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Historic status eyed for area

By Tony LaRussa
Monday, November 15, 2004

An effort to get a historic district designation for the city’s Oakland Square section has cleared its first major hurdle: Enough homeowners have signed on to the idea to put the matter before the city’s Historic Review Commission.
Architect Nathan Hart, who has been spearheading the process, said his pitch to residents and landlords mostly has steered clear of purely aesthetic reasons for historic designation and focused more on the economic benefits of an approval.

The city has 11 other historic districts, including East Carson Street, Manchester, the Mexican War Streets and Schenley Farms.

The proposed district would cover Oakland Square, Parkview Avenue and part of Dawson Street. The neighborhood, which is perched several hundred feet above Panther Hollow, was conceived in the 1890s by developer Eugene O’Neill to mimic the streets of Victorian England.

“I try to get people to look ahead to the day when the demand for off-campus student housing has diminished,” said Hart, who also is president of the Oakland Community Council.

The University of Pittsburgh has announced plans to build more housing near the Peterson Events Center to accommodate 1,000 students.

“Creation of the historic district is as much about preserving the future of the neighborhood as it is about preserving the past,” said Hart, who believes landlords will be better able to survive declining demand for student housing if they can appeal to a different type of tenant.

“The idea is to rent to working people rather than college students,” Hart said. “They appreciate the beauty of a finely restored Victorian home, which translates into higher rents.

“Landlords also stand to save the considerable cost of cleaning and repairing apartments that is associated with renting to students.”

Lee Gross, who has bought and restored dozens of Victorian-era buildings on the South Side and in Lawrenceville, agrees that people are willing to pay for a piece of Pittsburgh’s past.

“I’ve found there is a nice market for restored historic buildings, both for rental and purchase,” said Gross, owner of A1-Realty. “People are definitely attracted to the Old World charm of these buildings.”

The original 67 houses in Oakland Square were built of brick or stone in the late-Victorian or Queen Anne style and feature stylish wood porches, false gables, dormers, round-head windows, mansard roofs, fireplaces and decorative wood details inside and out, according to Walter Kidney of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

Hart, who has bought, restored and sold or rented several historic homes in the neighborhood, said the only concern raised by people who declined to sign the petition was a potential loss of control over their properties.

Maria Burgwin, who is on the staff of the Historic Review Commission, said historic designation need not burden property owners. The review of work is limited only to the exterior of homes that can be seen from the street and on new alterations.

Cathy McCollom, executive director of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, said historic district status also can open the door to federal and state tax incentives to do historic preservation work.

The proposed district also might qualify for assistance through the state’s proposed “Elm Street” program, which addresses the lack of financial assistance in residential areas, 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