While Pittsburgh is home to many large and small world-class museums and galleries, some of the best are off the beaten track – museums and collections that tend to fly under the radar.
They may require a bit more effort, due to limited hours, special seasons and touring restrictions, but they’re well worth the wait.
Bicycle Heaven Museum & Shop
R.J. Casey Industrial Park, 1800 Preble Ave., North Side
When a good bike dies, it really does go to Bicycle Heaven. Fortunately bikes in Pittsburgh don’t have far to go.
Bicycle Heaven is located in a warehouse on the North Side. Hundreds of old bikes – thousands if you count the parts – have made this sprawling space their final resting place. Owner, curator and bicycle aficionado Craig Morrow fittingly has turned it into a museum instead of a graveyard.
The history of bicycling in America is all here, lining the nooks and crannies and hanging from the rafters. Morrow estimates that he has more than 3,000 bikes and 87,000 biking accessories stashed on two glorious, wood-polished floors.
This is the place to touch an early wooden Boneshaker or grieve the loss of your vintage Schwinn. Stingrays and Krates, a muscle bike especially popular in Pittsburgh, are here. So are hundreds of sparkling purple banana seats, which dangle from the ceiling.
A few of the cycles are famous. There’s Pee-wee Herman’s Big Adventure bike and another one from the Beatles Yellow Submarine tour. The latest addition is two bikes that are entwined in a dead tree, an item Morrow recently found on Craigslist.
“The bikes were left in a field to die. When the field was cleared, there they were,” he says matter-of-factly, as if he’s been looking for them his whole life. “Every bike here has a story to tell.”
Hollywood producers have called looking for specific bikes for the movies "A Beautiful Mind" and "Super 8." “Russell Crowe and Ron Howard shop here,” Morrow says.
An auto body painter, Morrow amassed the collection over 25 years, keeping them at first in his Ben Avon home until he ran out of space. Visitors are welcome seven days a week and admission is free.
“We try to make it a little bit fun and interesting,” he says. “
Bicycle Heaven Museum & Shop is open seven days a week, generally from noon to 5 p.m.
Fort Pitt Museum and Block House
Point State Park
Tucked beneath the Fort Pitt Bridge, this museum may be one of the most overlooked sites in the city, literally.
“The fort and museum are off the radar for most Pittsburghers because we’re hidden in the park and under the bridge, says Emily Weaver, curator of the blockhouse. “It’s a symbol of our earliest history in Western Pennsylvania.”
The Fort Pitt Blockhouse is the oldest and largest example of English Colonial architecture west of the Alleghenies, no small feat considering how many times the area was submerged by water.
The military stronghold was constructed on the site for strategic reasons and was instrumental in controlling the upper reaches of the Ohio River Valley before, during and after the French and Indian War.
Built of bricks, stone and timber, 80 percent of which is still original to the structure, the fort was the first line of defense for soldiers who poked their muskets through the narrow gun loops in the walls.
The Fort Pitt Museum next door focuses on the 18th
century history of Pittsburgh.
The Rubber Duck was instrumental in bringing visitors to the center this fall, Weaver says. And a celebration is in the marking. Fort Pitt marks its 250th
anniversary this year. A garden will be dedicated to the blockhouse in April in honor of its early members, especially Edith Darlington Ammon who led the fight to stop industrialist Henry Clay Frick and the Pennsylvania Railroad from moving the building elsewhere.
The blockhouse is in Point State Park in Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle. Winter hours are 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Admission is free. The Fort Pitt Museum is closed at the moment for remodeling and will reopen on Feb. 1.
The Roberto Clemente Museum
3339 Penn Avenue in Lawrenceville
Housed in the historic Engine House 25 in Lawrenceville, this collection pays homage to one of the greatest baseball legends of all time, Pirates right fielder Roberto Clemente.
Photographer, founder and curator Duane Rieder spent nearly 11 years lovingly renovating the fire station as a place to display his vast collection of artifacts, letters, rare photographs, more than 300 personal items and Pirate memorabilia, working on his own and with the Clemente family to acquire lost items.
Drafted by the Pirates in 1954, Clemente was beloved by Pittsburgh, both for his athletic prowess and his humanitarian work. He overcame cultural prejudices of the day and went on to win the most prestigious awards in the sport during his 18-year career.
Among Rieder’s most prized possessions are Clemente’s Gold Gloves from 1967 and 1971, his 1960 and 1971 World Series rings and a vase with his wife’s name, Vera, scratched into it.
“Right now my favorite items are the military exhibit, in particular the correspondence letter between Roberto Clemente at boot camp and Joe Brown at the Pittsburgh Pirates,” says Reider, who is deeply attached to all the personal effects in the place.
“And the San Juan Senators jersey, the last jersey Clemente ever wore. It’s one of my favorites," he adds.
Rieder offers tours by appointment only, by phone or email several weeks in advance. But it’s worth the wait. The museum offers tours weekdays and Saturdays.
401 Meadowcroft Road, Avella, PA
When Albert Miller stumbled upon some ancient relics in a groundhog burrow on his Washington County farm in 1955, he suspected the find was significant.
An amateur archeologist, Miller quietly and carefully surveyed the site and waited 18 years before initiating a professional excavation with the University of Pittsburgh.
What the ensuing work found was monumental. The Meadowcroft Rockshelter archeological site is a window into the earliest known human presence and longest sequence of human occupation in America.
“It provides a glimpse into the lives of prehistoric hunters and gatherers that lived in the region 16,000 years ago,” says David Scofield, director. “We have a long way to go in terms of making people aware of Meadowcroft. It’s not uncommon for visitors from Europe to come and see it, and yet many in the Pittsburgh area don’t even know we’re here.”
The Rockshelter is located on a cliff beneath a sandstone overhang that provided shelter from the elements, he explains. Visitors ascend a long staircase to the base of the natural sandstone formation where a platform is erected from which to view the excavation site and dwelling for early native American Indians.
More than 20,000 artifacts—basket and pottery fragments, bone and stone tools – have been found at the site. It has also yielded the largest collection of flora and fauna materials ever recovered from a North American excavation.
Meadowcroft has provided a wealth of information to help us understand our early hunters and gatherers, says Scofield.
In addition to the Rockshelter, visitors can also step back in time to experience rural life as it was in the Upper Ohio River Valley more than 150 years ago at the nearby historic village.
The museum is open Memorial Day through Labor Day, Wednesday through Sunday and only on weekends in May, September and October.