The Senator John Heinz History Center traces its roots back to 1879, making it the oldest cultural institution in Western Pennsylvania.
After several attempts during the early and mid-18th century to establish a historical society that would help preserve local history, an organization called Old Residents of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania formed in 1879. The group changed its name to the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania in 1884 and has been in continuous existence for the past 130 years.
Now known as the Senator John Heinz History Center, the museum operates the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, the Library & Archives, and Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Museum of Rural Life, in Avella, Pa.
Originally, membership in the organization was limited to men who had lived in the region for 50 years or more, although the rules changed within a few years to include women and younger people. Members enjoyed sharing reminiscences, lectures and country outings.
Perhaps most importantly, early Historical Society members worked to preserve archival materials and objects of historic significance, forming the foundation of the History Center's current collections, including the Library & Archives.
The Historical Society also brought the region's history to the public, organizing major events such as the region’s 150th anniversary in 1908, the centennial of steamboat navigation in 1911, and the region’s bicentennial celebration in 1958. These efforts were the forerunners of the many exhibitions, events, publications and educational programs the History Center offers today.
Over the years, the organization had several homes. Early meetings were held in various homes and churches, and a significant step was taken in 1893 when a space for the organization’s archives was granted at the new Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh at Schenley Park. After working for several years to secure funding, the Historical Society constructed its own building on Bigelow Boulevard in 1914.
In 1996, the organization moved to its current home at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh's Strip District.
With the opening of the History Center 's Smithsonian wing on November 13, 2004, the original two-stage vision for the History Center was completed, making the History Center the largest history museum in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
The new wing allows the organization to better realize the opportunities found in its affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution, as well as adding the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, a 20,000-square foot museum-within-a-museum; the Mueller Education Center for large-scale education events and rentals; the Special Collections Gallery; and the McGuinn Gallery for travelling exhibitions.
Click here for a complete History Center timeline.