Sometimes when I tell people that I am a “Preservationist,” I get mixed feedback.
“So you work in a museum/with antiques/know about some particular war? What can you do with historic preservation? My house was part of the Underground Railroad, that famous person lived in my house”These are variations on questions or responses I have received. I’ve since developed some creative comebacks such as “I’m a building hugger, not a tree hugger” or “Some people save lives, I save places.” Preservation is much more than stopping demolition for the next great parking lot (we’ve all been there), but it’s about places. Saving Places. Sure, we can preserve furniture or trinkets and put them behind glass at a museum and such. But isn’t a much cooler experience being able to be in the same place as major history once took place – but maybe now it’s as a restaurant, a specialty shop, and so on in the world of adaptive reuse. The historic elements create a place’s identity. Only being able to remember something with an interpretive sign in front of a parking lot doesn’t create the same sense of place. Sometimes when I travel to historic places, I can feel that sense of place – or sometimes the spirits from beyond (usually battlefields). You just have to imagine what a place was like when it was first built or during its “period of significance.” For example, the popular night spot of the South Side’s East Carson Street. Sure you or your friends may go there for drinks or dancing, but the architecture defines that place and a reason to visit or live in the area. If it was a typical strip mall, you might not have that same sense of place or interest. It would just be “Anywhere, USA.” A few years ago I worked on a project in Connellsville that turned a rusty eyesore railroad caboose into a community welcome center. Volunteers from all types of organizations came together because they saw a need for this service, an opportunity to learn a new skill, or desired to turn that eyesore into something better. It wasn’t necessarily about historic preservation but making it a better place. South Side bar hoppers and caboose converters might not identify themselves right away as “preservationists,” but preservation plays a role in their everyday life. We are surrounded by countless historic places in southwestern Pennsylvania that have memories and histories tied to them, but more importantly still have history to make. Maybe that history is you saving that particular place that has special meaning to you or your community. Sometimes it takes a single building to define a place, or a single demolition to bring a community together to stop it from going any further. To all my fellow preservationists (whether you think you are one or not) keep saving places! William Prince is a board member of Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh
Over the next few months, YPA Intern Erin Candee will highlight local historic sites and preservation opportunities as a countdown to YPA’s Top Ten event in October. These blogs will offer insight into the sites’ past, present, and future, showcasing sites that are in need of rehabilitation, in addition to those that have been successfully reused, in an effort to demonstrate the value of historic sites in the Pittsburgh area. The Bryce-Mesta Mansion was built around 1880 for industrialist Charles K. Bryce, who was a part of the glassmaking firm Bryce, Higbee & Co. George Mesta then purchased the house and lived there with his wife, Perle, until his death in 1925. The mansion was featured on YPA’s 2005 Top Ten list and at the time was listed under the category “threatened.” Sitting on a hill overlooking the WHEMCO plant, formerly the Mesta Machine Co., the house has been slowly deteriorating since Perle Mesta left after her husband’s death in 1925 for Washington, D.C.In 2007, Manoj and Stacy Chandran bought the mansion and invested three years and $500,000 in renovating the house, including gutting, updating plumbing and wiring, replacing windows and the roof, and repairing the structure of the house. By 2010, the Chandrans realized that they would be unable to continue working on the house. Since that time, the Bryce-Mesta Mansion has been for sale. Currently, the mansion is again on the market for $150,000 and there are a few possible outcomes for the future of this historic home. One possible course is to convert the first level into a commercial space while the second level is used as living space or apartments. Other potential proposals include restoring the house as a single family home or converting the entirety of the house into apartments. Each of these options requires an estimated budget of $100,000 to $200,000 to reach completion. While it would be wonderful to see the Bryce-Mesta mansion brought back to its former glory by any of the potential uses, ideally the mansion will be restored as a single-family home as that was its original purpose. Located in a historically significant area in West Homestead, seeing the home restored to its original splendor would bring back a piece of history that contributes to its surrounding community. The mansion serves as a gem of Pittsburgh’s past, and demonstrates how preservation efforts outside of the city limits are also needed.
