Despite outcry from local preservationists, demolition is underway at 1231 Penn Ave., an 1870s-era Strip District building owned by Heinz History Center.
Large machinery has been positioned outside of the building for the past three weeks, and History Center spokesman Brady Smith confirmed to The Incline on Monday that demolition had begun.
In the short-term, the demolition will free up space for loading and unloading museum objects into the Museum Conservation Center, located next door. In the long-term, the History Center intends to use the space for an expansion, including a theater, classrooms, and gallery space, per a statement.
Heinz History Center purchased 1231 Penn Ave. in August 2017 for $585,000, according to Allegheny County tax records.
The building is condemned, Smith said, and a statement from the museum’s president and CEO Andy Masich earlier this year called the site “a real public safety issue.” Masich described the building as “beyond preservation” and said structural engineers provided a “thorough assessment.”
“We understand the importance of public safety being top priority but are saddened by the loss of the building and the years of neglect that brought about this situation,” Matthew W.C. Falcone, president of Preservation Pittsburgh, said Monday.
Pittsburgh Planning Commission in May approved demolition of the building. Masich told commissioners that public seating will be available on the site in the interim before development begins.
The commission received three letters in support of the project, according to meeting minutes. There were no comments from the public at the meeting, and no timeframe for the expansion was given.
“The Heinz History Center takes matters of historic preservation very seriously,” Masich said after the demolition notice was posted this winter. “The building’s roof and floors are collapsing, the rear wall has already caved in, and significant lateral movement in the remaining unreinforced exterior wall has rendered the entire structure unsafe and in danger of failure.”
At the History Center’s request, the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation’s director of construction also assessed the building 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 earlier this year.
Preservation Pittsburgh, a local historic preservation group, called the building “a great example of Italianate commercial architecture, which is common throughout Pittsburgh.” The group sent letters to the History Center, city officials, and preservation advocates expressing their disappointment with the demolition plans.
“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,” Cara Halderman, secretary of Preservation Pittsburgh and owner of Cara Halderman Historic Preservation Consulting, told The Incline in March. “The building has some really nice decorative brick corbelling and storefront with iron elements.”
The History Center, too, noted the iron façade and has preserved it to incorporate into future construction, Smith said. (This is similar to a process called ‘facadism,’ which Preservation Pittsburgh has decried in the past.)
Ornate detailing is visible above each of the 12 windows on the the building’s 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 visible. The four-story red brick building appeared to have most recently been home to a marble and granite shop.
Long before that, the building served as a market, a hardware store and a kitchen manufacturing company. It also appears the building housed apartments upstairs, and the goings-on of its residents sometimes found their way into the newspapers, according to Sue Morris, a researcher who writes about Pittsburgh history.
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.
1231 Penn Ave. “housed vibrant examples of Pittsburgh history,” Morris said.