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Behind the Lens: Pittsburgh's Bridge of Sighs

The Steel City's splendid architectural gem of a bridge — one of 400 in Pittsburgh — has its roots in Venice, Italy, yet was designed by America’s foremost architect of the 19th century.

1.21 Pittsburgh Bridge
David Kidd
Over 400 years ago, prisoners were marched from the court at Doge's Palace to their prison cells by way of the Bridge of Sighs, the most famous of the more than 400 that span the canals and waterways in Venice, Italy. As they crossed the covered bridge over the Rio di Palazzo on their way to jail, legend says they would sigh at their last sight of the city before imprisonment.

The city of Pittsburgh, also home to over 400 bridges, constructed its own Bridge of Sighs nearly 300 hundred years later, spanning Ross St. and connecting the Allegheny County Courthouse to the county jail. Five small windows on either side of the bridge gave prisoners a last look at their city. Constructed of white limestone, the Venetian version was designed by Antonio Contino, a native of the city of canals.

Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson designed Pittsburgh’s homage to the Venetian bridge using rusticated blocks of granite in the style that came to bear his name, Richardsonian Romanesque. He considered the Pittsburgh project his finest work, although he died two years before its completion in 1888. Anticipating future plans to re-grade the city and lower the streets around the courthouse and jail, Richardson dictated that finished masonry walls be installed on what were originally basement walls. When the streets were lowered 16 ft. in the early 1900s, his Bridge of Sighs was now that much farther off the ground, more closely mimicking the Italian original.

Both bridges survive, but no longer to move prisoners between court and captivity. The Allegheny County Jail was closed in 1995, renovated and repurposed as home to Allegheny County Juvenile Court. Pittsburgh is not alone in paying homage to Contino’s Venetian bridge. Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester in England each have their own Bridge of Sighs, as does the city hall in Frankfurt, Germany. 

David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at
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