An Unneccessary Loss on Penn Ave.

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Put your device down for a moment and take a walk down the street with us.  Look around, and pick out some details that your eyes are drawn to.  Maybe you see some buildings that have porches, arches, cornices, pillars, stained glass, maybe even a pediment. You don’t have to be a master of architectural terms to pick out what makes a building special.  There’s something about rich design elements that beg for you to notice them.  What makes a block special?  Each and every building that comes together to form the landscape, and we may get used to seeing them there all the time.

But what happens if someone comes along and takes one away? Possibly it gets rebuilt in a new style, or possibly paradise gets paved with a parking lot. What happens to our aesthetic?  Do we notice, do we care?  What happens if more and more of them start to disappear all over the city?

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We were disheartened to learn of the “Intent to Demolish” notice posted on 1231 Penn Ave. in the Strip District on February 23. We found out how the rear wall has collapsed inward and is affecting the floors and integrity of the overall structure.  At first glance, this may seem like a logical reason to tear a building down.  However, there are many instances, if the parties are willing, in which these types of structural issues have been overcome.  If you ask for an orange, do you get an apple? “What will it take to tear this building down?” elicits a very different answer from “What can we do to save this building?”

1231 Penn Avenue is not protected by a local historic designation, nor is it in a National Historic District. However, with its fine detailing and ornate elements, the building contributes to the character of that section of Penn Avenue and to the overall architectural heritage of the city.  Pittsburgh, compared to other cities, has a very low number of buildings on its city historic landmark list and does not have the most stringent protections against development.   Some of our most iconic buildings, like the Block House and Union Trust Building, are not designated landmarks and have no protection if ever faced with demolition or insensitive exterior renovation. Preservation Pittsburgh has been taking steps to actively nominate various buildings as local landmarks – but it is a slow process.

As preservationists concerned with Pittsburgh’s architectural and historical heritage, we often hear the same rationale for demolition (not every building can be saved, an engineer’s report states that a building is not structurally sound). The main argument for demolition is often that an existing building inconveniences one’s larger development plan. Additionally, we see many buildings demolished without a clear plan in place for a new building. 

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And it is the Heinz History Center who will demolish this significant building of stature and history.  They would like to use the space for loading objects in the short term and plan a possible expansion in the long term.  We know there are often options other than demolition through which an organization’s goals can be accomplished. It takes some openness and creativity. Indeed, while we support the History Center’s overall mission, we believe there are other possible workable options to consider for the property besides demolition. 

We are sympathetic to costs, especially for a non-profit organization such as the History Center, who was able to purchase the building recently for $585,000 according to the County records and surely realize there will be significant demolition costs.  There are funding sources such as PHMC’s Keystone grants for historic preservation as well as our local funding community that could help with stabilization and rehabilitation of the building.

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Due to development pressures, church closings, and organizations’ continual needs for expansion, pieces of Pittsburgh are being chipped away left and right.  Taken all together it adds up to a significant erosion of our shared heritage.  We have seen far too many buildings demolished, some with no certain plan in place, and the time to consider alternative solutions is before the wrecking ball swings. By taking the most expedient route or not exploring other options, far too many are ignoring the "specialness" that makes Pittsburgh such a wonderful place to live and to visit.

Please join us in our efforts to save what’s left of our city.  We aren’t looking for people to chain themselves to buildings, just residents willing to send a message to these owners that THIS PLACE MATTERS TO ME!

Celebrate Carol, Landmark Her Home

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There are so many ways we all have recognized Carol Peterson's life, work, and contributions to Pittsburgh.  Her friends (who were family) threw one of the most memorable services recently.  Over a dozen private organizations bestowed prestigious awards for her advocacy and research over the years.  And City Council will today issue a proclamation in her honor, the second such proclamation recognizing Carol's accomplishments and what they mean to so many Pittsburghers.

But there's one more way to celebrate Carol as she wanted; let's landmark her long-time Lawrenceville home (featured above).

There are several ways that something can be considered historic (the City identifies ten such criteria) and it was Carol's wish the argument be made that the house is representative of the people who lived and worked in Lawrenceville at the turn of the 20th century.  It's an argument very much of the lens through which Carol viewed Pittsburgh.

