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School closings can be historic treasure trove

By Ruth Ann Dailey
Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Monday, March 29, 2004

Buy low, sell high. That’s the rule of thumb if you want to make a profit. But when the commodity you’re selling belongs to the taxpayers — who may not want you to sell in the first place — you’re undertaking a dicey enterprise.

That’s the situation the Pittsburgh school district finds itself in. District leaders have proposed — again — to close some of the half-empty schools draining the public till.

The financial logic of their choice is irrefutable. The district pays to operate space that isn’t used — and won’t be, unless patterns of the last four decades suddenly reverse themselves and suburbanites pour into the city. With nearly a third more classroom space than is needed, which buildings should the district close?

Parents are pleading to preserve schools in their own neighborhoods, and officials have promised to move judiciously. But there are other factors besides public outcry to consider in deciding which buildings to ax — real estate values, history and architectural significance, to name a few.

But officials know that; they’ve done this thing before.

Among the huge list of school district real estate sales — available at the Recorder of Deeds office — is the listing for the North Side’s old Latimer School. The district sold this building to a development group in 1983 for $231,000. Now known as The School House, the imposing 40-unit apartment building has been resold twice since then — most recently in 1999 for a little less than its assessed value of $3.5 million.

From $231,000 to $3.5 million is a heck of a climb — even when you factor in renovation costs. In 1986, just a few years after it was sold, the Latimer School was added to the National Register of Historic Places — part of a formidable undertaking by local preservationists. By late 1987, according to the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, 48 other district schools had been placed on the register — including Schiller Classical Academy (just north of the former Heinz plant) and Beltzhoover Elementary School (southeast of the Liberty Tubes).

Though Schiller was slated for closing in the district’s circa 2000 effort, protests bought it a reprieve. Last fall it was the only North Side middle school to out-perform the state’s “needs improvement” list. Now it turns away eager transfer students. Because of (despite?) its attractive Art Deco auditorium and prime location near both the Penn Brewery and North Catholic High School, Schiller’s not on this year’s closing list.

Beautiful Beltzhoover is. With its commanding presence high above the city, a private-sector transformation is easy to imagine. But the same attributes that appeal to loft dwellers make the building ideal for young children. Its rooms — much more spacious than those in the nearby schools to which many of Beltzhoover’s students have been reassigned — are large enough to hold things like special story corners.

Its halls held the last school carnival when rainy skies pushed it indoors, says Patricia Grandy, librarian since 1973. “We’d hate to see it close.”

Whether the school district targets Beltzhoover for education or for real estate development, there’s gold in them thar halls — and taxpayers who own it.

(Ruth Ann Dailey is a Post-Gazette staff writer and can be reached at

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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