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Red tape slows plan to level crumbling structure in Harrison

Wednesday, October 10, 2001

By Susan Jacobs, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

At the turn of the 20th century, the Old Natrona Store in Harrison was at the heart of a bustling business district. Today, the same neighborhood is mostly residential, bordering the Allegheny Ludlum Corp. steel plant. The crumbling brick building stands silent and hollow, abandoned years ago by local merchants.

Harrison officials want to tear it down and earlier this year secured federal funding to pay for demolition. But since March, they have been waiting for the consent of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to do so.

“The building has to come down,” said Mike Stanoski, a Harrison commissioner who represents Natrona Heights. “It should have come down two years ago. One more winter, and I think this thing is going to fall down.”

Parts of the three-story brick building are still solid, but the roof has collapsed, along with the two floors beneath it. Bricks near the top of the building are loose, and parts of the building have shifted and settled.

The store, built by the Pennsylvania Salt Manufacturing Co., is part of the Pennsalt Historic District, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Allegheny County is required by federal law to consult the state commission before allowing any municipality to proceed with demolitions in historic districts.

In cases where demolition seems inevitable, the commission usually requires that the town photograph the building, record its history and take other steps to preserve the memory of the structure, such as erecting a sign to mark the spot where the building stood.

The commission seems willing to make that concession and may do so this week, but until approval is received, the building will continue to threaten to collapse from its perch on Federal and Vine streets.

“It’s always our position that if a building is physically preserved it should be saved,” said Dan Deibler, chief of preservation services for the commission. A few weeks ago, he visited Harrison to see the building himself.

“The building is not in good condition,” he said. But Deibler said he’s seen buildings in worse condition that have been restored. The decision to preserve a building is as much a product of the will of the community, and the availability of money for restoration, as the physical condition of the structure.

“It depends on the circumstances of the interested community,” said Deibler. Harrison officials say the township does not have the means to restore the building, which could cost upward of $1 million, and the building is no longer in a commercial district, making it nearly impossible to attract tenants.

“It really is a loss that I think is regrettable,” said Deibler. The store is one of the few remaining structures from the town’s early days as a center for the salt industry. Deibler said it is one of the oldest company towns in the state.

“Once you demolish it, it’s gone,” he said.

But even the Alle-Kiski Historical Society supports demolishing the old store.

“That building’s just too far gone,” said S. Hartley Johnston, president and chief executive officer of the historical society. “It would be horrendously expensive to fix.

“Twenty five, 30 years ago maybe something could have been done with it,” he said. “It’s about ready to fall down.”

The building is owned by Marc Scoratow of Pittsburgh. He operated a kitchen countertop business at the site from the late 1960s to the 1980s. About 11 years ago, he said he sold the building, but bought the building back a few years ago. By then, the building was so deteriorated it was impossible to resell. The town condemned the building six months later, Scoratow said.

In March, Harrison was awarded a federal grant to proceed with the demolition. The Allegheny Valley North Council of Governments is responsible for administering the grant.

“This building can’t be salvaged,” said Tom Benecki, executive director of the council. He estimated that repairs would cost at least $500,000, probably more.

“No one is going to spend that money. Natrona no longer has a vital business district.” He said it usually takes several weeks to get written approval from the state to proceed with a demolition, but Harrison officials have been waiting for nearly five months.

The commission sent a letter to the Allegheny County Economic Development office in July that said demolishing the building would adversely affect the Pennsalt Historic District. The letter instructed the county to find ways of minimizing the impact and to “provide documentation showing that preservation alternatives were considered.”

Those conditions weren’t fulfilled until late September, when state Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, organized a public tour of the site. She has been lobbying the state to consent to the demolition.

Representatives of Harrison, Allegheny County and the state commission attended the meeting. The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, which had previously advocated preserving the site, was also represented, among other agencies.

“Everybody’s pretty much in agreement that it’s a safety hazard,” said Orie.

Timing is crucial because the demolition grant expires at the end of February and cannot be extended. In order to be covered by the grant, all of the demolition work must be completed by the end of February.

In addition to losing the grant, there is some concern that Harrison will lose a low bid on the demolition.

Crivelli Services of McKees Rocks said it would perform the demolition for about $44,000, compared to other bids that ranged as high as $124,000.

“We probably won’t get that price again,” said David Chavara, a representative of NIRA Consulting Engineers, the township consultant.

He said it’s hard to tell how much longer the building can stand without restoration. It might last a few more years, but he warned that a heavy snow or strong winds this winter could topple the building.

“There could be a catastrophic failure,” he said. “It is in imminent danger to the surrounding community. The clock is ticking.”

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

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