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Residents hope historic ‘label’ will save school

Pittsburgh Post GazetteThursday, September 27, 2007
By Judy Laurinatis,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When the old Turtle Creek High School was placed on the National Register of Historic Places late last month, the people who love the building that now is East Junior High cheered.

Now they hope the historic designation will help convince the Woodland Hills School Board that the building should be protected and, if not used by the school district, at least sold to someone who will appreciate it.

Razing the building is one of several options before a board coping with declining population and deteriorating buildings. East Junior High has just 272 pupils in a building that has the capacity of 617. The building once held 2,000 pupils.

On Wednesday, the board will hear what an ad hoc committee appointed by the school board believes should be done with the building constructed in 1917 and occupied as Union High School in 1918. The board is expected to vote on the recommendation at its Oct. 10 meeting. Meetings begin at 7:30 p.m. and are held in the administration building on Greensburg Pike.

Among the options the committee will propose, panel members said, are selling the building to a college or university to be used as a satellite campus; turning it into a performing arts high school for the Eastern suburbs; or selling it to another entity sometime in the future.

A school reorganization plan involving closing East Junior High and moving those students to West Junior High was presented to the school board in August by HHSDR/Architects and Engineers of Pittsburgh.

The architects deemed East in poor condition overall with a number of specific problems cited. They included deterioration on the exterior terra cotta embellishments and concrete beams and a brick facade in need of repointing. The basement has water damage, swimming pool pumps are in bad shape and the stage needs to be upgraded.

Still, Turtle Creek Councilwoman Jill Henkel said, “It identifies the town.” She graduated from the school and lived through a big renovation of the building in 1977 when she was a student.

But in 2005, the school board looked at some options for the building, including tearing it down. That consideration rallied townspeople who came out by the hundreds in support of keeping it.

The loss of the building would be a blow to the town, Ms. Henkel said this week. Its history is tied to the history of the Turtle Creek and at least one of Turtle Creek’s “firsts.”

For instance, the high school was the site of the state’s first school district merger, she said.

The class of 1919 was the first graduating class from the school and had students from Wilmerding, East Pittsburgh and Turtle Creek attending. The mixed student body is why it was named Union not just Turtle Creek High School, she explained. The high school name reverted back to Turtle Creek when Wilmerding students began attending their own high school in 1940.

But that isn’t all, said Ms. Henkel and Bob Mock, another resident and save-the-school supporter.

Turtle Creek, a town of 6,000 people, doesn’t have an actual public park. The green space Turtle Creek does have is the campus of the old school, and it’s a most popular spot for residents on sunny weekend afternoons, Mr. Mock said.

The auditorium is also a centerpiece for the school and for the borough.

“Tony Bennett performed there in the 1940s,” Mr. Mock said.

Ron Yochum, Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation chief information officer, said the National Register designation is an honor but restricts owners only in certain ways. For instance, if federal funds are to be used to rehabilitate the building, certain guidelines issued by a board of review must be followed. Otherwise, the owner is still in control.

“They could do a tear down or sell it,” Mr. Yochum said. Mostly though, owners will find that “very valuable tax credits” for renovation work will accompany historic designation status, and a building’s value may actually increase.

First published on September 27, 2007 at 6:27 am
Judy Laurinatis can be reached at or 412-263-1228.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633