Passengers stream out of the Wilkinsburg Railroad Station on runs between New York and Chicago. Motorists cruise on State Route 30, the Lincoln Highway, connecting Pittsburgh and New York. Situated in the middle of these two important transportation routes, isthe Penn-Lincoln Hotel. It was designed by local landmark architect, Benno Janssen, whose well known works include the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, the Pittsburgh Masonic Temple, the William Penn Hotel, and the 40th Street Bridge.The 70,000 square-foot, six-story, 150-room tower was dedicated on June 1, 1927. The hotel was advertised as “Pittsburgh’s Most Modern Suburban Hotel.” The simple facade was livened up with 12 outside iron lamps and cast ornaments of cupids, ram’s heads, and lions. The building also housed a restaurant, clothing store, shoe store, and other boutiques. During its heyday the Penn-Lincoln was the center of downtown Wilkinsburg.The 1970’s brought about a hard time for Wilkinsburg, as the steel industry imploded, resulting in massive mill closures and layoffs. During this downturn, the hotel was transformed into apartments and later vacated in 1995. Ten years later it was purchased by Mario Noce, a Penn Hills businessman, for $70,000 who completed some basic repairs. He was bought out by Deliverance Inc., a local faith-based organization, who then partnered with the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. PHLF loaned $135,000 to Deliverance to begin development of the property. A study was completed by PHLF that calculated that it would cost more than $10 million to restore the hotel. Unfortunately, they determined that the high costs of saving it and the lack of a market for a building that size meant that the best option for the property was to tear it down and rebuild on the key corner. The Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County board approved a grant of $500,000 to tear down the vacant Penn Lincoln Hotel and its parking garage and lot to make way for new development such as a modern office space with storefronts or an updated apartment building. Before demolition many of the sculptural artifacts embedded in the structure will be saved and relocated to public parks and community gardens in Wilkinsburg. The community has mixed feelings on the historic building coming down. Some are welcoming the new opportunity for development and felt the building posed a safety threat with crumbling concrete, falling bricks, and broken glass. But other citizens of Wilkinsburg are upset over the removal of such a historic and important building. The demolition is inevitable at this point, but the loss of the Penn-Lincoln will hopefully spur efforts to save Wilkinsburg’s remaining architectural assets.
The Pittsburgh region presents a fairly unique opportunity in terms of historical preservation and economic development initiatives. The legacy of manufacturing, including many dormant structures and properties left behind after the decline of the steel industry, provides a dilemma for local communities. Should these facilities be repurposed or kept in their historical form? The reality is a) redevelopment of these structures can be achieved while maintaining their historical integrity and b) a balance of new development and historical preservation is both possible and necessary. Preservation organizations such as YPA are fully aware of the community needs of this region, particularly the economic needs. Redevelopment is a reality, especially as Greater Pittsburgh and the rest of the nation continue to find new solutions to recovery from the recession of the last few years. Yet this region has always prided itself in maintaining a link to its past. Whether it is art, language, sports, cuisine, or other cultural mainstays, Pittsburgh strives to retain its identity. Part of that identity is the diverse collection of historical structures that have remained in the area over time. Though there is a need to promote economic growth, maintaining some of these rich structures is as crucial as creating new opportunity. In many cases, the term “preservation” is a misnomer because it insinuates a lack of reuse. In truth, preservation is often actually revitalization. YPA and other organizations advocate for retention and restoration, but are very open to the idea of utilizing older structures for new economic purposes. Many former YPA Top Ten Sites, such as historic Race Street in Homewood, highlight the need for renewal with the ability for cultural preservation. Race Street represents many frontline Pittsburgh communities that must combat a variety of socio-economic issues, and the street’s continued development and revitalization present a foothold for growth in these areas both for and by longtime residents. Other sites, such as the Hill’s Crawford Grill and the “Pittsburgh” sign on Mt. Washington, present opportunities to not only promote community growth but recapture cultural heritage and civic pride. Many former Top Ten sites speak to a need in both preservation and economic development initiatives – to integrate community concerns and feedback into projects and maintain transparency with local organizations and residents. Too often have development sites in the Pittsburgh area promoted growth but displaced a significant number of longtime residents. Balancing the need to bring new people, businesses, and cultural edifices in while catering to the existing community needs is key for any kind opportunity. It is true that at times, historical preservation can be a barrier to community projects. What organizations like YPA strive to do is draw attention to the legacy of certain historical properties and promote thoughtful reintegration of these sites. In doing so, YPA hopes to retain the identity of local communities while aiding their economic rebirth. Economic development and historical preservation can be complementary. As Pittsburgh continues to flourish with new development initiatives, it is paramount that those leading such efforts recognize the value of maintaining and reusing the cherished – and valuable – historical sites of this area. In combining development and preservation, Pittsburgh can not only retain but enhance its already vibrant regional identity. Sanjeev Baidyaroy is a board member of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh
