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Project gives students a fresh look at Main Streets: Learning from landmarks

By Patricia Lowry,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Thursday, April 07, 2005

Since its founding in 1964, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation has been quietly growing the next generation of preservationists.

Working with teachers, Landmarks staffers are leading children out of their schools and into their neighborhoods, where they are learning to look up, up, up — to the bull on the South Side Market House, to the Moderne eagle on the Mt. Lebanon Municipal Building and to dozens of other details on Main Street buildings they have passed by for years and never noticed.

Since Landmarks expanded its education programs in 1994, the foundation has reached 5,000 children in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties, including about 500 students at four South Side elementary schools now participating in the “Spotlight on Main Street” project focusing on East Carson Street. It’s funded by a $10,000 “Save Our History” grant from the History Channel, which comes to town today to honor their work with the presentation of plaques for each school.

The project began in December, when fifth-grade students from Phillips Elementary School visited Douglas Cooper’s panoramic Pittsburgh mural at Carnegie Mellon University’s University Center and learned about his technique, which includes the use of oral histories to develop the mural’s content. Working with Louise Sturgess, Landmarks’ executive director, and Kelly Docter of CMU’s School of Architecture, they learned how poetry could be used to describe buildings, and they wrote poems and made drawings inspired by Cooper’s mural and based on photographs of South Side buildings.

Students also toured East Carson Street and explored several of its buildings, later interpreting them in poems, paintings and drawings, as well as collages in the style of Romare Bearden. They recorded interviews with elderly residents and learned how life on the South Side has changed.

Along the way, they’re strengthening their academic and creative skills and developing a sense of pride in their neighborhood. And that “fosters a better working environment within the school itself,” Sturgess says.

“They begin to see there’s a world outside themselves and being part of a community is an important part of being a citizen,” said Phillips principal Barbara Rudiak. “We support the work the community does, and the community supports us.”

The six-month project also involves students at Arlington Elementary/Middle, Bishop Leonard Catholic and Philip Murray Elementary schools. On April 30, the students will join to host a community event at the South Side Market House, with an East Carson Street scavenger hunt open to the public; it begins at Carnegie Library’s South Side branch and focuses on building details and history. The family radio program “Saturday Light Brigade” will broadcast on WRCT (88.3 FM) from the market house beginning at 6 a.m., with students reading their poems intermittently between 8 and 10:30 a.m.

The South Side Local Development Co., which hopes to illuminate some of the facades of historic East Carson Street buildings, also is partner in the grant, which will fund the lighting of the Bridge Cafe and the Maul Building. Landmarks is helping, too, with a $2,500 grant.

The end products also include an interactive Web site of information for and by students, www.spotlightonmainstreet. com, which will eventually include photographs and student-researched histories of East Carson Street buildings; student poems, artwork and audio interviews; interactive activities and games and other resources.

There were 699 grant applications in this first year of the History Channel’s community preservation grant program; Landmarks was one of only 29 organizations to receive them.

“We were thrilled by the response,” said Dan Davids, president of The History Channel. “The grants not only enable communities to maintain the fabric of their local history, but the collaboration between the schools and the historic organizations brings communities together and the interaction between generations will hopefully inspire young people to continue their historic preservation efforts.”

While Landmarks had been doing field trips and in-school projects with the four schools before the grant, it allowed Sturgess to link programs with a single theme focusing on East Carson Street and with bricks and mortar projects, such as the facade illuminations. One of the goals is to show children the value of the historic main street as it faces increased competition from the new SouthSide Works development and from shopping malls.

Children who have grown up shopping at indoor malls describe Carson Street as “an outdoor mall,” Sturgess says, and find discovering the street’s design details lots of fun.

Landmarks’ commitment to education dates to its earliest days; its first newsletter in 1966 reported that with the help of the Junior League, a slide lecture program, based on buildings discovered during Landmarks’ survey of Allegheny County, was being offered to all fifth-grade classes in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Today, Sturgess spends 90 percent of her time on education, which includes newsletters, publications and programs for all ages.

“We work with pre-schoolers all the way up through graduate students,” she said. “For instance, we can show pre-schoolers three different views of Pittsburgh — in 1817, 1939 and 1994 — and ask them ‘What’s the same? What’s different? What shapes do you see?’ ”

For high school students, Landmarks offers scholarships to students who write convincing essays about the importance of historic preservation. Sturgess now is working with a University of Pittsburgh graduate student who is doing volunteer research on the history of Miller School for a booklet of student art and essays Landmarks will publish honoring the school’s centennial this year.

In December, Landmarks received a three-year, $60,000 grant from the Grable Foundation. It will fund several projects, including a Web site of Pittsburgh’s historic art and art-in-architecture, such as murals and stained-glass windows.

Another focus will be a program for children affected by school closings, to help them understand their new school’s neighborhood and buildings.

For school groups visiting the Children’s Museum, the grant also will support an architectural scavenger hunt within the museum, seeking out the history, details and green features of its three buildings erected in different centuries.

With two national history conferences coming to Pittsburgh (the American Association for State and Local History in September and the National Trust for Historic Preservation in fall 2006), the “Spotlight on Main Street” and Grable grant projects give Landmarks a chance to shine a spotlight on its fine work in education. Its programs could — and should — become national models.

(Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.)

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

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