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Historic designation on the books for local libraries

By Tony LaRussa
Monday, July 19, 2004

Preservationists long have considered the libraries built by Andrew Carnegie in the late 1800s and early 1900s to be historic landmarks.
Pittsburgh City Council has made it official.

Council recently voted unanimously to designate the branch library buildings in Mt. Washington, Homewood, the West End, Lawrenceville and Hazelwood as City Designated Historic Structures.

Cathy McCollom, executive director of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, believes the designation is an important step toward preserving Pittsburgh’s heritage.

“These buildings were built as centers of the community,” said McCollom, whose organization nominated the buildings for the designation. “They were beautifully constructed and should be treated as community assets.”

Designation by the city as a historic structure means a building cannot be demolished or have its exterior changed without approval of the Historic Review Commission of Pittsburgh. The designation does not affect what is done to the interior of a building.

While historic designation provides a building with a certain level of protection, it does not guarantee that it will be used for its original intent.

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh abandoned the Hazelwood branch and handed it back to the city, which owns the property. The library was moved to a new commercial complex along Second Avenue, the neighborhood’s main artery.

On the other hand, library officials opted to spend about $3.5 million to restore the Homewood branch following federal guidelines for historic landmarks because it was in a convenient location, had sufficient parking and was accessible to public transportation.

Library officials neither lobbied for nor opposed the historic designation of the buildings they lease from the city.

“We have no problem with the designation since we respect these buildings, too,” said Herb Elish, the library’s executive director. “The designation will not influence our future course of actions. The decisions we will make will be in keeping with, and centered on, the best results for serving the community.”

Angelique Bamberg, the city’s historic preservation planner, said public buildings such as libraries, firehouses, police stations and government offices that were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s often had highly stylized architectural features.

“There was a desire for such buildings to create a civic presence in the neighborhood, so they typically had more architectural expense lavished upon them than typical commercial and residential structures,” she said.

The library buildings were designed by prominent Pittsburgh architects Frank Alden and Alfred Harlow, who are best known for designing the Duquesne Club, Downtown.

The five buildings that recently received historic designation are among the nine original libraries Carnegie donated to the city. The main branch in Oakland, built in 1895, was followed by Lawrenceville, 1898; West End, 1899; Hill District, 1899; Hazelwood, 1900; Mt. Washington, 1900; East Liberty, 1905; South Side, 1909; and Homewood, 1911.

The South Side branch is protected because it is in the Carson Street Historic District. The original East Liberty branch was razed in the late 1960s as part of a sweeping urban renewal plan in that neighborhood. The original Hill District building no longer is used as a library.

Under Historic Review Commission guidelines, any alterations that were made to a building before receiving historic designation can be replaced with the same material, Bamberg said.

“For instance, if a building’s windows already were replaced with vinyl or aluminum windows, they can be replaced with the same type of windows,” she said. “It’s only when changes are proposed that the commission requires the design and materials match what originally existed.”

Bamberg said it is getting easier to do historic restoration because building material manufacturers increasingly are offering “off-the-shelf” products that match historic designs.

“We’re seeing more and more products such as vinyl and aluminum windows made with historic profiles and colors, and roofing material that matches the color and texture of slate,” she said.

Tony LaRussa can be reached at

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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