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Preservationists see window of opportunity

Tuesday, August 28, 2001

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

On a beautiful, blue sky Saturday morning, when Pittsburghers are out golfing, gardening, goofing off and otherwise enjoying the day, architect Terry Necciai and crew are holed up on the dark, grimy second floor of a Downtown building, wrestling with some crusty old windows.

Standing on a ladder overlooking Liberty Avenue, Necciai is trying to rig one of the rope and pulley systems that help open and close the century-old, double-hung windows.

“Nothing got through the pulley hole,” Necciai says to Daniel Steinitz, one of four volunteers from the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz business school, who’s deftly straddling an open staircase next to the windows. “The second rope won’t even go through.”

It looks like hard, hazardous work.

“It’s easy craftsmanship,” Necciai said. “It’s really basic.”

To make a point, this is how Necciai has been spending his Saturdays for the better part of the past two months. The point is this: With a little money, paint and elbow grease, you can make a big difference.

A former Main Street program manager in Charleroi and Somerset who championed that incremental, preservation-minded approach for Downtown in the recent Fifth/Forbes debate, Necciai is joined most Saturdays by Sandy Brown and a changing handful of others. Brown is president, Necciai vice president, of Preservation Pittsburgh, and this is one of the group’s volunteer projects.

About 18 volunteers — most of them people in their 20s — have worked with Necciai and Brown. Together, they have removed seven window sashes from their frames, scraped the multicolored paint from the wood, stripped the paint that covered the glass and rehung the sashes in their frames.

It would have been easier to replace the glass than to strip it, but the volunteers value the irregular appearance and imperfections of 19th-century “wavy glass.”

They also value the satisfaction that comes from actually doing something, as opposed to merely talking about doing something.

“We put on gloves and old clothes and a couple of hours go by and we have some fun chatting,” Brown said. “You’re not just sitting around in a meeting.”

Built in the late 19th century, the building spans Liberty Avenue and Market Street and is situated on one of those little triangles of land formed by the intersection of Downtown’s two grids. It’s owned by the family of George Harris, who runs the florist shop next door, and occupied by Jim Calato’s City Deli.

Sometime in the 1970s, the building’s second floor became an advertising sign for the flower shop. That’s when the windows — glass and all — were painted over, then later painted over again in white.

In reviving historic structures, “I think what’s best for the small buildings is to do things, in many cases, that are less expensive than what you would expect because it does less damage to the building,” Necciai said. “I was trying to find a building to show the principle that it’s not necessarily more expensive” to rejuvenate the original architecture than to remodel it.

Why this building? For one thing, the improvement would be obvious and dramatic, yielding a big bang for the buck.

For another, “It’s all traditional materials” — wood and glass. “It’s only two stories tall and manageable. The facade is 80 percent glass and almost all the wood is reachable from inside the building.”

Each of the 11 window panes that have been stripped, scraped and sanded took about eight hours. Next, the volunteers will finish replacing the ropes in three windows and paint all of the windows’ exteriors.

“We’ve got a nice, three-value olive green going toward ochre,” Brown said. “We’re picking up some of the detail in deep red.”

What the volunteers can’t paint, professional sign painters should be able to reach, if new City Deli signs are commissioned.

At a table in front of the building, drawings show how the building would look with a storefront and signs more in character with its historic upper floor. Harris is considering that. He’s paid for all the supplies so far (about $400 worth), and he’s thrilled with the work — and the workers.

“I’m very much impressed with their zeal and desire,” he said. “They are really sacrificing themselves, believing that improvements can be made and renovations brought about in ways other than mass destruction. It’s really an extension of what we professed all through the battle of Fifth and Forbes. And they’re doing it with smiles on their faces. It’s a real delight to me.”

For Necciai, part of the value of this project “is giving young, committed people a small piece of the action pie, getting them into the buildings and showing them how repairable they are.”

Nina Thomson, a Pitt architectural studies student who met Necciai when she wrote to him in February 2000, asking how she could help save buildings in the Fifth-Forbes corridor, did the drawings when she worked for him last summer. This summer, she’s devoted three Saturdays to the project and said she’s “learned a lot about how the old kind of windows work. I wish there were more things going on like that.”

Certainly there’s no lack of historic buildings along Fifth and Forbes that could use such TLC. And while more and more of them have empty storefronts, some snail-pace progress is being made on the Plan C front, as about eight members of the committee — including representatives of the mayor’s office and its former chief opponent, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation — make plans to meet with potential developers in Philadelphia next month. (They’ll also be interviewing other local and out-of-town developers, of course.) Committee members — some of them volunteers — are paying their own ways.

Resurrecting Fifth and Forbes, like reviving the City Deli building, is proving to be slow, but democratic, work.

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

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