Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation works to identify local historic structures
Architectural historian Albert M. Tannler rattles off names and dates and addresses in a rapid-fire manner when he talks about significant properties in Allegheny County.
Drawing from memory, he speaks of architects and builders and landscapers as though they are his friends, delving into their family histories, career passions and design trademarks. He peppers conversations with detailed information about the building materials, design styles and engineering innovations incorporated in their projects.
Tannler, the historical-collections director for the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, has much to talk about. Allegheny County, he says, is rich with some of the nation’s finest examples of architectural design, engineering and planning.
In May, more than three dozen of those significant properties were recognized by the foundation’s Historic Landmarks Plaque Committee, which awarded historic designation to 21 sites that include 38 buildings, three districts and the landscapes at two golf courses.
“We’re saying you’ve got a lot of neat stuff in this town, and these are the examples,” Tannler says. “We’re saying that these properties are worth saving.”
The newly designated sites join some 500 others throughout Allegheny County that have been awarded historic plaques since the program began in 1968. They range from churches to private homes to public buildings to golf courses — each with a story to tell about the architect, builder or era in which it was constructed.
Residential architecture in this round of designations includes a log house built in 1832 in Gibsonia, Victorian homes in Leetsdale and Oakdale, and Colonial revival homes in Shadyside and Munhall. An enclave of Arts & Crafts houses in Fox Chapel and two modern homes built in 1936 in Ross also made the list.
The former St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, one of three churches recognized last month, is the only surviving documented building in Pittsburgh designed by the region’s first female architect, Elise Mercur, according to information provided by the foundation. Designations also were awarded to several public buildings and Mellon Square, an urban oasis described in foundation materials as “an outstanding example of mid-20th century design, urban planning and local philanthropy.”
In some cases, property owners applied for the designation, while foundation staff members nominated others for the committee to review. But all are important to the area’s heritage, Tannler says.
Save and protect
The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, a nonprofit formed in 1964 by Arthur P. Ziegler Jr. and James D. Van Trump, was the nation’s first historic group to launch a countywide survey of architectural landmarks when it embarked on the project in 1965. Through that survey, and another completed in the mid-1980s, more than 6,000 sites have been documented.
Historic designation has been awarded to only a fraction of those properties, according to the foundation’s executive director, Louise Sturgess. She says that working with more than 20 or 30 properties at a time would be an unmanageable undertaking for everyone involved.
Tribune-Review owner Richard M. Scaife, who has chaired the plaques committee for the past two decades, describes its members as individuals who are “dedicated to architecture.” The committee meets at least once a year to review properties that are up for consideration, relying largely on pictures, application materials and information from the foundation’s staff.
Sometimes sites are considered after the property owner submits pictures. In other instances, staff members find a building or a church that they think is worthy of being saved and nominate it for the committee to review.
“We have no shortage of buildings to judge,” Scaife says.
Although the plaques identify properties as historic landmarks, the distinction does not protect them from demolition or alteration. The foundation staff works to correct the misconception that plaques restrict owners in what they can do with their properties.
“The most important thing that people need to know about the plaques is that they don’t protect the buildings, people do,” Sturgess says. “The plaque program gets to the heart of the mission to show people that there’s some pretty amazing stuff out there that we don’t want demolished.”
Scaife, who is passionate about history and architecture, says he’s concerned that some worthy properties might be lost. He says he worries most about the Union Trust Building, a Downtown landmark that has been up for sale for some time.
The Flemish Gothic-style building designed by Frederick Oesterling, one of Pittsburgh’s premier architects, was completed in 1917 for owner Henry Frick. It was used as a shopping arcade with 240 shops on four levels. A rotunda was capped with a majestic stained-glass dome.
“You want to save those that are important,” Scaife says. “I’m not sure what will become of it. When it comes to historic, architecturally significant structures, remodeling is worse than tearing down.”
Ziegler, the foundation’s president, concedes that he also worries about “a lot of properties every day.” However, he notes that the historic-plaque designation appears to benefit preservation efforts.
“The plaques bring honor and public notice to properties. Those things in themselves help provide staying power to buildings,” Ziegler says.
Making the grade
Properties that are considered worthy of historic plaques need not be majestic, impressive structures, records show. Modest, wood-framed homes, gardens, parks, golf courses, churches, mansions, public buildings and bridges all have found a place on the list, either individually or as part of historic districts.
Some are examples of ingenious engineering, architecture or planning, while other sites are important because of the architects responsible for their design. Program administrator Frank Stroker III, who has been with the foundation since 1984, says that the common denominator is historical significance.
Stroker says that placement of a plaque is done at a cost to the property owner of about $150 for a standard aluminum marker. Larger markers and those made of bronze are more expensive.
Most property owners are pleased with the designation, Tannler says, adding that it often starts them on a path to historical research. He says the program’s credibility also appears to help properties attain recognition on the National Register of Historic Places as National Historic Landmarks.
Property owners can choose not to accept a plaque from the foundation. When that happens, the site holds the designation and is listed in foundation materials, but remains unmarked. In some cases, plaques are refused by people who are reluctant to participate because they don’t want to draw attention to themselves, Tannler says.
Homeowners William Wakeley and Matthew Galla love the distinction that comes with living in the dream home they bought when they relocated from Palm Springs, Calif., to Munhall two years ago.
