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DeSantis makes historic exit – Ends 13 stormy years as Historic Review Commission chief

By Patricia Lowry,
Post-Gazette Architecture Critic
Thursday, March 13, 2003

After more than a decade calmly presiding over hundreds of impassioned, tearful, angry, thunderous, cajoling and cantankerous testimonies before the city Historic Review Commission, John DeSantis marked his 150th meeting as chairman of the commission with a low-key agenda of routine reviews.

It was also his last.

“I can honestly say in 13 years, I have not one regret, and I don’t regret leaving,” DeSantis said in brief farewell remarks to the commission after yesterday’s monthly meeting. “I am not in the least bit concerned about the kind of decisions that will come from the commission.”

In an interview, DeSantis would not say whether his departure was his idea or Mayor Tom Murphy’s.

“That’s something I’d rather not get into,” DeSantis said. “That would place one or the other of us with pulling the trigger, and it’s really not that way. It’s by mutual consent.”

Murphy could not be reached for comment.

An articulate, outspoken and sometimes controversial chairman, DeSantis brought leadership and direction to the foundering commission after Mayor Sophie Masloff tapped him to head it in 1990. A preservation activist, DeSantis was a surprise choice for the Masloff administration, which was perceived as being anti-preservation.

“People assumed I was being appointed to dismantle the system,” DeSantis said.

Instead, with the support of Masloff and her top aide, lawyer Joseph Sabino Mistick, DeSantis led the commission and the city to a new “state-of-the-art” preservation ordinance written by consultants who fine-tuned it for a city with a legacy of historic buildings and a history of divisive designation battles.

“Politically there was a sense that maybe the city would be better off without a preservation ordinance and there was consideration in the administration of repealing it. I was advocating against that. Their response was, ‘Would you be willing to do something about it?'”

DeSantis said he remembers Mistick saying, “There are going to be days when I will sit at my desk with my head in my hands and say, ‘Why did I put him there?’ And there will be days when I will sit at my desk and say, ‘Thank God I put him there.'”

“I’ve had both those kinds of days,” Mistick, now a Duquesne University law professor, said yesterday, laughing. “I think he’s done an excellent job in an arena in which it is extraordinarily difficult to do a good job.

“I would not be surprised if certain powerful entities would be happy to see him leave that position because he’s eloquent and zealous. When I was chairman of the zoning board, I used to call him the best land use attorney in Pittsburgh, and, of course, he’s not a lawyer.”

An Allegheny West resident and vocal community activist who saw preservation as a tool for revitalization, DeSantis was among the pioneers who, in the 1970s and ’80s, helped return that deteriorating neighborhood to its late-19th century status as one of the city’s most desirable places to live. DeSantis, who had nominated Allegheny West as a city historic district, was a familiar figure then at meetings of the zoning board and planning and historic review commissions.

But the activism that gave him a broad education in the politics of preservation also made him a controversial choice to head the commission.

“I don’t think you’re very reasonable,” then-City Councilman Jim Ferlo told DeSantis at his confirmation hearing in August 1990.

DeSantis proved to be not only reasonable, but a master of the art of compromise who time and again urged conflicting parties back to the table to work out solutions. And Ferlo himself, within a few years, became City Council’s most ardent supporter of historic preservation and a co-founder of the advocacy group Preservation Pittsburgh.

“The landscape has changed,” DeSantis said. “Preservation Pittsburgh became a good and regular voice for advocacy and Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation returned to its roots” and once again became an advocacy group. “And we have a body of things that are protected.”

During DeSantis’ tenure, the number of city-designated historic districts grew from five — Market Square, Manchester, Mexican War Streets, Penn Liberty and Schenley Farms — to 12, with the addition of Allegheny West, East Carson Street, Oakland Civic Center, Deutschtown, Allegheny Commons, Alpha Terrace and Murray Hill Avenue.

He also oversaw creation of the Pittsburgh Register of Historic Places, adopted by the commission in 1993 — a comprehensive list of buildings the city deems worth saving but are not necessarily designated historic.

But DeSantis also agreed to the demolition of more than half of the Market Square historic district to make way for Murphy’s ill-fated Market Place at Fifth and Forbes project. DeSantis said he brokered an agreement between the city and its developer to save 13 historic facades at a time when all of the buildings were targeted for demolition.

Still, many preservation advocates were deeply disappointed and believed his vote came at the urging of the mayor. DeSantis said neither the Murphy nor Masloff administrations ever tried to influence his decisions.

“We were sometimes confused about exactly what the standards of the commission are, but that’s not just a responsibility of the chairman,” Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation President Arthur Ziegler said yesterday. “We do think he is a dedicated preservationist and gave a great deal of effort to a civic volunteer responsibility.”

DeSantis, who is director of the Pittsburgh Home and Garden Show, said he isn’t sure how he’ll spend the 30 to 40 hours he devoted to commission business each month, but will continue to play an active role in preservation.

“I’m kind of looking forward to being an Indian and not a chief.”

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

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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