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Historic status sought for Nabisco

By Sandra Tolliver
Monday, June 14, 2004

As factories go, the Nabisco bakery in East Liberty was a trend-setter, built to advertise the quality of the packaged cookies and crackers that helped foster America’s fondness for convenience foods.
The brown brick building, with Mellon Park as its front lawn, dominates two blocks in East Liberty. It is a neighborhood landmark that provided thousands of Pittsburghers with careers before its closing by Nabisco in 1998 and, after a four-year revival by Bake-Line Group, again this spring.

Now the Young Preservationists Association has nominated the building for historic designation by the city’s Historic Review Commission. The structure is part of Pittsburgh’s industrial past and stirs sentimental memories for residents who awoke to the smell of cookies baking, one group member said.

“When Nabisco was there, I’d walk out of my house in the mornings and go, ‘Wow, if only the whole city could smell like this,'” said Miriam Meislick, who lived a block away. “You’d walk around hungry all day.”

The designation must be approved by the city’s Historic Review Commission and Planning Department, along with city council. Though the nomination has just been filed, Maria Thomas Burgwin, of the Planning Department’s historic preservation staff, said the factory meets five of the 10 criteria for historic structures. It must meet only one in order to qualify for the designation. If the designation were approved, the Nabisco plant would join 68 other buildings designated as historic by the city.

“Most buildings like this are just overlooked. We take them for granted. When there’s been a lot of extra thought and detail put into a building like this, we should notice,” said Lu Donnelly, a historian and adviser to the Young Preservationists.

The Regional Industrial Development Corp. bought the building after Nabisco’s departure and does not want historic designation to limit its options for the site, said Bill Widdoes, project manager.

“If for some reason there’s a use or proposed use that comes in that requires the building to be demolished, it would prohibit that,” Widdoes said. “We don’t have any such plans now, but if that kind of use comes along, we couldn’t pursue that. Right now, we need all our options.”

Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, said his organization supports the Nabisco nomination.

“It’s a handsome plant, in a prime location, and we are very much hoping that a new use will be found for it,” Ziegler said. “The listing would at least give us all a chance to comment on future plans and draw public attention to it.”

National Biscuit Company built its Pittsburgh plant in 1918 as part of a nationwide expansion that followed successful branding of its products. Nabisco hired an in-house architect because the company’s president, Adolphus Green, wanted his factories to have style and dignity that would inspire worker loyalty, Donnelly said.

Architect Albert G. Zimmermann’s Nabisco designs were featured in American Architect magazine in 1912 and 1916.

“If you think about factories at that time period, most of them were big, red brick mill buildings with no decorative style, just utilitarian,” Donnelly said.

The Nabisco plant had showers and locker rooms for employees, fireproof stairways, and large windows providing natural light. The original building stands seven stories, with two eight-story towers. Additions were built in 1928 and 1948.

The factory is among dozens of buildings in Western Pennsylvania identified by the Young Preservationists as potentially historic. The group, formed in 2002, has more than 50 members. Its vision is “a future in which young people are at the helm of historic preservation,” according to its Web site.

“It just seems like there’s so many people now who don’t really seem to care about saving our historic buildings, who say, ‘It looks kind of old. Let’s just demolish it and put up a subdivision,'” said Sean Capperis, an intern with the group. “I grew up in a subdivision, and it’s so sterile.”

Criteria for historic designation
A building must meet at least one of 10 criteria to receive historic designation from the city:
1. Location at a significant historic or prehistoric site.

2. Identification with one or more people who significantly contributed to the cultural, historic, architectural, archaeological or related aspects of the city, state, region or country.*

3. Exemplification of a distinguished or unique architectural type, style or design.*

4. Identification as the work of an architect, designer, engineer or builder whose work is historically significant.*

5. Exemplification of important planning and urban design techniques.

6. Location as a site of an important archaeological resource.

7. Association with important cultural or social aspects or events in history.*

8. Exemplification of neighborhood development or settlement significant to cultural history or traditions.

9. Representation of a cultural, historic, architectural, archaeological or related theme expressed through distinctive areas, properties, sites, structures or objects.

10. Unique location and distinctive physical appearance represents an established and familiar visual feature.*

* Criteria touted for Nabisco plant

Source: City of Pittsburgh Department of Planning

Sandra Tolliver can be reached at or (412) 320-7840.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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