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Some old schools are seeking new purpose

By Maggi Newhouse
Monday, February 23, 2004

South Hills High School is a cold, hollow place.

The plaster is peeling, the hardwood floors are buckling and rain water streams in through the porous roof.

The massive building in Mt. Washington, which opened in 1916, once drew so many students from Pittsburgh’s southern communities that graduation programs had to be split over two days. It is one of more than a half-dozen district-owned schools that closed during the past 20 years due to declining enrollment.

School officials now face the daunting challenge of trying to persuade community groups and developers to restore and reuse these deteriorating buildings.

After two decades of futility, the district last month transferred the rights to South Hills High to the Urban Redevelopment Authority, hoping that city agency will have better luck.
There have been success stories.

The old Latimer junior/senior high school on the North Side, which closed in 1982, was sold to a developer who converted the classrooms into the School House apartments and preserved many of the original features of the 106-year-old building, including the stairways and classroom numbers, said building manager Sarah Beck.

The Carriage House Children’s Center purchased Wightman Elementary School in 1986, six years after it closed. It now uses the basement and first floor of the Squirrel Hill facility for its preschool and full-day programs and leases the second floor to nonprofits.

Carriage House Executive Director Natalie Kaplan said the center has spent about $1.5 million to renovate and bring the building up to code, but also saved many distinctive features, including a third-floor gymnasium and several stained glass windows.

“It’s very exciting,” Kaplan said. “People come from out of town all the time and say ‘I went to school here. Can I walk around?'”

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Executive Director Louise Sturgess said that many city schools were built with quality materials, in prominent locations, to demonstrate the value of education to the community.

“The buildings were built to be permanent, to be symbols to the community that education is important,” she said.

That’s exactly what the Rev. Tim Smith sees every day from his office at Keystone Church of Hazelwood.

Next door, on a hillside overlooking Hazelwood, stands Gladstone Middle School.

Smith remembers its hallways being filled with people after the school day had ended. They came for computer and adult literacy classes, YMCA programs and athletic events.

When the district closed the 90-year-old school in 2001, many of the community programs went with it, Smith said.

“It was a place to go for a lot of kids who didn’t have anywhere to go,” he said. “It was pretty devastating, in my opinion.”

Smith heads the Gladstone Task Force, a group created by the Hazelwood Initiative. They have petitioned the school district to help pay for a $60,000 study looking at options for Gladstone.

There’s even hope for South Hills High School.

Jim DeGilio, a member of the Mt. Washington Community Development Corp., said a number of developers are moving forward with plans to buy the building and make it into a combination residential and commercial site.

DeGilio said it would cost about $20 million to repair and convert the 3.4-acre property.

While officials say they try to work with community groups interested in the properties, it often takes years for projects to move forward.

The poor condition of South Hills High, which closed in 1985, prompted school board members last month to ask the staff for recommendations.

“It’s unlikely we’d have something as drastic happen in most of these other buildings, but we would still want to move more expeditiously (on those schools) than we did on South Hills,” said district Chief Operations Officer Richard Fellers.

Fellers said his staff plans to have recommendations on other properties by late spring or early summer.

Fellers said a staff member is assigned to each school to make sure the building and surrounding grounds are maintained. Each school also is on the district’s security system.

“We do continue to look after them,” he said, noting the district still has to pay for utilities and general supplies to maintain the buildings.

School board member Randall Taylor said he would like to see something happen as soon as possible with the former Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts building in Homewood.

The 96-year-old building, a former elementary school, closed last year when the district opened the new CAPA school Downtown.

Taylor said he has been talking with community groups and other people about trying to develop a community center geared toward families, but that could take years.

His fear is that people will vandalize and tamper with the building now that it is empty.

“The schools are protected when the kids are there,” he said. “Now that they’re gone, all bets are off.”

Maggi Newhouse can be reached at or (412) 320-7997.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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