Once Cutting-Edge, Airport’s Historic Look Is New Calling Card

Allegheny County Airport’s storied past still visible in Art Deco terminal

By Rick Wills

Published September 9, 2019

Read Time: 3 mins


It’s easy to visualize Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman walking out of the Allegheny County Airport’s Art Deco terminal in hats and trench coats and bidding farewell on the runway.

After all, not much has changed there in the 88 years since it was built.

“The airport really has a very nostalgic feel to it,” said director Traci Clark. “It’s not equipped for TSA or baggage claim. As an airport with only private flights, it works well, but it still reflects the time when it was built.”

The airport, designated AGC, was dedicated on Sept. 11, 1931, four years after Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight. It has no mall, food court or long security lines. In fact, if it were built today, it would look nothing like it does, Clark said.

But when it opened, AGC was cutting-edge: the third-largest airport in the U.S. and the first with a hard surface.

Today, Pennsylvania’s fifth-largest airport handles 60,000 departures and arrivals a year, all noncommercial flights.

“AGC was state-of-the-art when it opened and did expand, but not in obvious ways — definitely not in its style, which we are all grateful for. It is a throwback to the Art Deco era both inside and out,” said Brian Butko, a Pittsburgh historian and director of publications at the Heinz History Center.

Living history

First called the Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Municipal Airport, it was built for $3.5 million – the equivalent of nearly $59 million today.

The airport was “formally dedicated … in the presence of a throng of close to 100,000 persons. The greatest gathering of nationally known speed and stunt fliers, army and navy planes and commercial craft … with races, stunting exhibitions, parachute jumps, and formation flying filling the day’s program,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote the day the airport opened.

Until Greater Pittsburgh International Airport opened in 1952, AGC was the city’s primary airport and was serving more than a million passengers a year.

“It really still looks pretty much the same,” said late Steelers owner Dan Rooney at the airport’s 75th anniversary celebration in 2006.

Rooney first visited the airport in 1937, when he was 5 years old, to bid farewell to an uncle who was leaving to work as a missionary in China. Rooney became an amateur pilot who kept his Beechcraft Bonanza A-36 at the airport and often flew to New York.

AGC handles 60,000 departures and arrivals a year, all noncommercial flights. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

For many – especially before air travel overtook travel by rail – the airport was a magical place.

Mary Garber, a retired history teacher, took her first flight to New York’s LaGuardia Airport from AGC in the early 1950s.

“I went to New York with my aunt on a TWA Constellation, a propeller plane,” Garber said. “It was exciting to see my own schools and neighborhood from the air.”

Since the early 1950s, AGC has handled only private flights. It is the base for tenants like the Pittsburgh Flight Training Center, Allegheny Flying Club and Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics.

Special guests

Quite a few renowned visitors have passed through the airport, many photographed by Charles “Teenie” Harris, whose vast trove of photos often ran in the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s premier African-American newspapers.

Harris photographed iconic entertainer Lena Horne at the airport in 1938, when she was 21.

And in September 1941, Harris photographed Eleanor Roosevelt as she arrive to meet with African-American leaders, visit a new housing development and lobby for stepped-up defense manufacturing, months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The vintage airport has also appeared as a setting in several films, including “The Mothman Prophecies,” “Gung Ho” and “Last Flag Flying.”

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