with the balance of visitors from Pittsburgh. Roughly 50 percent live within the city, and 20 percent come in from the suburbs.

The annual event provides approximately $30,000 to $40,000 in economic benefit to the city, with people spending money on parking, transportation, food and more. Even better, the event encourages them to visit these destinations again; Baxter says that post-event surveys show that people have an improved view of targeted neighborhoods and expect to return again.

Suzan Hauptman and her husband, David, and son, Dillon Hvizdash, of Squirrel Hill first became involved with DOORS OPEN as volunteers. 

“It is such an awesome event and an amazing thing for the community,” Hauptman said. “It’s a family event, a tourist event, and a great place to bring out-of-town friends. And it’s also a great way to exercise, because you’re walking all over the place.”

Hauptman said that most of the participants she met were either attached to the building in some way, new to Pittsburgh, or just loved architecture and wanted to learn more about it. “It’s a great opportunity to become more knowledgeable, and who wouldn’t want to learn more about the City-County Building, or the building across the street that used to be underground?” she asked. 

“Even if someone thinks they know everything about a building, they may still hear a story that they’ve never heard before,” she added. “When I was a docent at the Bank Building, I started writing down stories that  people told me so they could be shared the next year. Someone might know the building, but they don’t know the stories of the people who lived or worked there.”

In mid-January, DOORS OPEN Pittsburgh will release their 2020 specialty tours schedule, which kicks off with two Black History Month tours in February focused on African American churches and the Underground Railroad.

“Our specialty tours are fully guided, thematic insider tours with a specific agenda,” said Baxter. 

The Black History Tour on Feb. 1, for example, will include firsthand stories from the leaders in Pittsburgh’s African American community and visits to some of the most influential African-American churches in Pittsburgh.

Volunteer Pam Gianni was so impressed with the Black History Tour that she took last year that she approached Baxter with the idea of ethnic neighborhood tours. “I got pulled right in and am now working on arranging four additional tours this year,” she said of her involvement. “I like that the specialty tours pique people’s interest in a different way; we provide a real story with a beginning, middle and end. 

“I really admire what Bonnie has created because it gives people the opportunity to get behind the scenes and to meet people they might not ordinarily meet, whether they’re from different churches, different denominations or different ethnic groups,” she added. “It’s a wonderful way to increase our understanding of each other.”

“People have an emotional attachment to buildings, whether it’s because they worked there, or met their spouse there, or just had lunch with their father there,” added Baxter. “When they start sharing their stories, it’s amazing what can happen.”

To learn more about Doors Open Pittsburgh, visit https://www.doorsopenpgh.org.

Tickets for specialty bus tours ranges from $25-30, and general walking tours usually cost between $20-$25. Watch for the release of the 2020 specialty tours in mid-January.