An 1870s-era Strip District building owned by Heinz History Center could face demolition, freeing up space for the museum to expand.
But, Preservation Pittsburgh contends, that would destroy a building that contributes to “the overall architectural heritage of the city.”
A notice of intent to demolish dated Feb. 23 is duct-taped onto the building’s front door at 1231 Penn Ave., and a city zoning official said that is the first step in the process of demolition.
Because the building is located in the Golden Triangle zoning district, before it is demolished, plans must be approved by the Pittsburgh’s planning commission, said zoning administrator Corey Layman. There’s no timeframe yet for city planning’s review, he added.
The building, 1231 Penn Ave., is located next to the History Center’s Museum Conservation Center and was purchased by the History Center in August 2017 for $585,000, according to Allegheny County tax records.
The History Center said structural engineers assessed the building and found that its roof and floors are collapsing, its rear wall has caved in, and “significant lateral movement in the remaining unreinforced exterior wall has rendered the entire structure unsafe and in danger of failure,” per an emailed statement attributed to the museum’s President and CEO Andy Masich.
“In short, it is beyond preservation and a real public safety issue,” the statement added.
In the short-term, the vacant space would be used to load and unload objects into the museum’s conservation center. In the long-term, the statement read, the space would be used for “History Center expansion, including an orientation theater, classrooms, and gallery space.”
However, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation’s director of construction also assessed the building at the History Center’s request and said it could be restored, according to Karamagi Rujumba, director of public communications for the foundation.
“We’ve saved buildings in worse condition, but we also understand they have different challenges that they’re looking at,” Rujumba said.
The Foundation provided recommendations for what to do if restoration is considered, Rujumba added.
Preservation Pittsburgh, a local historic preservation group, calls the building “a great example of Italianate commercial architecture, which is common throughout Pittsburgh.”
“Because it is a style that makes up a large portion of our historic (designated and not) commercial districts, the loss of one building slowly erodes the significance of the rest,” said Cara Halderman, secretary of Preservation Pittsburgh and owner of Cara Halderman Historic Preservation Consulting. “The building has some really nice decorative brick corbelling and storefront with iron elements.”
The four-story red brick building appears to have most recently been home to a marble and granite shop. Ornate detailing is visible above each of the 12 windows on the upper floors. On its eastern side, it abuts another building that houses Two Louie’s Market. On its western side, the outline of what once was a small building is still visible. Through the large front windows, a desk, several dusty chairs, and garbage can be seen on the building’s first floor.
When Preservation Pittsburgh found out about the demolition plans, they were surprised, so they shared the information on Facebook, where comments flooded in, and contacted History Center, which responded and cited the damage to the building. In response to that, Preservation Pittsburgh sent another letter this week, this time copying several city officials and preservation advocates.
“We are sympathetic to costs, especially for a non-profit organization such as the History Center, though you were able to purchase the building recently for $585,000, according to County records, and surely realize there will be significant demolition costs,” Preservation Pittsburgh wrote. “There are funding sources such as PHMC’s Keystone grants for historic preservation not to mention our local funding community that could help with stabilization and rehabilitation of the building.”
Preservation Pittsburgh is particularly concerned given the source of the decision.
“For us, it was especially disappointing to know that this was coming out of the Heinz History Center … part of the way they carry out their mission is through the preservation of our city’s architectural heritage,” Halderman said.
In its statement, the History Center said it “takes matters of historic preservation very seriously,” and the museum plans to salvage the building’s iron facade elements for incorporation into future construction at the site. (This is similar to a process called ‘facadism,’ which Preservation Pittsburgh has decried in the past.)
Preservation Pittsburgh calls for a more thorough and creative process, which could investigate whether grants are available for restoration and said that though the building’s issues are serious, they are not insurmountable.
“We definitely understand that not every building can be saved, and we’re sensitive to the cost that it takes to rehab a building,” Halderman said. “But we also feel there are more creative plans that could be happening that focus on reuse.”
Sue Morris, a researcher who writes about Pittsburgh history, scoured newspaper archives and said she discovered that 1231 Penn Ave. “housed vibrant examples of Pittsburgh history.”
It has history as a market, a hardware store and a kitchen manufacturing company, she said. It also appears the building housed apartments upstairs, and the goings-on of its residents sometimes found their way into the newspapers.
In 1907, for example, one resident worked “in the wine room of a downtown hotel” and stole its stock, then used it to operate a bar out of his home. When police visited the building, “instead of a humble dwelling they find a place literally filled with all kinds of liquor and several people, both male and female, engaging in the rapid consumption of it,” the Post-Gazette reported. In 1934, the Pittsburgh Press wrote several stories about illegal numbers running and the lottery from the second-floor in the building.
This discussion about the Strip District building comes on the heels of the city’s Historic Review Board approving the demolition of two buildings Downtown that are housed in a historic district to make way for a new development featuring luxury condos. (1231 Penn Ave. is not located in a local or national historic zone.)
“We’re concerned that even our city’s historic designation isn’t doing enough to protect the buildings,” Halderman said.
Preservation Pittsburgh argues in its letter: “Due to development pressures, church closings, and organizations’ continual needs for expansion, pieces of Pittsburgh are being chipped away left and right.
“Taken all together it adds up to a significant erosion of our shared heritage and the City’s character. We have seen far too many buildings demolished, some with no certain plan in place, and the time to consider alternative solutions is before the wrecking ball swings. By taking the most expedient route or not exploring other options, far too many are ignoring the ‘specialness’ that makes Pittsburgh such a wonderful place to live and to visit.”