The Senator John Heinz History Center

Nestled in the Strip District neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is the Senator John Heinz History Center, the largest history museum in the state of Pennsylvania. The museum thrives in an old icehouse and boasts five floors of exhibit space and a sixth floor that houses the Detre Library and Archives. Both the building and museum are steeped in Pittsburgh history with each dating back to the late twentieth century. The Heinz History Center dates back to 1879 when Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania residents established the Old Residents of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania, a society charged with preserving the areas rich history. By 1884 the group changed its name to the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania (HSWP). The HSWP originally held its meetings in member’s homes and even churches before taking up space for its archives in the Carnegie Library in Oakland in 1893. The Historical Society eventually built and moved into its own building on Bigelow Boulevard in the same neighborhood in 1914 where it would remain for eighty-two years before moving to its current location in the Strip District in 1996. The museum added the Smithsonian Wing in 2004 to accommodate a growing museum collection.

The building itself is also enriched with its own history, which has also been preserved along with the artifacts housed within the museum. Originally owned by the Chautauqua Ice Co., the building was built in 1898 and once housed ice that was once harvested from the Chautauqua Lake in Mayville New York. The ice traveled on the Allegheny Railroad before it was distributed throughout Pittsburgh on horse-drawn carts. In 1901 the company merged with other local ice companies forming Consolidated Ice Co. Advances. The building was eventually sold to Adelman Lumber Co. in 1950, forty-six years before it would become the pride of Pittsburgh.

Upon entering the museum, the guest is immediately exposed to original beams, arches, and bricks that date back to the buildings birth. The lights are low offering a romantic viewing experience for the visitor. It can often be described as theatre lighting with each light being meaningfully placed to highlight each exhibit. The first floor of the museum is home to the Museum Shop, which is chalk full of wonderfully themed Pittsburgh items that shed light onto the city’s unique slang and quirks like the “parking chair.” The visitor can find anything from a History Center themed ornament to a Heinz Ketchup shirt, which has special meaning to Pittsburghers as the company originated in the city. The guest is always met with friendly Visitor Services Associates whether they’re looking for an item in the shop or purchasing admission. Upon further inspection of the first floor, the visitor will find a number of artifacts such as the reconstructed Studebaker Company heavy freight wagon embellished with the H.J. Heinz Company logo and the stainless steel Ford Deluxe sedan (1936). Also, on the first floor is the McGuinn Gallery, which houses traveling exhibitions. The current exhibit is “Smithsonian’s Portraits of Pittsburgh,” a showcase of portraits of famous locals from the National Portrait Gallery.

After wandering through the first floor, the visitor can make their way to the remaining five floors with each offering another piece to Pittsburgh’s past. The second and fourth floor seem to be favorited among the staff and locals. “Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation can be found on the second and it’s an exhibit that is true to its name. The exhibit takes the visitor on a journey through Pittsburgh’s innovative history with a life-like figure of steel magnet Andrew Carnegie, a replica of the Crawford Grill, a famous Hill District jazz club that once garnered the attention of prominent musicians, and the story of Dr. Jonas Salk and the creation of the Polio vaccination. The fourth floor in home to a number of rich exhibits. Visitors to “From Slavery to Freedom” are immersed in the history of the region’s Black community. The exhibit begins in 18th century Africa before traveling across the Atlantic on a slave ship to centuries of enslavement on American plantations. The visitor then joins the Underground railroad and the Civil War before joining the civil rights movement and ending in 21st century Western Pennsylvania. Along the way the visitor is introduced to Pittsburgh’s involvement on the Underground Railroad and key figures such as Martin Delaney. Also found on this floor is the “Heinz” exhibit dedicated to the history of the company and “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood,” which can be found in the “Special Collections Gallery” along with dozens of other cultural artifacts.

A not so hidden gem in the museum is the Detre Library & Archives on the sixth floor. The library and archives date back to 1879, the founding of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. It houses a vast collection of over 40,000 books, pamphlets, and monographs along with 3,500 archival family collections, organizations, businesses, industries. It also boasts 700,000 photographs, prints, and negatives. This is the place to go when doing research on anything Pittsburgh related. Also housed within the archives is the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives, which preserves the history of the region’s Jewish community. Founded in 1988, the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives document the lives of individuals and families, histories of congregations, organizations, institutions, and businesses.

Detre Library & Archives
PHOTOGRAPH BY Catelyn Cocuzzi
Ample desks and seating to browse the collection
PHOTOGRAPH BY Catelyn Cocuzzi

After a visit it’s clear that the archivists, curators, educators, and visitor services team cares deeply about creating an inclusive museum environment welcoming to all. Inclusivity in a common theme throughout the entire museum.

The Senator John Heinz History Center did shut down for a few months due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but since re-opening in July the museum has implemented new safety procedures. The museum is currently offering advanced timed ticketing through their website in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The museum requires guests to wear a mask at all times and to remain socially distanced from other guests and staffs. The museum cleaning staff also rigorously sanitizes, disinfects, and cleans throughout the day.

The Heinz History Center also operates the Fort Pitt Museum, a museum that tells the story of Western Pennsylvania’s role during the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and as Pittsburgh’s birthplace. Meadowcroft, a world-renowned archeological dig site south of Pittsburgh in Washington County also falls under the museum’s umbrella.

Additional Information


Museum Hours: 10 am- 5pm 7 days a week


Adult $18 (18-61)

Youth $9 (6-17)

Senior $15 (62+)

Student $9 (with valid ID)

Detre Library & Archives Hours: By appointment only and free to the public.

Location: 1212 Smallman Street, Pittsburgh, Pa 15222

Note: The museum is located in the historic and overcrowded strip district of Pittsburgh, which limits parking. There are several privately owned parking lots that surround the center that require payment, but the museum unfortunately does not own its own parking lot. The lots may become full because of leases and local events. There is also limited street parking in the area. This is another reason it is best to arrive at the museum early. The city does have an adequate bus system which does stop near the museum. Visitors want to get there early because the museum is six floors and can take the entire day.

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Catelyn Cocuzzi

Catelyn Cocuzzi is a native of Pittsburgh where she works as an archivist. She received her BA in History from Carlow University and her MA in Public History from Duquesne University. When she’s not processing a collection, she can be found hanging out with her menagerie of pets, listening to a true crime podcast, or watching another episode of The Office.