As a born and bred Pittsburgher, and YPA member myself I am excited to share with this community a unique opportunity for some hands on preservation not too far from home! Only a five-hour drive south of Pittsburgh, Orange, Virginia provides a scenic backdrop for individuals interested in learning more about traditional log building, the life and home of our fourth president, and the often overlooked history of the enslaved African Americans that lived and worked at Montpelier.
Montpelier, James Madison’s estate was home to not only James and Dolley, but his aging parents, countless guests, and as many as 100 enslaved individuals. Unfortunately, only two buildings from James’s life remain; the main house, and Mr. Madison’s garden temple. In an effort to more accurately represent the landscape during James and Dolley’s lifetime, and provide the public with a physical structure marking the sites of enslaved households, Montpelier’s LEARN reconstruction programs were born.
LEARN is the logo and acronym for the public programs held at Montpelier. Standing for Locate, Excavate, Analyze, Reconstruct and Network, these week long programs provide an opportunity for members of the public to stay on Montpelier’s property for a week, and work alongside archaeologists and historians to help interpret the vast history at Montpelier.
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?
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.
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 burgeoningdeveloping nonexistent photography skills while meeting some super cool Buffa-locals (yeah, I liked that one the best).
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.