Meet the People Working to Preserve Pittsburgh
As Pittsburgh has grown and developed, new buildings have emerged throughout the city. But we haven’t ignored our past or demolished it entirely. Meet the visionaries who have argued that historic preservation does not impede progress.
A condemned house in Homewood that once was a haven to those facing discrimination may have new hope of salvation.
The crumbling property at 7101 Apple St., the birthplace of the National Negro Opera Company, was selected in September by the National Trust for Historic Preservation for its annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The designation, supporters hope, could bring renewed efforts and funds to save the long-vacant and boarded-up Queen Anne house.
It was once owned by Hill District club owner William “Woogie” Harris and hosted numerous visiting Black singers, celebrities and athletes who were unwelcome in Downtown hotels. A historical marker outside the sagging property notes it also was the home of the first national Black opera company, which was founded by Mary Cardwell Dawson in 1941 and performed at major stages across the country.
Matthew Craig, executive director of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh, has been an advocate for the building for several years, bringing groups of high school and college students for cleanup work. Now he hopes attention from the National Trust will be able to save it from demolition.
“There hasn’t been a time that I’m standing out front that somebody driving by doesn’t say, ‘I hope you can save that,’” says Craig. “This is its last, best hope, and we’re going to make sure that we don’t let this opportunity slide.”
As president of the American Institute of Architects last year, William Bates of Mount Lebanon spent a lot of time on the road for meetings, during which time he saw numerous examples of once-neglected buildings imbued with new energy.
As only the second Black person to hold the top elected position in the national professional organization’s 163-year history, his favorite was the Hampton House, he says. A former Miami motel for Black entertainers, it is now a museum. One exhibit explores the chance meeting of two guests in the motel lounge: Malcolm X and Cassius Clay. The activist took the opportunity to proselytize the young boxer, who shortly thereafter became Muhammad Ali.
Something like the process that saved the Hampton House could happen at the Homewood property, Bates says. “The idea is it starts to generate tourism, and then businesses can spring up around it that benefit from that kind of redevelopment,” he says. “And it can really help those communities.”
WHAT’S WORTH SAVING?
Buildings rise and buildings fall. Deciding which of them are worth saving is the essence of historic preservation, which can be costly, complicated, and inconvenient. Sentimentality certainly plays a role, but decisions also need to be justified economically if they have any hope for success.
A 2015 report by the Washington, D.C., consulting firm PlaceEconomics for the city of Pittsburgh claimed federally subsidized rehabilitation projects created an average of nearly 900 local construction jobs every year over a decade. Designated historic neighborhoods also have higher housing values and are key to attracting tourists and residents, the study reported.
But while saving old buildings can create construction jobs, it can also block them. Historic preservation arguments have stymied local developer Michael Troiani’s plans to build a skyscraper Downtown. He wants to tear down a cluster of old and long-vacant buildings near the corner of Market and First streets to make room for a new office tower with premium river views and rents.
The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation vehemently opposes the plan, claiming the proposed tower will ruin the streetscape in the Firstside Historic District, listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In July, the city planning commission denied Troiani’s request to begin demolition of the properties along Market Street, noting that the buildings are listed as “contributing” to the historic designation.
But so was the former Papa J’s Centro restaurant on the same block, which Troiani had demolished last year. So is a six-story abandoned warehouse next to the Market Street properties, which he has city permission to raze. Being part of a federally recognized historic district does not protect properties from demolition; it is more of a carrot, in the form of tax credits for historic preservation, than a stick. The planning commission has left open the possibility of reconsidering if Troiani returns with a formal site development plan.
“I’m not averse to preservation. I value and care about old buildings in our inventory,” Troiani says, referring to two older commercial properties his company has spent considerable funds renovating: the Twin Plaza building in the Strip District and the Masonic Hall in Carnegie. “But each circumstance is unique. There’s a time and a place.”
Arthur Ziegler isn’t buying that argument. The History and Landmarks founder insists Troiani should preserve at least the old building facades, and his organization has proposed options in city hearings. “Those buildings are not as bad as others we’ve tackled on Market Street,” Ziegler says, referring to nearby properties renovated by his organization’s for-profit subsidiary, Landmarks Development Corp.
Those properties represent a special triumph for Ziegler, who played a key role 20 years ago derailing former Mayor Tom Murphy’s sweeping plan to bulldoze blocks of Fifth and Forbes avenues for a Downtown shopping complex. It was the only time before now that Pittsburgh made the National Trust’s annual endangered list — the trust named the entire Fifth and Forbes historic retail district as endangered.
ARTHUR ZIEGLER’S VISION
A long list of developers and public officials have had to reckon with Ziegler, who founded the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation in 1964. He was a grad student in English literature, and partnered with Jamie Van Trump, an architectural historian, to halt North Side urban renewal plans to demolish the Victorian rowhouses of Manchester and Mexican War Streets. They won that battle, and the organization has reeled off an impressive number of preservation success stories in the ensuing decades. The biggest is Station Square, an underused rail complex that Pittsburgh History and Landmarks, aided by private foundation money, resurrected into a tourism hub for the city.
“There are lots of good preservation organizations in cities around the U.S. Very few have such a record as PHLF does of not just talking about historic preservation, but actually doing it,” says Donovan Rypkema, principal of PlaceEconomics, the D.C. consultants. “Not just telling other people to do it, but doing it themselves with a very financially sophisticated real estate developer perspective.”
“I used to kid at national preservation meetings that we all wanted to grow up to be Arthur,” says Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. “There are some terrific leaders around the country, but I think in sheer terms of programs and buildings saved, I’m not sure anybody can beat Arthur. He really was the trailblazer.”
