Saturday, October 18, 2014

Donora: YPA Top 10 Preservation Opportunities

The Young Preservationists Association has selected their yearly #YPAtop10 Preservation Opportunities, and among them is historic McKean Avenue in Donora's downtown business district. Like much of the Mon Valley, and many older rust belt cities and river towns, Donora has seen decline due to regional deindustrialization, suburbanization, and other economic and social conditions. This leaves many beautiful antique buildings, and a functional and walkable business district, at significant risk for deterioration and demolition. Certainly, it would be more interesting to live in a real town like Donora, than a cul-de-sac in Sprawlville, or maybe I'm crazy.

Anyway, if you would like to see my other photos of Donora, and my other Mon Valley photo tours, please visit:

Meanwhile, Young Preservationists Association is holding their annual Top Ten Preservation Opportunities Release Party on October 21 at 6:30pm, at the North Side Elks Lodge. Tickets are $30 and the public is welcome. I will be there to gratefully accept the Michael Eversmeyer Promise Award, and look forward to seeing you! More information is available here:

Downtown Donora, PA

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

McKeesport - The Lower 10th Ward

Here I have taken some effort to photograph what appear to be the earliest surviving houses from the lower 10th Ward of McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Of particular interest to me were the modest two-bay Victorians, or "mill houses," which were a vernacular style common to the Mon Valley during the 19th century.

This neighborhood was once a separate borough incorporated in 1886, and known as Reynoldton. Reynoldton was annexed by the city of McKeesport in 1898, and became the 10th Ward.

According the the History of Allegheny County, by Thomas Cushing, Reynoldton was founded and laid out by Thomas Reynolds in the 1860s. The town grew rapidly after 1883, when the Youghiogheny Suspension Bridge opened and connected the small town more efficiently with booming downtown McKeesport.

The lower 10th Ward is one of McKeesport's older surviving neighborhoods.

Two-bay Victorian, "Mill House" vernacular style.

Row-houses, post-1900

American Foursquare

Two-bay Victorian, "Mill House" vernacular style.

Alley houses (vacant)

Alley houses (vacant)
West Side United Methodist Church

Two-bay Victorian, "Mill House" vernacular style

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Several Small-Scale Buildings Threatened in Pittsburgh Historic Districts

Threatened:  6012-6018 Penn Avenue (East Liberty
Commerical Historic District)
Threatened:  330, 328-322, and 320 Forbes Avenue (downtown
When historically or architecturally significant buildings in depressed areas are demolished, usually for parking or vacant lots intended for "future development," the excuse usually has something to do with the economic conditions of the area not being favorable to preservation. "We can't afford to save these buildings," is usually the response.  What, then, is the excuse for the demolition of human-scale buildings in National Register Historic Districts, in thriving neighborhoods where big new developments are afforded? It usually has something to do with the "viability" of the older structures. More specifically, the developer wants to put in a big, modern, nondescript, glass box building.

However, these big, glass, suburban-style developments run contrary to what young urbanists want. We were drawn to the older cities and neighborhoods, often from the cul-de-sac and big chain store suburban sprawl we were raised in (and against the advice of our parents), because we wanted the authenticity, history, soul, and beauty of the urban architecture and experience.
Threatened: 330 Forbes Avenue. Circa 1915. Formerly the Palace

Sometimes, it seems, developers are behind the times and think that what people really want is a suburban experience in the city. They misguidedly remove centuries-old urban architecture, in an effort to build the sprawl style in the city center, usually glass buildings with attached parking. Maybe there is a place for these buildings in today's cities, but it shouldn't be at the expense of the things that made us want to live in the city to begin with. There are numerous vacant lots from when things were torn down over the past 50 years of urban decline. Build crap on those lots, instead.

Threatened: 320 Forbes Avenue (downtown). Circa 1905.
I guess my point is that it is condescending to think your new development is better or more viable than the old buildings. Why is a small building with a storefront not viable?  The most vital neighborhoods in the city are those with antique-style business districts, and numerous small-scale buildings holding shops, boutiques, cafes, and coffee shops. I am talking about Market Square, the South Side, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, Shadyside, and Squirrel Hill.

So, tell, me again why small buildings are not viable?  

There is a reason I'm on this subject. Currently, there are several small-scale historic buildings threatened in the city of Pittsburgh. In the East Liberty Commercial Historic District, 6012-6018 Penn Avenue are threatened. East Liberty is undergoing a major renaissance. The once depressed neighborhood is now receiving major investments, with new housing, retail, and building renovations. While many old buildings are being restored, some buildings are at-risk.  According to sources, the historic commercial structures at 6012-6018 Penn Avenue are owned by East Liberty Development, Inc., who intends to sell them to Walnut Capital, who in turn wants to raze the buildings so that "multi-story residential units" can be built on the site.

Also threatened are a strip of historic buildings in the block of Forbes Avenue between Wood St. and Smithfield St.  Located at 330, 328-322, and 320 Forbes Ave., these are also contributing buildings in a National Register Historic Disrict, but never mind that. Point Park University intends to build their new Play House on the site, and raze the buildings. Read more here.

There is a movement to restore the facades of the buildings on Forbes, with Point Park's Play House to be built behind them. However, there is some debate among preservationists about whether saving the facades alone is indeed preservation. It seems nobody is advocating for the buildings themselves to be preserved, in spite of the fact that they are much better-looking than what is proposed to be built there, because nobody wants to be the bad guy who blocks the new development.

My opinion is that if we consider ourselves preservationists, we should be advocating for the re-use and preservation of historic buildings, not sitting on the sidelines while developers tear them down for new structures. At the very least, facades should be preserved. Although not every historic building can be saved, we are only preservationists if we are trying to save them.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Thank you

Thank you so much to Young Preservationists Association for choosing to honor me with the Michael Eversmeyer Promise Award for the work I do on my blog. I'm thrilled to have this recognition, and hopefully it means that more people will see the historic buildings and places that I advocate for. My goal was always to bring attention to the historic places and the buildings that other people did not think were worth preserving, or did not know about, and I hope I have done that. So many of our endangered buildings are in depressed, but beautiful and historic, neighborhoods and old river towns. I hope I have inspired people to live and restore buildings in some of these places, as I have tried to do this myself, and I've tried to lead by example.