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Can Braddock find a future in its rich historic and natural resources?

By Patricia Lowry,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Thursday, December 02, 2004

From the lofty corner of Spring and Anderson streets, Braddock looks much as it did more than 60 years ago, when Thomas Bell imagined steelworker Dobie Dobrejcak living nearby, in the last house on what he called Summer Street.

From his front porch, Dobie had “as fine a view as one could want: Braddock and North Braddock spread out before one, the river, the hills, and on summer evenings the lights of Kennywood Park winking through the smoke above the blast furnaces” of the Edgar Thomson Works, Bell wrote in his 1941 book, “Out of This Furnace.”

On Braddock Avenue today, it is clear that the town Dobie, his father and grandfather knew is no more. While the mill is still there, transforming molten steel into slabs, it employs only about one-fifth of the 5,000 people who worked there during World War II.

There isn’t much left of the once-bustling main street it looms over, and by the end of the year there will be even less of it. Fifteen buildings on Braddock Avenue and nearby streets are slated for demolition, and eight more will be taken down as funding allows. More than 230 buildings in Braddock have been demolished since 1995, creating both loss and opportunity.

So many demolitions caused the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Bureau for Historic Preservation to determine earlier this year that Braddock is no longer eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The decision and its ramifications for Braddock and beyond are worth examining, as Braddock looks to the future and as historic buildings across the state continue to age and crumble.

While Braddock officials woo real estate developers and consider building a strip mall, grocery store and industrial park on Braddock Avenue, others envision a future built in part on the community’s historical and natural resources.

The county’s most recent strategy for Braddock and the rest of the Mon Valley will be rolled out tomorrow morning at a summit in McKeesport. The Mon Valley Economic Development Strategy, in the works for almost two years, will recommend focusing development around five hubs determined to have the highest potential, in Hazelwood, McKeesport, Duquesne, Clairton-Elizabeth and the Carrie Furnace site.

Braddock should be developed at the same time as the Carrie Furnace site, Dennis Davin, director of economic development, said yesterday. New businesses, streetscape improvements and a Main Street program on Braddock Avenue are the goals, along with mixed-income housing built around the hospital and other sites.

A storied past

While Braddock is no longer officially historic, the landscape holds international significance for the role it played in the French and Indian War. On July 9, 1755, on a hillside overlooking the Monongahela River, British Gen. Edward Braddock and about 1,400 men were defeated by almost 900 French and Indians sent out from Fort Duquesne. Braddock refused to let his men break rank and take cover, and for more than three hours they were easy targets for opponents who shot from behind trees.

Braddock’s reinforcements retreated to Philadelphia, leaving the frontier to be defended for the next three years by young George Washington, who took four bullets through his coat and had two horses shot out from under him at the Battle of Monongahela, but escaped–miraculously, some thought–without injury.

Almost 40 years later, on Aug. 1, 1794, about 6,000 Whiskey Rebels from the rural Western Pennsylvania townships rallied at Braddock’s Field with the intent of plundering Pittsburgh, symbol of the hated whiskey tax and the urban culture it represented. To escape the rebels’ wrath, Pittsburgh agreed to banish men that the rebels regarded as the worst offenders, then further won over the invaders by distributing casks of whiskey among them. Pittsburgh was spared.

“The rebels rallied at Braddock’s Field because everyone knew where it was,” said Robert Messner, an attorney who has raised more than $1 million toward construction of a Braddock’s Field museum at the corner of Sixth and Baldridge streets in North Braddock, where the battle is thought to have been joined. Messner, who believes history can be used to leverage economic development in the community, has acquired three acres of land and two commercial buildings, one of which will be the location next summer for programs commemorating the 250th anniversary of the battle.

Braddock’s eligibility for the National Register, however, owed not to its antique past but to the buildings associated with its rise as a steel town. It originated with the Allegheny County survey that Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation produced from 1979 to 1984, in preparation for its 1985 book, “Landmark Architecture: Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.”

Even in 1981, as the buildings were surveyed, many of the businesses were boarded up, abandoned and decaying, and there already were many vacant lots. Nevertheless, the borough requested historic status for part of Braddock Avenue in 1989, hoping the designation would help turn things around.

Four sections of Braddock were determined to be eligible for the National Register in 1991: a five-block stretch of Braddock Avenue; the Talbot Avenue residential district; the Maple and Wood streets residential pocket; and an institutional area comprising the library, post office and nearby residential streets.

But borough officials never commissioned the paperwork that would officially put it on the register and make it eligible for the 20 percent federal tax credit for rehabilitation. Instead, more and more buildings were abandoned by their owners and allowed to deteriorate.

Braddock borough administrator Ella Jones said she doesn’t know why the borough never pursued listing on the register, only that by the time she arrived four years ago, many buildings were too far gone for anything but demolition.

In 2003, the borough and the county economic development office hired preservation architect Charles Uhl to document the current condition of the buildings. Of the 75 buildings on Braddock Avenue that could be considered contributing to a historic district, Uhl found 23 to be “economically and structurally unsalvageable.” That leaves two-thirds of the remaining historic buildings standing — 52 buildings over a five-block area, an average of 10 buildings per block.