In August, Ziegler stepped aside from his leadership role after more than half a century and handed the keys of the organization, with its $3 million endowment and staff of 21, to his vice president, Michael Sriprasert. While Ziegler plans to remain involved as president emeritus, he was clear in his announcement that Sriprasert is now the person in charge.
The new president joined the foundation in 2006; he heads its development and lending subsidiaries and has a talent for finance and number-crunching. Sriprasert has been at the forefront of a long-term project to revitalize the Hamnett Place section of Wilkinsburg. It started more than a decade ago with the renovation and resale of four single-family homes and has grown to include three more houses, a community garden and education center, and three apartment complexes with 60 units of affordable housing, all made possible through a mix of low-income and historic tax credits, a 10-year tax abatement, government and philanthropic funds and Landmarks’ own investment.
Sarah Morgan bought one of the restored houses in 2012 and has been an active neighbor since; she works on the borough planning commission. She also has played a significant role in local population growth: Besides persuading her sister to relocate there, Morgan got married after she moved, and this year she and her husband had a baby.
“There’s community here,” Morgan says. “People know each other and we’re invited to each other’s backyard parties.”
Despite its successes, Pittsburgh lags many other cities in how many listings it has in the National Register of Historic Places, which is kept by the National Park Service. For instance, St. Louis — a city of comparable area, population, and number of buildings as Pittsburgh — has 455 listed historic buildings and districts on the register, more than double Pittsburgh’s 181.
Securing official historic status for buildings hasn’t been the first order of business here, says Matthew Falcone, president of Preservation Pittsburgh. The volunteer group traces its start to 1991 and the publicly contentious demolition of the Syria Mosque auditorium in Oakland.
“The focus of Preservation Pittsburgh for a good part of its history was probably reactionary,” Falcone says. “If there was a building that was going to be torn down, a lot of our organization was focused on trying to counter that.” For instance, Preservation Pittsburgh energetically but unsuccessfully opposed the demolition of the Civic Arena and St. Nicholas, a historic Croatian church in Troy Hill demolished to widen Route 28.
Now as one of the five members of the city’s Historic Review Commission, Falcone works to secure city historic status for buildings, since that has more power to stop a wrecking ball than national recognition does. Recent nominations include the City-County Building and the former Jones & Laughlin Steel headquarters on Ross Street that for years held the offices of the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
The cost-benefit analysis of restoration depends on many variables, says John Davis, a Boston developer whose Union Trust Building was one of three structures in the country to receive the 2018 American Architecture Award for historic preservation, along with St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois. The 1917 Flemish Gothic office and shopping arcade built for Henry Clay Frick was the first major restoration project for Davis. Occupancy had fallen below 40 percent when his firm acquired the building in 2014 at a foreclosure sale. But he says a $100 million rehab has paid off.
“We were able to attract Class A tenants from 1980s and ‘90s vintage Class A office towers to a 100-year-old building,” he says, pointing to law firm Buchanan Ingersoll, which moved its headquarters from One Oxford Centre last fall. “That’s something that has not happened too often.”
Davis decided against buying an old paint warehouse on Fort Duquesne Boulevard from billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban to convert to apartments, saying renovations would be too costly. But the Squirrel Hill native is not opposed to Pittsburgh warehouses in principle – his Terminal 21 apartments, which opened this year on the Monongahela River side of the Golden Triangle, are an adaptive reuse of hulky railroad storage buildings.
Another tricky industrial recycling project across the river is the Highline, a former shipping hub rebooted as a modern workspace by architect Rob Indovina, whose local renovation projects include the Strip District’s Otto Milk condominiums. The Highline features an elevated walkway with river views that connects to a bike trail below; this summer it debuted as a pop-up biergarten.
“A building, to qualify for restoration, doesn’t have to be a massive edifice,” Indovina says. “It can be a simple unassuming little quirk of construction from 100 years ago that creates a nice human space.”
Of course, there’s something to be said for massive edifices, too. Mayor Bill Peduto says one of his proudest achievements has been hitting the brakes on a Strip District redevelopment plan that would have razed nearly half of the iconic five-block produce terminal on Smallman Street. Current renovations preserve the full-length facade, and Peduto says the complex “is going to be a treasure for another 100 years in Pittsburgh” when it opens next year.
“When we were one of the world’s richest cities, people invested in the architecture, and it’s a treasure we should be working to pass onto the next generation,” he says. “It identifies who we are.”
The National Negro Opera Company house will need people investing in its architecture if it is to survive another century.
Owner Jonnet Solomon says she discovered the property when she was a college student and bought it 20 years ago hoping to find a way to protect it. Her vision for it is part historical museum, part galleries and space for artists and musical performances, and perhaps the occasional Caribbean night — Solomon’s family came here from Guyana, and her father manufactures steelpan drums. The family played for “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in 1995.
“I just thought it was something that needed to be preserved,” Solomon says of the house. “Now it’s getting the recognition that I know it deserves, and that’s why I’m excited.”
She says she hopes making the National Trust’s most endangered list will help raise funds to save the building. There are grounds for optimism. Since the annual list was first released in 1988, only 5 percent of buildings or places appearing on it have been demolished, according to Katherine Malone-France, chief preservation officer of the trust, a privately funded Washington, D.C., nonprofit group that advocates for preserving historic sites.
“I think one of the profound and powerful things about historic places,” she says, “is that something can deteriorate for decades and still be brought back.”
Mark Houser is a frequent writer and speaker about Pittsburgh history. His new book, MultiStories: 55 Antique Skyscrapers and the Business Tycoons Who Built Them, will be released on Nov. 30.