They paid $195,000 for the 107-year-old home at 518 E. 11th St., thinking it was a steal compared with the cost of real estate on the West Coast and in major cities across the country. They soon realized the house was rich in history because it is one of only two surviving structures from a group of six original Carnegie Steel Co. managers’ homes.
When neighbors told them of the home’s past, they turned to the foundation for help with research.
“It was mentioned in several books. All this history came out, and we were just floored,” Wakeley says.
They applied to the foundation’s plaque program, and their home was included in the most recent round of historic-designation awards. They’ll have a party for the official unveiling of their plaque when it is installed on the house, which also is being featured at 11 tonight in an episode of “If These Walls Could Talk” on the Home and Garden Television Network.
Wakeley, a graphic designer, took a year’s sabbatical to paint, decorate and complete some deferred maintenance on the house. He and his partner, who works at Federal Home Loan Bank, put a personal touch on the 6,000-square-foot home, which has been featured twice on the Munhall Holiday House Tour.
“We love this house,” Wakeley says. “The bones were here and the structure is wonderful, but we just wanted to make it our own. We absolutely love Pittsburgh.”
Fulfilling the foundation’s educational mission, its volunteer guides tell people that Pittsburgh’s historic landmarks can be found on almost every corner of the city.
“Always look up. You’ll see things up there that you won’t see below,” retired high school teacher Gabe Funaro says while leading a group of third-graders on a recent sunny morning.
Funaro leads the group from the foundation’s Station Square headquarters across the Smithfield Street Bridge and into the heart of Downtown. Along the way, he explains the meaning of historic designations, identifies types of stone and teaches the students to spot decorative gargoyles and grotesques jutting from buildings.
At the Union Trust Building, Funaro points out the historic plaque awarded in 1968 and tells the students the story of the building’s architect and its origin as one of the nation’s first indoor shopping malls. Hot, tired and preoccupied with their approaching lunch time, the students begin to fidget until Funaro takes them inside and asks them to look up.
They stop in their tracks and gasp aloud, awed at the sight of the towering spiral ceiling of the central rotunda.
“The main thing is, at this age, we just try to get them to look,” Funaro says.
And that’s the object of the plaques, Sturgess says, noting that the markers make people stop and think and look at properties that have been identified as important. Then, they might want to go inside and explore further, or they might become passionate about preservation to save these places for future generations.
“They do not build buildings the way they used to,” Sturgess says. “When a place is gone, it’s hard to revive the memories.”
The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation’s Historic Landmarks Plaque Committee recently designated as historic landmarks these sites listed in order of their construction dates:
Chalfant Log House: 2716 West Hardies Road, Gibsonia, Hampton, 1832
Elm Ridge, James Gardiner Coffin/John Walker house: 1 Breck Drive, Leetsdale, 1869
W.J. Stewart/Howard Stewart house: 124 Hastings Ave., Oakdale, 1873
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (now Christian Tabernacle Kodesh Church of Immanuel): 2601 Centre Ave., Hill District, Pittsburgh, 1896
Colonial Place Historic District: Nine houses, Shadyside, 1898
Carnegie Steel manager’s house: 518 E. 11th Ave., Munhall, 1900
Armstrong Cork Co. Buildings (now the Cork Factory Lofts): 2349 Railroad St., Strip District, Pittsburgh, 1901, 1902, 1913
Elmhurst Road Historic District: Six houses, Fox Chapel, 1904-20
St. James Episcopal Church (now The Church of the Holy Cross): 7507 Kelly St., Homewood, 1905-06
Mt. Lebanon Golf Course (formerly Castle Shannon Golf Club): 1000 Pine Ave., Mt. Lebanon, 1907-08
First National Bank of Pitcairn (now commercial/rental): 500 Second St., Pitcairn, circa 1910
Central Turnverein (now Gardner Steel Conference Center, University of Pittsburgh): 130 Thackeray St., Oakland, 1911-12
H.J. Heinz Co. Buildings (five buildings, now Heinz Lofts): Progress Street, Troy Hill, Pittsburgh, 1913-27
Fox Chapel Golf Club: 426 Fox Chapel Road, Fox Chapel, 1924-25, 1931
Pythian Temple (now New Granada Theatre): 2007 Centre Ave., Hill District, Pittsburgh, 1927-28
Keystone Athletic Club (now Lawrence Hall, Point Park University): 200 Wood St., Downtown, Pittsburgh, 1928
Mt. Lebanon Municipal Building: 710 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon, 1928-30
Southminster Presbyterian Church: 799 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon, 1929
Edgeworth Club: 511 East Drive, Edgeworth, 1930-31
Swan Acres Historic District: Two houses, Ross, 1936
Mellon Square: Downtown, Pittsburgh, 1954-55
For more information about other properties identified by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation as historic landmarks, go to www.phlf.org.
The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation created its Historic Landmarks Plaque Program in 1968 to identify Allegheny County’s architecturally significant structures and designed landscapes. The program’s guidelines indicate that buildings, districts and landscapes may be approved for a plaque if these conditions are met:
Properties must be at least 50 years old.
They must be remarkable pieces of architecture, engineering, construction, planning or landscape design, or impart a rich sense of history. Alterations, additions or deterioration cannot have substantially decreased their value in those areas.
They are not in historic districts already bearing a plaque (unless they are of exceptional individual significance).
Robin Acton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-830-6295.