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Is There Room for Preservation amidst Pittsburgh’s Development?

It seems like almost weekly a new article is published branding Pittsburgh as “the next Portland” or “the new hot city for Millennials”. While a lot of the hype is exaggerated, there is no doubt Pittsburgh is on the rise. So with all the investment and development going on around the city, how can preservation play a role? Money from public and private sources is being invested in multiple Pittsburgh neighborhoods. Neighborhoods that were once deemed undesirable are now seeing millions of public and private dollars flowing in for new development. With all of this investment for new construction, is there room for preservation? I believe there is and I believe it is our job (as preservationists) to keep the developers and the government accountable for using some of that money towards historic preservation. One example of a development that capitalized on a historic Pittsburgh building was a recent YPA happy hour destination. The Ace Hotel on S. Whitfield Street in the East Liberty neighborhood was once a YMCA. Built in the early 1900’s, the Ace Hotel franchise purchased the building in 2006 and completed an extensive renovation. The building has been restored to its original glory, with a few minor adaptations: A bar and restaurant now occupy the entrance and the gym now holds dance parties as opposed to high school basketball games. An over $20 million dollar investment, the Ace Hotel leveraged tax credits, grant money, and private money to restore the boutique hotel. While a valid argument can be made about the benefit of the Ace Hotel for the existing East Liberty residents, I know I would much rather see a historic building repurposed rather than bleak new construction erected or another building left to deteriorate. Braddock sits just outside the City of Pittsburgh in the Mon Valley. While Mon Valley towns like Braddock have not seen the kind of renaissance that has occurred in places like East Liberty, there is much potential for a resurgence. Businesses like the Brew Gentleman and Studebaker Metals have chosen to locate their business along the main corridor, Braddock Avenue. There are many champions in the Braddock neighborhood, from the local block watch members up to the Mayor, who are working to bring investment to Braddock while improving the lives of current residents. One large accomplishment for the Braddock neighborhood was the redevelopment the former UPMC Hospital site. UPMC was closed in 2009 and left Braddock with a large vacant building, a loss of jobs, and without medical services in the neighborhood. Through a partnership between Allegheny County, TREK Development, Mon Valley Initiative (a local non-profit), over $30 million was committed to provide affordable housing and commercial space on the former Hospital site and in the surrounding area. While the two new apartment complexes and one commercial building were new construction, they chose to renovate one historic structure, the Free Press Building. What was once 4 historic structures along Braddock Avenue was restored to create 7 commercial spaces and 7 affordable and market rate apartments. This investment not only provided housing, jobs and potential for new businesses, it invested in preserving Braddock’s historic past. Every Pittsburgh neighborhood is different. One main way their differences can be seen is in the architecture and buildings that occupy the neighborhood. With all the investment flowing into Pittsburgh, we need to remember to cherish and value Pittsburgh’s part. Preserving Pittsburgh’s historic structures is what will help keep Pittsburgh unique. If we do not work to preserve Pittsburgh historic buildings that differentiate our city from others, what prevents us from turning into Portland?  

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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


Hi Everyone!

This is Board Member Mike Panzitta, and I'm here to bring back the new and (hopefully improved) Young Preservationists Association blog. To kick it off, I'm going to talk about preservationists in Buffalo, New York.

Let me explain.

About half a year ago, YPA PGH was contacted by Bernice Radle of Buffalo's Young Preservationists, an organization founded after some Buffalonians (Buffalo-ites? Buffa-locals? I'll look that up later) were inspired by the YPA here in Pittsburgh and decided to start a group of their own.

So fellow board members Katy Sawyer, Derek Eversmann, and I packed it up and headed north. I took my camera so I could polish up my burgeoning developing nonexistent photography skills while meeting some super cool Buffa-locals (yeah, I liked that one the best).

The Darwin Martin House, a Frank Lloyd Wright work that rivaled Fallingwater in my mind.

The Darwin Martin House, a Frank Lloyd Wright work that rivaled Fallingwater in my mind.

The Martin House didn't allow interior photography, so I did what I could outside.

The Martin House didn't allow interior photography, so I did what I could outside.

If you're in Buffalo, you should definitely check out Richardson Olmstead.

If you're in Buffalo, you should definitely check out Richardson Olmstead.

