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National Trust will plumb Pittsburgh preserves

By Tony LaRussa
Thursday, October 6, 2005

The last time the National Trust for Historic Preservation held its annual conference in Pittsburgh, the idea of revitalizing city neighborhoods meant bulldozing old buildings and replacing them with modern structures.

But the collapse of the steel industry in the decades following the trust’s 1961 conference here killed most of those plans.

The city’s economic misfortunes forced Pittsburghers to work with what they had — thousands of turn-of-the-century buildings that, though rundown, were relatively unchanged from the time they were built.

Next fall, thousands of historic preservationists from around the country will get the chance to see how Pittsburgh managed to remake itself without throwing out the old for the new.

“Around the country there is great interest among preservationists to see what the restoration of historic buildings has done to help revitalize inner cities,” said Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

“I think a lot of the people who come here next year will be surprised at the degree to which historic preservation has weaved itself into the fabric of so many neighborhoods,” Ziegler said.

Ziegler, who recently returned from the trust’s national conference in Portland, Ore., submitted the application for the trust to hold its 2006 conference here between Oct. 31 and Nov. 5.

Peter Brink, senior vice president for programs at the National Trust, said Pittsburgh was selected from among seven other Northeastern U.S. cities because of its “impressive preservation story.”

“We are particularly interested in the fact that many of the neighborhoods where historic preservation has occurred was done by and for the residents,” Brink said.

Another area that captured the trust’s attention was the “incredible adaptive reuse” of former industrial and commercial buildings in Pittsburgh, Brink said.

“We’re excited about learning more about how the old post office (on the North Side) was turned into a Children’s Museum, and a former mattress factory is now a theater,” Brink said.

Architect Michael Eversmeyer, chairman of the city’s Historic Review Commission, said interest in restoring older buildings often is driven by the “character” that modern construction often lacks.

“There’s certain visual elements that are very appealing in these old buildings,” said Eversmeyer. “The ornamentation and materials that were used — stained glass, carved woodwork and trim, ornamental plaster and stonework — while available on new buildings, are often financially out of reach for many people.”

The Historic Review Commission initially planned to change its November 2006 meeting so it did not conflict with the trust’s conference but now is considering holding it so attendees can “see how things are done here,” Eversmeyer said.

In addition to an array of programs that will be conducted during the conference at the Pittsburgh Hilton, field seminars will be held in neighborhoods including Manchester, the North Side, the South Side and Lawrenceville and in towns outside the city such as Uniontown in Fayette County.

Preservationists also plan to illustrate failed efforts to revitalize city neighborhoods by plowing under older buildings.

“All we have to do is look at what happened when they replaced the old market house on the North Side with Allegheny Center Mall, or the construction of the high-rises and outdoor mall that killed East Liberty for proof that new is not always better,” said Dennis Freeland, real estate marketing specialist for the North Side Leadership Conference.

Tony LaRussa can be reached at

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review © Pittsburgh Tribune Review

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