Making Pitt Work: Heinz Chapel docent knows his history

Frank Kurtik outside Heinz Chapel


Frank Kurtik knows how to put the “Heinz” in Heinz Chapel.

Kurtik, who gives tours of the campus landmark as a docent there and helps wedding parties prepare for its many marriage ceremonies as an events coordinator, spent years working for the Heinz family before taking his current gig at Pitt in 2016. He first worked for Sen. John Heinz III —  including as a liaison between the Heinz family and the chapel — and then for the Heinz Family Foundation.

And this isn’t even his first time working at the University. He was the University’s first photo archivist (1981-89) in Hillman Library, organizing the Archives of Industrial Society’s original Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection.

In the cool, dark chapel on a bright, hot day, Kurtik — with no tour scheduled for the moment — watches as people wander in and marvel at the many carved figures, elaborate stained glass windows and impressive organ, occasionally stopping to ask a question.

No, they can’t climb the tiny, mysterious staircase spiraling out of view, he must tell them — it leads to the upper organ chamber as well as the attic and roof.

And no, there is not a crypt here — which is a plausible query, he admits, given that some of the Mellons are interred in nearby East Liberty Presbyterian Church and Pitt’s own Allegheny Observatory on the North Side houses the grave of the facility’s former interim director (and one-time Pitt chancellor) John Brashear.

But the true history of Heinz Chapel is interesting enough without that, Kurtik says.

The H.J. Heinz who founded a food empire was born on Pittsburgh’s South Side in 1844. Kurtik explains that Heinz had no connection to Pitt and never said why he had so focused his charity on the University, apart from his interest in education. “But, in his lifetime, this was the only university in the city,” Kurtik notes.

After Pitt moved to Oakland, Heinz made his initial gift to Pitt in 1914. “He wanted a building for religious and social purposes,” Kurtik says.

Heinz first sponsored a temporary building behind Eberly Hall. It was a wooden-frame, barracks-type structure that housed, among other activities, programs of the local YMCA and YWCA. The building burned down and was rebuilt, lasting into the 1940s as Heinz House. That site is now a parking lot.

When Heinz died in 1919, however, a bequest in his will was the impetus for Heinz Chapel. His children stepped in to carry on the Heinz legacy and funding. The money arrived about the time new Chancellor John G. Bowman was appointed in 1921. But now the chapel (built 1933-38) had to wait until Bowman’s top project, the Cathedral of Learning (built 1925-1937), was well underway.

Both buildings have the same designer, and Kurtik clearly delights in explaining the chapel’s history — telling, for instance, a high-school French class about the French influence in the stained glass, or explaining to a German class about H.J. Heinz’s interest in his own German ancestry.

“There are so many details here; that’s what I find enjoyable,” Kurtik says. “The construction, the artisans who worked here, did such high-quality work. It’s a pleasure to come here — and I love interesting people in the history of the Heinz family and the architecture and the history of the building.”

Kurtik is one of four docents here — all part-timers — who handle up to 5,000 visitors each month, including wedding guests and concert attendees, he estimates. They can even offer impromptu concerts on the chapel organ — albeit via a computer program used to play back organ music (akin to the player pianos of old) so that organists can hear how it sounds at the back of the building.

Heinz Chapel is open seven days a week, and there are many weekend weddings and evening events, “so every day is completely different,” he says. “And I just love being on the University campus. It’s great to be at the center of so much activity and so many people.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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