But Carol and I didn't always agree (the Clash, Carol!) and I think the strongest argument for landmarking her house is one she would never have made herself; that it is a landmark because of:

Its identification with a person or persons who significantly contributed to the cultural, historic, architectural, archaeological, or related aspects of the development of the City of Pittsburgh

Simply put, Carol's house should be considered a landmark because of its association with her.

It was in that house that she wrote a majority of her nearly 2,000 celebrated house histories (recently donated to be accessible to other researchers), contributed to Lawrenceville's National Register District, and tirelessly advocated for Pittsburgh's built environment.  It is there that she continually reminded us of the beauty that exists in the humble architecture of Pittsburgh's working-class past through her work.

Yesterday, I submitted the nomination for the house (which maybe viewed here) to the Historic Review Commission, on which Carol served, for consideration.  While I submitted it independently, it's in good company with a petition of over one hundred names, letters from a number of neighborhood, historical, and preservation organizations, and the support of Councilwoman Gross.

If you too would like to lend your support, please email the City's historic preservation planner, Sarah Quinn at: sarah.quinn@pittsburghpa.gov and let's enshrine Carol's memory and accomplishments in a place that was the focus of so much of her time, the City's Register of Historic Places.

Preserving a world made of steel, made of stone,

Matthew W.C. Falcone

Advocating for the Integrity of Penn-Liberty's Historic District

 819 & 821 Penn Ave.

819 & 821 Penn Ave.

As you may know, a large new development is in the works in partnership with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Pittsburgh Parking Authority, and The Davis Company on land that spans Penn Avenue to Ft. Duquesne Blvd. (between 8th and 9th Streets).  Much of the land is surface parking/parking garage. However, the new development includes the corner of Penn & 9th Street in the City designated Penn-Liberty Historic District and thus the partners are seeking permission from the Historic Review Commission (HRC) to demolish three buildings in the Historic District (819, 821 Penn Ave are  circa 1910 buildings contributing to the District while the third building, 823 Penn Avenue, does not contribute). The proposed demolition was discussed at the November HRC meeting and may be voted on this week at the Wednesday, December 6th HRC meeting. The link to December’s HRC meeting agenda and applicants’ materials is here.

Also, here is a link to a Post-Gazette article from this summer.

Preservation Pittsburgh believes that it is the HRC’s role to protect buildings that have gone through the long and thorough process to become city landmarks. The two contributing buildings with historic character could be incorporated into the new development. Preservation Pittsburgh has made contact with the partners and has attended a meeting with The Davis Company.  We will also attend this week’s HRC meeting.  

It’s important to note that just a few blocks down at the corner of Penn Avenue and 7th Street a different approach is being taken.  Rather than demolition, two existing buildings at 711 and 713 Penn Avenue (McNally and Bonn Buildings) -- previously owned by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust -- will be incorporated into Trek Development's new residential and retail development. http://trekdevelopment.com/whats-new/

The HRC’s December 6th monthly meeting begins at 1 pm, but the demolition approval request falls later on the agenda (probably around 2:45 pm).  Public comment will be heard and public support is taken into consideration (comments are limited to 3 minutes).  Also at the very end of the HRC agenda will be the discussion of Roslyn Place Historic District and Sheridan Homestead that Preservation Pittsburgh recently nominated in partnership with property their respective owners.

 Note: if you are not able to attend the HRC meeting but wish to make a comment, you may send a letter or email to the HRC (Attn: Sarah Quinn) with your public comment: 200 Ross Street, Third Floor, Pittsburgh, PA 15219 or email sarah.quinn@pittsburghpa.gov

Given the pace of development in our city, some of which impacts our historic resources, it’s important that the public has a say in how our communities grow and develop. One way to have a say is through the protection of our historic structures that had a vibrant past with potential for an equally vibrant future.

Scheibler, Scheibler everywhere...