The Richardson Olmstead Complex is a former insane asylum undergoing massive preservation efforts.

The Richardson Olmstead Complex is a former insane asylum undergoing massive preservation efforts. You can read more about this inspiring project here.

The Guaranty Building was one of the most impressive buildings in downtown Buffalo.

The Guaranty Building was one of the most impressive buildings in downtown Buffalo.

Buffalo City Hall is a fantastic example of Art Deco architecture, which I (often during the trip) pointed out that we don't have enough of in Pittsburgh. Apparently, it got annoying.

Buffalo City Hall is a fantastic example of Art Deco architecture, which I (often during the trip) pointed out that we don't have enough of in Pittsburgh. Apparently, it got annoying.

Some of BYP’s members led a tour around the Five Points neighborhood. This was an awesome structure that I remember absolutely nothing about (sorry).

Some of BYP’s members led a tour around the Five Points neighborhood. It ended at the Connecticut Street Armory. Really, guys?

Derek tried to look cool during the tour so Pittsburgh YPA would be represented well.

Derek tried to look cool during the tour so Pittsburgh YPA would be represented well.

This is Bernice. She’s excited about preservation.

This is Bernice. She’s excited about preservation.


This lame bell memorial was installed by a developer after razing a historic church to build a parking lot. The snark levels were at a maximum by this point, and all thumbs were down for a preservation fail.

Katy was so distraught after seeing Rick James’s grave that we had to get a beer (at Resurgence Brewery)

Katy was so distraught after seeing Rick James’ grave that we had to get a beer (at Resurgence Brewery)

All in all, it was a great trip, Getting in contact with BYP has snowballed into reaching out to young preservationists in Cleveland, Indiana, and other places throughout the Rust Belt, inspiring us to begin planning a Preservation Summit to be held here in Pittsburgh this April. More to come in future posts!

If you're looking to do some preservation, Buffalo-style, come to our Heart Bomb Workshop on February 2nd, where we'll be using some of the ideas we learned from Bernice and other BYP-ers to show how much we care about some of our Top Ten sites. Read more about the Heart Bomb initiatives here.

YPA Top 10 2015 – #1 – Frank and Seder


Standing beneath the Kaufmann's/Macy's Clock and looking directly across Smithfield Street allows one to see a fine example of Chicago School architecture in the heart of Downtown Pittsburgh. Built in 1918 by Jacob Frank and Isaac Seder to replace their original 1907 store that was destroyed by fire, this historic building takes us back to a time when emporiums with different departments of merchandise became very popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mass transit - such as trains and streets cars - made travel easier into downtown, and elevators made it easier to get from one floor to the next. These innovations lead to a golden age for downtown retailers. Clever window displays and printed advertising helped to increase the draw of traffic, especially around the holidays.

Frank and Seder were Russian Jewish immigrants who opened their first store in Pittsburgh in 1907, and their business survived there until 1958. They did well enough in fact to also expand into Philadelphia, Detroit, and New York City, before finally ending their run of success in 1959. National retailers had by then invested heavily in suburban areas and this made it much more difficult for urban department stores to survive. This was in large part because of the shift away from public transit to the more universal use of automobiles for travel. The reason was obvious: malls offered free parking, downtowns did not.

Although the Frank  & Seder Department store sat directly across from Kaufmann's, the two stores were known to help each other out. There is an illuminating story about how during a strike by sanitation workers, Kaufmann's was allowed to store all of their garbage on the roof of Frank & Seder's until the strike ended, thus not blocking any customers from entering the store.

Up until 2014, the Frank & Seder department store housed many different retail store and offices. Their store in Detroit has be rehabilitated and is now part of Loft of Merchants Row, which is a hopeful lesson here, because the current owners, Oxford Development, has plans to demolish the building and replace it with a glass tower building. These plans seem to be on hold, so hopefully there is now an opportunity for a meaningful discussion on repurposing this handsome building and restoring it to the luster it once enjoyed in the heart of the downtown retail district.

Written by Matthew Craig, Executive Director of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh

YPA Top 10 2015 – #2 – Old Stone Tavern

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Considered the oldest commercial building in Pittsburgh, the Old Stone Tavern is believed to have been built in 1782, at the intersection of Woodville Avenue and Greentree Road in Pittsburgh's West End. The tavern sits on what was referred to as the Catfish Path, a Native American trail that led to the camp of Chief Tingoocque of the Delaware. Those who traveled that path westward toward Ohio used the tavern to resupply and rest.

