Menu Contact/Location

Building cities, saving history: Pittsburgh’s revival shows how the future of cities depends on preserving their past, says RICHARD MOE, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation

Pittsburgh Post GazettePittsburgh Post Gazette
Sunday, October 29, 2006

In 1960, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation last held its annual conference in Pittsburgh, this city was well into its burgeoning transformation from a smoke-shrouded industrial center into an attractive, vibrant community. Forty-six years later, the more than 2,000 people who will gather here this week for the 2006 National Preservation Conference will see a city that has reinvented itself as a world-class metropolis, one that consistently ranks among the nation’s most livable.

The theme of this year’s conference, “Making Preservation Work!,” has particular relevance in Pittsburgh, for it was here that visionaries developed and refined many of the techniques that are now included in every preservationist’s toolkit.

In the 1960s, historic neighborhoods such as Manchester were laboratories for the use of revolving funds to spark community revitalization. Later, East Carson Street was one of the first big-city neighborhood business districts to participate in the National Trust’s Main Street program, which was originally developed for use in small towns. Adaptive-use projects, such as the rebirth of Station Square as a major retail and entertainment center and the conversion of Loew’s Penn Theater into the spectacular Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, have been models for communities across the country. And the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation has for four decades shown everyone how a top-notch preservation organization can make a real difference in a community’s appearance and quality of life.

What’s happened in Pittsburgh is a compelling illustration of how far we’ve come in our understanding of what revitalization really means. In most American cities during the 1950s and ’60s, including in Pittsburgh, the crash of the wrecking ball was part of the soundtrack of daily life. It was the heyday of Urban Renewal, and older buildings fell like dominos as cities sought to encourage revitalization by clearing “blighted” areas and creating vacant land for new development.

This orgy of demolition robbed us of many great buildings and viable neighborhoods, while the promised redevelopment was often slow in coming. In many cities — again including Pittsburgh, especially in areas such as the Hill District and East Liberty — the scars were painfully visible for a very long time.

We’ve learned a lot since then, and it’s no exaggeration to say that much of what we know about revitalization today, we learned from Pittsburgh.

When the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation used its revolving fund to purchase and renovate deteriorated older houses and then make them available to low- and moderate-income families, community activists everywhere learned that it wasn’t necessary to destroy a historic neighborhood in order to save it. When the foundation completed the nation’s first countywide landmarks survey, preservationists elsewhere got busy surveying their own counties. And when East Carson Street thrived after property owners and merchants decided to capitalize on the historic buildings that give the area its unique appeal instead of turning it into a soulless urban version of a suburban strip mall, business and government leaders from coast to coast got the message that preservation is good for the pocketbook as well as the soul.

There have been missteps, of course. To cite one recent example: A misguided proposal to flatten a big chunk of the city’s historic Downtown under the guise of “revitalization” landed the Fifth and Forbes retail corridor on the National Trust’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2000. We are glad preservationists, property owners, merchants and citizens banded together and defeated this plan.

For the most part, however, Pittsburgh has embraced the notion that revitalization doesn’t mean carting the past off to the landfill; it means using the best of the past to help build a better future. That’s good news for everyone who cares about preserving America’s heritage and allowing it to play a meaningful role in contemporary life.

Many National Preservation Conference attendees will be visiting Pittsburgh for the first time, and I have no doubt they’ll be impressed by what they see. They’ll take walking tours of Downtown, the North Side, Homewood and other neighborhoods. They’ll hear from experts such as Arthur Ziegler, who in 1993 received the Crowninshield Award, preservation’s highest accolade, for his work here in Pittsburgh. They’ll marvel at historic places such as the Allegheny County Courthouse and the Cathedral of Learning as well as more recent landmarks such as the Children’s Museum and the Mattress Factory. Everywhere they go, they’ll be reminded that the future of American cities lies in maintaining their sense of place and in strengthening their economic competitive edge by preserving and capitalizing on the historic treasures of their past.

In short, they’ll see how this city has made preservation work. And when they go back home, thousands of communities will benefit from the lessons they learned in Pittsburgh.

(The National Preservation Conference runs from Tuesday through Sunday at various venues and is based at the Hilton, Omni William Penn and Renaissance hotels Downtown. For more information, go to )

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633