 Old Heidelberg Apartments - Pittsburgh's only designated Scheibler Landmark

Old Heidelberg Apartments - Pittsburgh's only designated Scheibler Landmark

Following Martin Aurand's widely successful lecture on Scheibler hosted by the East Liberty Valley Historical Society, we're left wondering... why aren't more of the architect's work designated as City of Pittsburgh Historic Landmarks?

Frederick Scheibler was born in Pittsburgh and spent the majority of his life working in and around (particularly in Wilkinsburg and Swissvale) the city.  While he spent his career close to home, his work was influenced by international styles like the Successionist movement, the Arts & Crafts movement, and the Chicago and Prairie styles.  Scheibler's work has again and again and again been recognized as some of Pittsburgh's finest and most unique but only his Old Heidelberg Apartments in Point Breeze are recognized as a City Historic Landmark.  So, what gives?

It's complicated.  To be a Pittsburgh historic landmark, the building has to be inside City limits, so Scheibler's work in Wilkinsburg, Swissvale, and other place aren't eligible.  Many of his buildings are now condos or owned by multiple owners, which would require partnering with several people in order landmark.  And the vast majority Scheibler designed are residential, so having a connection to an owner can be harder to navigate than, say, a building owned by a business or governmental agency.

Still, it's past time we tried.  Old Heidelberg was designated by the City on March 15, 1974 - over 43 years ago.  Before a half-century passes us by, let's see if we can honor Scheibler's work and recognize a few more examples as City Historic Landmarks.  After all, exquisite examples of his work are all around us.

Rub-a-dub-dub... Where are all of Pittsburgh's Tubs?

 Soho Baths & Settlement House, Fifth Ave.

Soho Baths & Settlement House, Fifth Ave.

 Phipps Public Baths & Gymnasium, North Side.

Phipps Public Baths & Gymnasium, North Side.

With a positive recommendation from the City's Historic Review Commission yesterday, the Oliver Bath House nomination now heads to the Planning Commission for consideration.  While it's the only remaining bath house in Pittsburgh still serving its original function, it was one of more than a half dozen public baths throughout the City.  And each served the workers from nearly every industry, every day.

 Public Bath House, Hill District.

Public Bath House, Hill District.

These bath houses incorporated different functions and services to the communities but they all had baths and showers that were either free to the public or accessible for a nominal fee.  In an era when plumbing was not a staple in every home (and baths even rarer) these spaces provided an opportunity for men and woman alike to not only clean themselves but also do household laundry.  The driving force behind their creation was to help improve sanitary conditions throughout the City and the lives of the workers.  Several noted philanthropists (like Oliver and Phipps) as well as the Allegheny Civic Club greatly advanced the cause.

 People's Baths, Strip District

People's Baths, Strip District

In 1897 the first of these bath houses was constructed by Mary Sibbet Copley in memory of her deceased husband, William Thaw at 16th & Penn Ave. in the Strip District (now demolished).  It was so popular that the Civic Club (who took over operational management) soon made plans for a new bath house at 20th & Penn Ave. (featured on right).  The Civic Club also paid for the creation of one of the most monumental bath houses in the City, the Soho Baths & Settlement House (featured at top).

 Public Bath House and Wash Association, Lawrenceville.

Public Bath House and Wash Association, Lawrenceville.

As plumbing became more ubiquitous and social mores changed, the bath houses began to loose their relevancy and popularity.  Several of Pittsburgh's bath houses were lost to urban re-development and highways in the 1960s.  Pittsburgh's only bath house for African-Americans was demolished with the majority of the lower Hill and the Phipps Baths were similarly lost to the failed urban renewal scheme that destroyed much of the North Side's historic fabric.

Despite this, we're fortunately to have many still with us today.  The Public Bath House and Wash Association in Lawrenceville has been converted to office space, the People's Bath in the Strip is now a Thai restaurant and general merchandise outlet, and Soho Baths in Soho is owned by Allegheny County and provides support services for offenders.  They're all important parts of our history and we're working to see if they too can be landmarked.

And, of course, thanks to efforts of the Department of CitiParks and the City of Pittsburgh, 102 years later the Oliver Bath House is still... a bath house.

 "Waiting for their Turn at the People's Baths"

"Waiting for their Turn at the People's Baths"