On April 28th, Pittsburgh City Council passed legislation to create the Pittsburgh Land Bank (http://pittsburghpa.gov/landbanking). Essentially the Land Bank will be a tool for the city to manage and sell abandoned and severely tax-delinquent properties for development or rehabilitation. One goal of the land-banking initiative is to re-develop blighted parcels and neighborhoods such that they attract more investment to value. The land bank will be led by a board of directors (there currently is a temporary board of directors in place). Of the estimated 8,000-plus land bank eligible properties in Pittsburgh, it is unknown exactly how many properties have an existing structure on them that could be considered “historic” (based on age, architecture, design, events, etc.). Additionally, the Land Bank legislation does not specifically mention considerations for protection of properties that could be considered historic. Philadelphia’s Land Bank legislation (http://www.phillylandbank.org) passed in December 2013 also does not include provisions for preservation, potentially leaving historic properties in Pennsylvania’s two majors cities at great risk for demolition. However, as both cities’ land-banking legislation are relatively new, and outline the development of policies and procedures for the land banks- there is still time to include and discuss preservation considerations. For Pittsburgh, it is imperative that figures from the local preservation community are included on the land bank board of directors. Without this presence, historic properties could potentially be at greater risk of being lost as opposed to being reused. The process for addressing historic buildings on land bank properties could include numerous demolition alternatives. These strategies would enhance community value while not sacrificing history and culture. For example, Pittsburgh could start by creating a baseline historic designation tag in the land bank database for any parcels with structures built prior to 1950 (or another agreed date). A commission of local preservation organizations and experts could provide additional research into those flagged historic parcels through cross-referencing maps and documents, searching databases, and conducting on-site inspections. All of this information could be included on the city’s land bank website. If a potential buyer intends to demolish a historic structure on a parcel, then an additional review process to determine if a feasible preservation alternative is possible could be utilized. The Preservation League of New York State offers a few suggestions in its Guide to Land Banking and Historic Preservation (http://preservenys.org/downloads-ct/land-bank-handout-final.pdf). Recommendations include conducting a historic resource survey, developing partnerships, educational programs and workshops, committing to demolition as a last resort and creating an architectural salvage program. These strategies show that preservation and land-banking are not mutually exclusive, and can be integrated in a very reasonable manner. By rehabbing abandoned structures, the original fabric of buildings in neighborhoods can be retained. The greenest method of building (using what already exists) is used and a sense of pride can be instilled in those investing in the restoration of old structures. Additionally, restoration often results in greater savings for property owners as opposed to building a new structure. Any historic assessment procedure for Pittsburgh’s land bank should not complicate the true purpose of the land bank, which is to increase the value of under-utilized properties. Preservationists essentially have the same goal in addressing forgotten historic properties – to retain these iconic neighborhood structures and integrate them into modern communities. “Historic” status for some of these properties could be seen as a real asset that helps bridge the successful transition of blighted neighborhoods by complimenting new construction with familiar, restored buildings. Christopher Driscoll is a board member of Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh
More than 20 volunteers spent three hours cleaning up the abandoned house on Apple Street in Pittsburgh's Homewood neighborhood, better known as the first home of the National Negro Opera Company, on Saturday, November 29, 2008. YPA teamed up with RenewPittsburgh to board up and clean up the 7,000 square-foot Victorian. The board-up/clean-up effort was an important step toward the restoration of the historic house. In addition to RenewPittsburgh, YPA is grateful to PA State Senator Jim Ferlo and Operation Better Block. Built in 1894, the house on Apple Street was first purchased by Pittsburgh numbers king Woogie Harris, in 1930. Woogie Harris was the brother of famed photographer Teenie Harris. The house served as the home of the first black opera company in the United States. The NNOC was started by Homestead native Mary Cardwell Dawson in 1941. The