The Tavern was owned by Daniel Elliot, who was an Indian trader during his early career. Elliot saw the westward expansion as an opportunity to be an entrepreneur and in later years became one of Pittsburgh's earliest  businessman.

From the late 1700s to present, the tavern has changed hands many times and has come close to demolition more than once. When threatened last, the tavern was ultimately saved by a unanimous decision from the Historic Review Commission of the City of Pittsburgh. On October 12, 2009, Pittsburgh City Council approved its designation as a Local Historic Landmark.

Almost unbelievably, the tavern operated as a bar or restaurant continuously from 1782 to 2009, save for the prohibition era, when it operated as a "confectionary store".

Written by John Greenway, Board Member of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh

YPA Top 10 2015 – #3 Westinghouse Castle


One of the most prestigious sites to ever appear on the Top Ten, the Westinghouse Air Brake Company General Office Building – also known as The Castle or Library Hall– is a treasure at risk. The original site was built out of wood in 1890 to house office space following the relocation of Westinghouse’s air brake plant to Wilmerding in 1889, featuring architecture designed by Frederick J. Osterling, Benno Janssen, and William York Cocken.

In addition to housing the brake company’s office, The Castle also featured a library, bowling alley, and swimming pool among other amenities. Reopening in 1897 following a fire the previous year, the site was rebuilt with a stone foundation without the recreational features of the previous iteration. It was at this site that George Westinghouse worked on many of his numerous inventions. The site expanded to its current size in 1926, and Westinghouse Company remained at this location for another 60 years.

The 55,000 square foot site, allegedly modeled in part after a Scottish Castle, features 59 rooms and a combination of Renaissance and Romanesque architecture among other styles (also being described as Medieval Revival). Perhaps its most iconic feature, added during the 1897 remodeling, is the main building’s four-faced clock tower built by the E Howard Watch & Clock Company.

Today, this integral piece of Wilmerding’s history faces an uncertain future. Following Westinghouse Company’s departure in the 1980s, community activists have strived to maintain the site in the face of numerous challenges. In 1987, The Castle was named to the National Register of Historic Places. The site has been cared for by non-profit Wilmerding Renewed Inc. since 2006, and The Castle once housed the George Westinghouse Museum on the first floor, and a variety of business ranging from a tea and gift shop and funeral directors association have occupied it in the last few years. The Castle and grounds have also hosted several events, most notably the George Westinghouse Days celebration in the summer.

Sadly, in 2007 much of the museum’s treasures were relocated to the Heinz History Center, taking many pieces of civic pride away from Wilmerding’s community. Limited tours resumed in 2013, and representatives of the Priory Hospitality Group were interested in purchasing the site that year to refurbish it as a hotel, but no purchase has come about. The building is still for sale and faces a plethora of challenges. Flood damage has led to problems with mold and peeling paint, while maintenance and utility costs for the site can be up to $10,000 a month.

In spite of these risks, it would be inexcusable to allow one of the region’s greatest architectural and community treasures to fall into any more disrepair. The magnificent Castle and grounds exude potential for reuse. In addition to housing a future hotel, it has already proven a suitable home for office space, an events and banquet hall, and small business center. The Westinghouse Castle has enormous promise, and with some support, can once again serve as an anchor for the community of Wilmerding.

YPA Top 10 2015 – #4 – Albright Methodist Church

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Special Nomination By: Preservation Pittsburgh

Site Research and Description Prepared by: Justin Greenawalt and Matthew Falcone

Originally built as the Zion Church of Pittsburgh of the Evangelical Association in 1906, Albright United Methodist Church is one of the few unaltered structures remaining from this neighborhood’s early development. Formed in 1843, the Albright congregation is a descendent of one of Pittsburgh’s oldest congregations.

In spring and summer of 1905, architect Chancey W. Hodgdon prepared plans for a new stone church in Pittsburgh’s burgeoning East End. During construction, the cornerstone of the congregation’s previous church on High Street (the current site of BNY Mellon Tower) was relocated to the East End and installed in the church’s foundation.  The cornerstone translates to “Zion Evangelical Church, Built 1851” and references the congregation’s history as a German Evangelical Church.

