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Old Film Site Breathes New Life

Paramount building was empty for years
Thursday, September 23, 2010
By Diana Nelson Jones, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Greg Pierce, assistant film curator at The Warhol, left, talks with Rick Schweikert in front of the film vaults at Paramount's film exchange, 1727 Blvd. of the Allies, Uptown. Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette

The Paramount Pictures Film Exchange, described by a nearby businessman last year as “a disaster,” now has a new roof, flushing toilets and a clutch of stockholders.

At an open house Wednesday, exclamations from old films burst from the screening room, the public took tours and live bands played at night in a celebration of the building’s new life.

“After all these months of labor, to see it lit up …” said Rick Schweikert, letting a smile finish the sentence. He is the primary owner, having given UPMC $50,000 for it last winter, just ahead of what many believed was a pending demolition.

“It was empty for 20 years, and water poured through a hole in the roof,” he said, stroking the tile in a bathroom illuminated by a skylight. “But it’s in great shape. People knew what they were doing when they built this thing.”

It was built in 1926 at what is now 1727 Boulevard of the Allies, Uptown. It was one of six or seven along that stretch that accommodated the film industry, local theater owners and the local and national press who interviewed stars when they traveled to publicize their films.

The old Paramount Pictures emblem still stands above the door to the entrance of Paramount's film exchange. Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette

Each studio stored movies at their exchanges, which were built like fortresses because film was so flammable.

The local exchanges included those of Warner Brothers — now home of the Duquesne University Tamburitzans — MGM, RKO and 20th Century Fox. The Paramount is brick and framed in terra cotta, with decorative scrollwork and egg-and-dart molding. The studio’s logo is still in place over the main door, which is now closed off; a door opening onto Miltenberger Street welcomed yesterday’s curious, among them a few film buffs.

Greg Pierce, assistant curator of film and video at the Warhol Museum, stopped by to see if his giant personal collection of industrial and locally made films might find a home at the exchange.

It was a film buff who brought the building into the public eye last summer.

Drew Levinson had entered a video contest sponsored by the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh for students 25 and younger. His video about the Paramount exchange won the contest. He and the YPA nominated the building for historic status.

Mr. Schweikert said he will rent studios to artists, install a cafe in the film vault room, screen films and hold entertainment events. The upstairs will likely attract a firm taking advantage of tax credits, since the building is in a Keystone Innovation Zone — an area targeted for investment.

In the screening room Wednesday, a run of black-and-white shorts were projected inside the original ornate frame on the wall, the first movies to show in that room since the early 1970s.

The building is 8,500 square feet of mostly open space surrounded with windows. In its previous incarnation, clients entered a wainscotted vestibule through the main entrance and rented movies, returned movies and paid bills at a service window.

At full capacity, the exchange hired 50 people, including managers, secretaries, projectionists and people who repaired and cleaned film, said Mr. Schweikert.

City council approved historic status in January, when Mr. Schweikert closed on the property. He contracted with roofers and he and his Uptown neighbor, Bob Marion, began cleaning out debris, removing old pipes “and an HVAC unit the size of a minivan,” said Mr. Marion.

Mr. Schweikert, who owns other buildings Uptown, said his budget of $300,000 “is all we need.” His investment group, PFEX Inc., issued 100 shares of common stock and has sold 54 so far at $3,000 each.

Jason Roth, the building’s architect, said he was “ecstatic when I got a call from Rick last winter saying he was going to try to save it. He got to it just in time.

“There’s a lot of energy in Uptown now. I certainly hope this will feed off of, and feed into, that energy.”

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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