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.


  1. So much of the character I came to know and love in Downtown Pittsburgh is gone or will soon be gone. When I was a student at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 1975, we still had streetcars, Jenkins Arcade, 3 art stores, a half a dozen camera stores, the Civic Arena, George Aiken's, National Record Mart, several used bookstores, the B&O Railroad Station... Thankfully some things were saved, like the Pennsylvania Railroad Station and the P&LE Station, but the things lost can never be recovered. The demolition of so many small and interesting buildings that were the true character of Downtown Pittsburgh is sad.

  2. I have had the pleasure of managing the historic masonry restoration for both facades at the East Liberty locations adjacent to the Penn and Highland corner. I take great pride in the meticulous care given to each piece of terra cotta as it was dismantled, restored and reconstructed/assembled. It means such a great deal to me that many years from now I will be able to tell my children that I had a big hand in the preservation of these beautiful masonry/terra cotta facades.

    Just following the Penn and Highland Project, I was given the responsibility to manage the removal/deconstruction of the Point Park Playhouse project terra cotta facades. The system generated was quite simple yet meticulous as well as the pieces for the three facades were nearly double in numbers and quite more intricate.

    I cannot wait to see this project completed.