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Preservationists hope UPMC respects history in Baum corridor expansion

By Christopher Snowbeck,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The medical giant last month spent $10 million to buy a 91-year-old building at the corner of Baum and Morewood Avenue that was built as a combination assembly plant and showroom for the Ford Motor Co. Preservationists say they’re working with UPMC in hopes that the health system will be mindful of the structure’s historic character in any renovation.

For now, the health system isn’t talking much about its plans for the building, saying only that it “will eventually house programs and personnel from UPMC Shadyside or the Hillman Cancer Center,” said Eric Cartwright, vice president of construction and corporate real estate for UPMC. “If the ultimate use for the building allows it, we will preserve as much as possible.”

UPMC has been active lately in its quest for research space near its hospital in Shadyside.

In January, it spent $1.3 million for property at 5200 Baum Blvd. that is the home to a Boston Market restaurant. Spokeswoman Jane Duffield said there are no immediate plans for the property because the restaurant has a long-term lease.

Last month, Ms. Duffield also said UPMC wanted a 350,000 square-foot- building in the area to “provide for continued rapid growth” of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute’s cancer research program and related biomedical research programs at Pitt and UPMC. Ms. Duffield declined to say whether that building would incorporate the old Ford assembly plant or involve new construction elsewhere on the Baum corridor.

Transforming the area into a center for biomedical research would represent a far cry from its historical roots.

The Ford Motor building was located within blocks of the world’s first company-owned gas service station, operated by Gulf Oil. Nearby, at 4709 Baum, also was a dealership for the old Packard Motor Car — one of many dealers, manufacturers and repair shops that cropped up along the corridor during the early 20th century.

Indeed, the affluence of Pittsburgh’s East End in 1907 could be measured by the approximately 3,000 cars being driven by city residents, said Donald Doherty, the founder of a neuroscience company in Shadyside. He has studied the history of the area and developed a presentation designed to help preserve the Ford building. Many of those automobiles were purchased or tended to along Baum and most of the owners were quite wealthy, he said.

Henry Ford’s plan with the assembly plant he built here was to offer his Model T cars at a reasonable price. The factory on Baum was one of about 28 around the country that would provide the ultimate one-stop car shopping experience — vehicles would be assembled, sold and subsequently serviced all in one building.

Three hundred workers used a vertical feed hand-assembly method to build about 40 Model Ts per day at the Pittsburgh plant, Mr. Doherty said. Assembly operations continued until 1932, and the building remained a Ford sales and parts branch until at least the early 1940s. It was subsequently used as a manufacturing plant for clothier Reidbord Bros. Co. until 1995, and currently houses a PaperMart store.

Annie O’Neill, Post-Gazette
The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s plan to make Baum Boulevard in Shadyside a corridor for cancer care and research is running up against the strip’s historical legacy as “automobile row.”

All of the Ford buildings were designed by architect John Graham in red brick with large windows and cream terra cotta tile accents. The renovation of a similar building by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for biotechnology labs and companies could serve as an example of what UPMC might do, Mr. Doherty said.

“When you look at the materials used, the details in the design — this is a fabulous building,” he said.

The building “clearly” could qualify for the National Register of Historic Places, said Rob Pfaffman, president of Preservation Pittsburgh. But community groups have refrained from seeking that designation, he said, so that they can work cooperatively with UPMC.

City Councilman Bill Peduto said UPMC initially intended to demolish the building, but he and other community representatives opposed the plan.

“UPMC hasn’t reported back to me on what their goal is for that building,” Mr. Peduto said.

(Christopher Snowbeck can be reached at or 412 263-2625.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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