NNOC grew to include a number of chapters around the country. First Lady Elanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson were honorary board chairs. Among the people who came through the house include Ahmad Jamal and Lena Horne. The house also hosted a number of Steelers, including Roy Jefferson, John Nesby, and Marvin Woodson, as well as Roberto Clemente. YPA coordinated the replacement of a state historical marker in 2007 (the original one had been ripped down). That same day, both the Mayor of Pittsburgh and City Council issued proclamations honoring the National Negro Opera Company. The house became a City Historic Landmark in spring 2008 and is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. A condemnation notice was issued on November 7, 2008, which inspired YPA to take action to ameliorate the condition. YPA has also established a separate fund for the house's restoration. Donations can be directed to the YPA NNOC Fund and sent to our Homestead headquarters: Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh 110 East Eighth Avenue Homestead, PA 15120 Inquiries can be directed to email@example.com
YPA's Wheeling Through History, held on Saturday, September 20, 2008, was a great success for all who attended. YPA's core tour, the North Side Tour, was supplemented with two new tours, South Side and Strip District-Lawrenceville. Cyclists joined YPA, Venture Outdoors, and Rivers of Steel as they embarked on a journey through history on information-age bikes on a sunny, warm Saturday, from 9:00 a.m. to noon. Visitors were afforded a contemporary view of Pittsburgh's most historic neighborhoods by neighborhood residents, such as the Neighbors in the Strip, Lawrenceville Historical Society, Rivers of Steel, Mexican War Streets Society, Pittsburgh Children's Museum, and the Manchester Historical Society. Among the responses from tour participants was, "I had no idea! There's so much history I didn't know about, and it was so fun to learn." Another participant said, "I had SUCH a good time! Thanks for putting it together! Would love to bring some folks to take the Wheeling Through History tour... now that I know how absolutely cool it is!" YPA is grateful to Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield for sponsoring the tours. Support also came from City Councilman Patrick Dowd, the Heinz History Center, Rivers of Steel, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority. YPA thanks all those who volunteered their time to make the three tours a great success.
September 16, 2008. Today, Pittsburgh City Council honored the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh with a Proclamation supporting YPA's Youth Heritage Festival and Wheeling Through History Bike Tours to be held this fall. The Proclamation was sponsored by Councilman Patrick Dowd. The Proclamation commends YPA for its "important work in shaping informed, responsible, and active future leaders." Accepting the Proclamation on behalf of YPA was YPA's CEO Dan Holland and intern John Burgess. YPA is grateful to Councilman Dowd, as well as his staff, Elaine Zelmanov and Sean Capperis, who was a YPA intern in 2004 and served on the YPA Board.
The generosity of Board and Advisory Committee members of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh enabled 9 college students to attend the world-famous house in Fayette County, Fallingwater, on Friday, September 5, 2008, free of charge. The students represented the following schools: California University of Pennsylvania, Geneva College, Robert Morris University, and the University of Pittsburgh. The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed masterpiece is a central attraction for rural southwestern Pennsylvania, but few young people get to experience it in this detail. YPA held a Behind-the-Scenes Tour of Fallingwater during an enchanted late summer evening. Guests shared wine, cheese, and good food, as well as a calm dusk tour of the popular house. For this special occasion, photos were allowed inside the house. YPA invited guest speaker, the Pittsburgh architect, Jerry Morosco, to provide a brief overview of his experience at Wright's Taliesin. Morosco is the immediate past chairman of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and an accomplished South Side-based preservation architect. Student Colleen Schmidt of California University of Pennsylvania had this to say about the experience: "Because of [YPA's] generosity, I was able to experience a truly unforgettable evening at Frank Lloyd Wright's famous Fallingwater location." YPA is grateful to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy for co-hosting the event. More photos here: #mce_temp_url#
YPA released its latest report, "Top Ten Best Preservation Opportunities in the Pittsburgh Area." The report highlights historic properties in the Pittsburgh region that are good candidates for preservation and reuse. The Top Ten report is released annually. This is the sixth edition. Read the report here: 2008 Top Ten Report How the sites are selected YPA receives nominations from the public and then scores them according to five criteria: 1) is it 50 years old or older? 2) historic and architectural significance; 3) threats to the site; 4) community input; and 5) feasibility of the solution. YPA places more emphasis on criteria 4 and 5. YPA also adds bonus points for sites located outside of the City of Pittsburgh, located outside Allegheny County, and sites that are in low- and moderate-income or minority communities. YPA seeks nominations to its 2009 list. Nominations are due on March 20, 2009. Download a nomination form here: 2009 Top Ten Nomination Form