Could a Downtown development demolish two historic buildings?

Preservation Pittsburgh wants people to share their opinions on the topic at a public meeting this afternoon.

At left, the block as it currently stands. At right, a planned development.

At left, the block as it currently stands. At right, a planned development.

The Incline illustration / Images from Preservation Pittsburgh and Historic Review Commission documents
Rossilynne Culgan

Preservation Pittsburgh wants to make sure that Penn Avenue’s progress doesn’t get in the way of Penn Avenue’s preserval.

A plan for a new development between 8th and 9th streets Downtown could demolish two century-old buildings — but not if Preservation Pittsburgh has anything to do with it. The group will express its opinion today at a public meeting of the city’s Historic Review Commission, said Justin P. Greenawalt, a director of Preservation Pittsburgh and an architectural historian.

The Davis Companies plans to build luxury condos, a parking garage on the site and retail space, the Post-Gazette reported this summer. Neither The Davis Companies nor the Historic Review Commission responded to requests for comment.

Plans are still preliminary, Greenawalt said, acknowledging that what’s presented today could be very different from previous iterations. But as far as he understands and as far as planning documents detail: The plans currently involve peeling the facades off of the buildings at 819 and 821 Penn Ave., demolishing what remains and then pasting the facades onto the front of the new structure.

Preserving the facades simply isn’t enough, Preservation Pittsburgh says.

“Preservation Pittsburgh takes the stance that facadism is not an appropriate means of historic preservation,” Greenawalt said. “It’s been happening a lot in the city, and it’s simply not appropriate.”

But why isn’t that good enough? A lot of reasons, Greenawalt posits: What happens if a building with a pasted-on facade is demolished later? What happens to the architecturally significant facade then? What happens if a developer plans to paste back on the facade but runs out of money?

The buildings in question are contained within the Penn-Liberty Historic District, which has bears both a city and a national historic district recognition, established about 30 years ago. They currently house a violin shop and an art gallery on the ground floors, with the top floors believed to be vacant. They provide a solid example of this region a century ago.

“They are the sort of archetype of what you find in late 19th and early 20th century Penn and Liberty Avenue. They’re the very tall buildings, very slender,” Greenawalt said, noting the ornate architectural details on the buildings as well.

Preservation Pittsburgh proposes a solution: Incorporate the buildings into the development — in toto, that is.

The site’s large enough to do it, and there’s no evidence to suggest that the buildings are unsalvageable — some peeling paint just isn’t enough, Greenawalt said. The excitement of new development isn’t enough reason to throw away the rules, he said. Good design, he believes, can ensure that the historic architecture and the contemporary architecture can coexist peacefully.

“We really want to ensure that isn’t discounted in the name of ‘progress,’” he said. “We believe that preservation is progress. Utilizing historic buildings is progress.” … “We truly feel that the incorporation of historic fabric into a new building is not only the right and conscientious thing to do, but it also has the power, when done right, to enhance the new.”

Historic Review Commission documents also show a potential for preserving the facade plus 20 feet of the building. Preservation Pittsburgh hasn’t issued an opinion on this option, but Greenawalt himself wants to see the whole building preserved.

Though Preservation Pittsburgh is not arguing its historic significance, the building housing Pizza Parma, at 823 Penn Ave., is also contained within the historic district.

Today’s meeting is happening now, but this issue isn’t expected to come up until around 2:45 p.m. at 200 Ross St. in the first floor hearing room. Members of the public are invited to comment. The Historic Review Commission is expected to issue a recommendation on the development before the plans head to city planning.

“The historic review commission’s duty,” Greenawalt said, “is really to evaluate and protect those historic resources that have already been deemed worthy of protection.”