Uhl found the Talbot Avenue area “not an appealing residential district,” with most houses covered with artificial materials. Three large commercial buildings on Talbot have failed roofs and are condemned. In the Maple and Wood streets area, the 35 houses are mostly wood-frame, and all of those are covered with artificial siding. In the library-post office area, Uhl reports both of those structures are either individually listed on or eligible for the National Register, and the nearby housing artificially sided and/or interrupted by vacant lots.

The borough didn’t need the Bureau for Historic Preservation’s permission to demolish the buildings, but it wanted to use federal funds in the form of Community Development Block Grant money to do so, and that would have triggered a lengthy review process involving documentation through measurement and photography.

Uhl’s report and a site visit convinced the bureau to reverse itself. It has done so only once before, in 2002, reversing the 1992 eligibility ruling for Renovo, Clinton County, incorporated in 1866. Like Braddock’s historic district, Renovo’s had suffered a loss of integrity through demolitions.

“Although the history of Braddock and its contribution to the history of the steel industry in America is significant, the district no longer can reflect this significance due to a loss of integrity,” preservation bureau director Jean Cutler wrote to the county economic development office in January.

Demolition by neglect

“We understand the state and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission have to follow standards and have criteria,” said Cathy McCollum, director of operations and marketing at Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. “Our concern is not that they declared it ineligible, but that it got to that point. It’s demolition by neglect.”

To Dan Holland, chair of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh, the reversal “sets a dangerous precedent for historic districts and structures across the Commonwealth,” as he wrote in a letter of protest in February to PHMC director Barbara Franco. The letter also stated that the “unilateral decision to undo the designation of the Braddock Historic District without public input or comment reduces Braddock’s chances for revitalization.”

Municipalities should not be rewarded for allowing demolition by neglect and not enforcing codes, said Susan Shearer, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Preservation Pennsylvania, based in Lancaster. The message the reversal sends to other communities, she added, is that if they allow buildings to deteriorate to the point of no return, the eligibility can be lifted.

Jones acknowledged that over the years, building codes in Braddock were not always enforced “to the fullest degree.” But, she added, if property owners now don’t maintain their buildings, they’re taken to the magistrate. If they fail to comply, they face fines and the possibility of jail.

Preservationists agree that even when there is no immediate use for historic buildings, they should be stabilized and mothballed until new investors are found. But where will the money to do so come from?

“If the state was interested in keeping those buildings intact, I think the state had some responsibility in providing some funds so that those buildings could be maintained,” said Jones. “We would have preferred to restore, absolutely. Those buildings hold a lot of history.”

Braddock may be the most egregious example of demolition by neglect, but it’s far from the only one.

“You see it in every single county,” said Janet Milkman, president of 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, a statewide land use and conservation alliance. “Developers always say it’s so much easier to build out [of the city] or new than build in older communities, and in a lot of ways that’s true.

“The state policy has to be: Remove barriers and provide incentives” for rehabilitation.

The greening of Braddock

The Braddock historic district’s ineligibility for the National Register will have minimal impact on the Mon-Fayette Expressway project, because the Section 106 review triggered by the eligibility already has been performed. The Turnpike Commission will still provide photographic documentation of the buildings to be demolished and work with a citizens advisory committee to help integrate the highway and the community.

Designed to avoid Braddock Avenue, the highway would parallel it and be built mostly within a former railroad corridor. But it would remove 73 buildings — the same buildings the preservation bureau signed off on when they were considered to be contributing to the historic district.

To show the expressway’s impact on Braddock and to stimulate community dialogue, Lawrenceville architects Jonathan Kline and Christine Brill built a scale model of Braddock and North Braddock. The land and buildings taken for the highway, which would be elevated on a 25-foot-high berm, are expressed as a removable overlay.

“The berm is cheaper than [supporting it on concrete] piers,” Kline said. “But it will take up more land and be more of a barrier.”

Last June, the Lawrenceville couple and their scale model spent a month in Braddock as part of a team of artists commissioned by Carnegie Mellon University to look at ecological approaches to land-use planning and public space development in Braddock and North Braddock.

With many vacant lots returning to nature — usually through neglect and often in unsafe places — Kline and Brill suggest that when redevelopment does come to Braddock, some of those green spaces could be retained and incorporated in the plans. Parts of Tassey Hollow, a ravine separating North Braddock from Swissvale, could be made accessible, and the Sixth Street stream could be restored to a more natural condition to show proper storm water management.

Some of the vacant lots on Braddock Avenue could be used to interpret the borough’s history as a sort of outdoor museum, Brill said. Their ideas, still evolving, will be exhibited next year.

Jones said she would like to see “some greenery on Braddock Avenue, and well-designed street lights and a time clock in the center of town. I want it to have a sense of place, so people in this town will be proud to say they live in Braddock.”

Will it also, one wonders, be a place Dobie Dobrejcak would recognize?

(Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.)

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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