The Albright United Methodist Church is an exceptional example of the Eclectic Period of architectural design in the United States and Pittsburgh. Specifically, it is representative of the late 19th and early 20th century popularity of the Richardson Romanesque style in Pittsburgh.

Each of the stained glass windows, which are 39 in total, can be directly attributed to Pittsburgh’s S.S. Marshall & Bros, one of the oldest art glass studios in the country that continued to manufacture pressed flint and lime glass.

In 2013, the Albright congregationmoved their services offsite due to a roof leak, but continue to maintain the building. Despite the leak, the building’s integrity is exceptional and the structure is sound.

However, the Albright United Methodist Church has an uncertain future. Congregants recently learned of a local developer’s plan to purchase and demolish the building. The plan for the side includes a new retail development, including a drive-thru for a ubiquitous national coffeehouse chain.

The Albright congregation has been active and vocal in their support of the building’s preservation. They have developed an alternative plan for the building’s use and have engaged Preservation Pittsburgh, a local non-profit historic preservation organization, to assist in the building’s landmark designation.

Note:  This work has been appropriated with permission from the Pittsburgh City Historic Nomination for Albright United Methodist Church, prepared by Justin P. Greenawalt and Matthew Falcone of Preservation Pittsburgh at request of the Albright Congregation, August 2015.

YPA Top 10 2015 – #5 – Wilksboro Avenue Footbridge


The Wilksboro Avenue Footbridge hearkens back to another time, when trolleys were the main means of travel for many people. This 400 foot steel bridge crosses an 86 foot high ravine and a tributary of Jacks Run, and was an important connector for the people of Brighton Heights because it was the most direct path to a streetcar stop on California Avenue. The Victorian-era bridge was closed to pedestrian traffic in 2007 due to structural concerns. In 1890, the steel for the construction only cost $3,000; the estimated cost to rebuild the bridge is approximately $800,000 - of which we have been told the City of Pittsburgh ahs allocated $420,000 to restore it.

The bridge has been described on as a "quaint engineering jewel in the Pittsburgh hills." The bridge is featured in a book by Bob Regan, "The Bridges of Pittsburgh". In the 1970's, someone tried to drive a Volkswagen Beetle, and got stuck on it.

In his blog post from 2014, former YPA Board Member Patrick Miner said, "The 407 ft long walkway is composed of a concrete deck on light steel framing, supported by kingpost trusses on steel bents - some as high as 120 ft - reaching eye level with surrounding treetops." He also mentions that one of the abutments is crumbling, but that the structure is in surprisingly decent condition.

YPA is actively involved in trying to restore this unique historic asset and help give it back to the Northside Community. We have been working closely with Councilwoman Darlene Harris and the Department of Public Works to help find the needed funding. Stay tuned!

(Thanks also to Bob Bauder of Trib LIVE). Written by Matthew Craig, Executive Director of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh

YPA Top 10 2015 – #6 – The Elizabeth Moose


It may not look historic or architecturally significant, but behind the altered façade and additions lies a circa 1880s Second Empire corner building to downtown Elizabeth.  Elizabeth, originally settled in 1787, is one of the oldest communities in southwestern Pennsylvania with ties to boatbuilding and glass industries along the Monongahela River.  This large building shows the growth of the riverfront commercial district.  Originally this building housed a dentist office but long housed the Loyal Order of the Moose into the 21st century.  


The main building once featured a traditional mansard roof, red brick façade, and balconies.  Modifications in the 1940s covered the façade with a faux yellow brick veneer and enclosed windows with glass block.  In 2009, the Moose, community members, and Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation developed concepts to restore the exterior of this primary gateway building while addressing roof and water damage.  The building was vacated in early 2015.  

Moose Concept Top10

Downtown Elizabeth has been working towards Main Street revitalization while incorporating historic preservation efforts. Since the 1980s, many significant buildings have been lost to become vacant lots or parking.  The Elizabeth Moose is situated between both of these.  Community members and the Elizabeth Area Development Corporation hope that this site does not also become an extension of the neighboring parking lot, but an asset and destination in the Mon Valley.