YPA Heart Bombs 2016!

The Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh was excited to launch our very first Heart Bomb Campaign this year. All of the buildings we bombed (with love!) have been featured on one of our Top Ten Preservation Opportunities in Southwestern PA lists, which we’ve released annually since 2003. Despite arctic temperatures, we had an excellent turnout Valentine’s Day Weekend for our first (but hopefully not the last!) two-day Heart Bomb event.

On Saturday, February 13th, YPA Heart Bombed the Old Stone Tavern, where we met a group from Friends of the Old Stone Tavern. The Old Stone Tavern is considered Pittsburgh’s oldest commercial building, and it operated continuously sometime from the late 1700s (exact date disputed) through 2009. It housed a trading post and then a tavern, even through the Whiskey Rebellion and Prohibition, when it operated as a “confectionary store”. Secretary of Friends of Old Stone Tavern Norene told us some amazing stories she’s learned researching the people who are listed in the tavern’s ledger, which was recovered during a walk through of the building. Situated on the outskirts of a very underutilized West End of Pittsburgh, we think this building could honor its heritage as a trading post and Whiskey Rebellion Landmark by installing on its grounds lean-tos for tired cyclists on the Great Allegheny Passage with a destination whiskey distillery in the Tavern.

Next, we stopped by what remains of the Allegheny Commons Pedestrian Bridge. The superstructure was demolished in 2013 after being closed to foot traffic for 10 years by the City of Pittsburgh and all that remains are the beautiful concrete abutments. As with many historic sites in Pittsburgh, it’s an example of neglect that historically significant and structurally sound structures faced during Pittsburgh’s lean times after the fall of the steel industry. We think the remaining concrete abutments should be used for a new pedestrian bridge that is ADA compliant and bike-friendly.

Finally, we visited the Drover’s Hotel, which is one of the oldest building in one of Pittsburgh’s most revered and notable historic districts, the Mexican War Streets.

On Sunday, February 14th, we partnered with the Student Conservation Association to introduce conservation in a whole new way to a group of high school students, who helped us Heart Bomb three buildings in Pittsburgh’s historic Hill District: The Crawford Grill, the New Granada Theater, and the August Wilson House.

In the early to mid 1900’s, the Hill District, often called “Little Harlem,” was home to over 600 clubs, the crown jewel of which was the Crawford Grill. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Louis Armstrong performed here, and it was where notable Pittsburgh jazz musicians such as Leroy Brown and George Benson cut their teeth. The New Granada Theater was built in 1928 by Louis A.S. Bellinger, Pittsburgh’s first black architect, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We also stopped down the street to the first home of August Wilson, whose ten plays known as The Pittsburgh Cycle are considered to be a great American triumph. Two of his plays, “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson”, have won Pulitzer Prizes. The August Wilson house is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Located close to downtown Pittsburgh, the Hill District and its residents never rebounded from the loss of industry in Pittsburgh like other communities have, and many of its historic buildings, and more importantly its history and identity, are severely threatened by demolition either from neglect or for new development. There are no national historic districts in the Hill District.

Tips For Railing and Staircase Restoration

A lot of what we do at YPA revolves around public structures or historic buildings, but we also believe that Preservation is something you can tackle right in your own home! This month I thought we’d offer up some thoughts in a how-to guide for restoring something as simple as the staircase in your old house!

**Do not attempt this with children in the house, or without proper ventilation and protection.  Paint stripping chemicals are not only noxious, but you will undoubtedly be encountering lead based materials!**

1.) Whenever possible try to complete the job without removing the railing.  No one likes a loose banister, and I can honestly say 90% of the railings I’ve seen removed for restoration never go back to being as solid as they once were.

2.) Start from the top down.  Not only banister first, spindles second, treads/risers third, but start at the beginning of the railing on the upper floors.  If this is your first time stripping a staircase you’re going to know a lot more, be more efficient, and will produce a better quality result by the time you’re finished versus when you start.  Being greeted by a heat gun burned grand staircase takes a lot out of a house!

3.) Make sure you have the right tools.  Whether you choose organic or chemical strippers, make sure you have a good pair of chemical resistant gloves, PLASTIC scrapers, gong brush, tooth brush, dentil picks for the tight spots, and tons of drop cloths! Also, a heat gun can be helpful with stubborn spots.

4.) Have patience and take your time!  The most important thing to remember for the whole process is to let the stripper do the work.  This isn’t a weekend project, and if you try to rush you’ll end up doing twice the work!  Work in manageable sections and allow the stripper to sit long enough to penetrate as many layers as it can.  You’ll likely need more than one application.  After you’ve completed a section, wipe with cool water to naturalize the acids in the stripper, and protect it in some way that doesn’t compromise your safety, but also protects the now bare wood. (Painters tape works great)

5.) Once you have removed the paint and varnish and neutralized the stripper, always clean the handrail with mineral spirits, paint thinner, or grease cutter of your choice.  Stripping will do a good job of removing old finishes, but decades of greasy hands force oils deep into the grain.  Once down to wood always try to lift as much of this out as possible to ensure your new finish is even.

6.)   Pick your stain.  Unless you plan on bleaching, old wood typically darkens with stain very quickly. Also, hand rails are typically a dark hardwood like mahogany, while spindles are pine or white oak.   I would suggest testing with a shade lighter than you intend, it’s always easier to get darker, but not the other way around!

7.) Seal/Finish.  This is likely the most important step, what you pick here dictates how long your beautiful job stays that way.  There are many options from varnish to lacquer, oil based to water.  Personally, I recommend a product called Tru-Oil.  Intended for use on gun stocks, this product provides a tough as nails finish after a few coats!

I hope this post proves useful!  – Mike Cunko YPA Board Member