Facing the wrecking ball, an iconic Pittsburgh violin shop searches for a new home Downtown

“The truth of the matter is: What am I worth to the city?” master violinmaker Phillip Injeian said.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline
Rossilynne Culgan

Classical music plays on the radio, filling every inch of the long, narrow building, from the picture window along Penn Avenue past a row of shiny violins up to the sky blue ceiling with its four glass chandeliers.

This is the studio where one of the world’s best violin makers practices the rare and time-honored artistry of making vessels to make music. Phillip Injeian has operated his iconic violin shop in Downtown Pittsburgh’s Cultural District since 2000, first at 905 Penn Ave. and then in 2007 moving to 821 Penn Ave.

But soon, the building his shop has called home for a decade is set to be demolished.

In a redevelopment plan, two century-old buildings at 819 and 821 Penn Ave. would face the wrecking ball, making way for a new development featuring luxury condos, retail and a parking garage. Both buildings are located within the Penn-Liberty Historic District, which bears both a city and a national historic district recognition, established about 30 years ago.

Highlighting the tensions of a city center undergoing change, Preservation Pittsburgh implored the city’s Historic Review Commission to save the buildings, calling them an archetypal example of the neighborhood in the late 19th and early 20th century — tall, slender buildings with ornamental architectural details. The commission voted to demolish the buildings but peel off the facades and then essentially paste them onto the new building — a process known as facadism, which Preservation Pittsburgh does not support. But before the demolition crew shows up, more meetings remain.

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

Though Injeian loves the building he’s invested $100,000 in to repair, he said he understands the need for change. He’s been told to vacate the building by June, giving him five months to figure out what’s next.

“I understand the need to make room and to grow and sometimes I have to think of it [like this]: There are sometimes instruments — as beautiful as they are — the amount of work needed to restore them is not worth it. If this was the Union Trust Building, I would fight tooth and nail. But it’s not. It’s a nice building, but it’s not a monumental landmark building,” Injeian said. “I can’t deny the fact that it makes sense to tear down and build something that would integrate into the whole block. I see that as being a necessity.”

Plans call for tearing down the sagging parking garage attached to the buildings, and Injeian thinks it would be “impossible to knock that down without damaging these buildings.” Plus, he said, restoring the building to rent out the top floors would mean the elevator would need to be redone — a costly fix.

The shop’s next-door neighbor, an art gallery called Future Tenant, completed a crowdfunding campaign raising $5,000 to fund its move to 810 Liberty Ave.

Injeian’s studio is from another era. Curious onlookers peek through the window, while those brave enough to ring the doorbell are met with a friendly Injeian — who’s quick to chat about Pittsburgh, world history, life — and his shadow, a Nova Scotian duck tolling retriever named Coco, he says, “like Chanel.”

Coco and her human.

Coco and her human.

Drawing an international clientele, Injeian, who speaks 12 languages, is known as a master violinmaker and restorer. He started studying violin at the age of nine and by 13 had crafted his first violin at Stradivari Studios in New York City before continuing his studies in France and Germany. In Europe, he raked in accolades for his violinmaking skills and then headed back to New York City to open a shop across the street from Carnegie Hall.

Facing high rent prices, Injeian left New York City nearly 20 years ago and came to Pittsburgh with what he calls a “pioneer spirit,” settling on Penn Avenue at a time when it was “a ghost street.” He was drawn to Pittsburgh by the influence of renowned local violinist and conductor Sidney Harth, along with an affection for Pittsburgh pride and a fascination with its architecture.

“For me, a city that doesn’t have architecture doesn’t have a soul,” he said. “I do think Pittsburgh is one of those cities that has it all. It’s a city with heart.”

Plus, he jokes: “That’s the only city I found where everybody’s last name was more complicated than mine. It shows you what a melting pot really was.”

Though he’s lived all over the world — Paris, Rome, Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, New York City, Connecticut — he has the heart of a Pittsburgher, growing up a Steelers fan and considering himself an “ambassador-mayor” for the city who happily shows clients around town.

“I should be paid just for being a welcoming center. People stop here from all over the world. People say, ‘My God, this store. You don’t see anything like it.’”

He’s in talks with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, who own the buildings at 819 and 821 Penn Ave., about finding a new location, and he hopes to remain Downtown. The Cultural Trust declined comment for this article.

The shop, he said, needs to be in a ground-floor location — “people aren’t going to schlep up the stairs with cello cases” — or at least in a building with an elevator. Injeian both builds and restores violins, violas, cellos and bows, from beginner to expert level.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

A Beechview resident, he’s considered other neighborhoods — the North Side, Squirrel Hill and the Strip District — but his dream is another spot on Penn or Liberty Avenues.

In addition to having theaters within walking distance, he said, the shop serves an important role in the Downtown retail community as something of a showpiece.

“What I’m doing is actually for the city. I’m the best ambassador the city has because I have a storefront that has history and charm and grace. You walk by it and it’s an oasis here,” he said. “Where are you going to find this in Pittsburgh? …

“The truth of the matter is: What am I worth to the city?”