The museum’s soaring three-story Grand Staircase is the centerpiece of the 1907 addition to the original Carnegie Institute building. Covering almost 4,000 square feet of wall space within the staircase is the mural The Crowning of Labor by John White Alexander, which depicts turn-of-the-century ideas of uplift and progress achieved through hard work and industrial power. He composed his mural from a blend of symbolic imagery and naturalistic, Pittsburgh-inspired details. Alexander, a distinguished American artist, completed the first elements of the mural in 1907 and the remainder in 1908. He died before finishing the panels for the third floor.
Alexander planned carefully for the Pittsburgh environment. His scheme employs a dark-to-light plan (dark on the first floor, brighter on successive levels) that exploits the central skylight and symbolizes Pittsburgh’s ascent to enlightenment. He also coated the painted surfaces with wax to protect them from the city’s smoky atmosphere. Over time, discoloration of the protective layer and accumulated soot and grime darkened the surface almost to the point of invisibility. A team of Carnegie Museum of Art conservators cleaned and restored the entire mural in 1995, leaving a few untouched patches on each level.
The narrow frieze depicting laborers at work celebrates industry and toil as the foundation of Pittsburgh’s wealth and power. The steamy, smoky environment may allude to the city’s notorious reputation as “hell with the lid off.” Yet, to Pittsburghers of the early 20th century, smoke represented jobs, prosperity, and economic power—an interpretation that Alexander exploited in the second-floor designs. The rooms that open off of the Grand Staircase were designed as offices, so the mural’s laborers may allude to museum workers also.
Tendrils of smoke and steam drift up to the second floor, creating a luminous, otherworldly atmosphere intended to draw museum visitors up the stairs. Three panels at the top of the staircase project the mural’s principal theme: Labor, symbolized by an ascending male figure clad in a suit of steel armor, attracts a bevy of angelic females offering symbols of the arts, culture, and luxury, putting ignorance and vice to flight. The scene announces that on this level of the building, Pittsburgh workers would experience the benefits of the Carnegie’s collections and exhibitions. The surrounding landscapes evoke local industrial landmarks, including the Aliquippa steel mills, the train yard at the Point, and the steel framework of the Carnegie building erected in 1894.
John White Alexander died before the mural on the third floor was finished. As a result, only the panels at the top of the staircase that depict Pittsburgh citizens marching into a sunlit future can be seen today. Panels that would represent art, music, history, literature, and science were never completed.