Station Square: PHLF Greatest Saves
PHLF turned 50 on September 30, 2014. Intern Lauren Van Zandt, a Public History graduate student at Duquesne University, is sharing the stories of some of PHLF’s “Greatest Saves.” Help us celebrate 50 years of Pittsburgh renewal with a donation to our 50th Anniversary Fund. Click here.
I first heard about Station Square when one of my public history classmates who was interning in the PHLF archives at the time, told me a story about the iconic half-circle stained glass windows in the main dining area of what is now the Grand Concourse restaurant. My friend told me about how, during PHLF’s restoration work in the 1970s, workmen used 400 cans of oven cleaner to reveal the original beauty of the glass that had been buried under years of soot and grime. The great glass skylight was uncovered like buried treasure.
It’s fitting that my introduction to PHLF was through one of its most groundbreaking projects. Station Square was Pittsburgh’s introduction to a new, more proactive and profit-generating approach to historic preservation in the city. It was PHLF’s first chance to put theory into action on a large scale.
Station Square’s dual success as a preservation initiative and commercial venture is especially impressive given that no one else was developing riverfront property when the project was initiated. (Times have changed, as one can see from South Side Works, the North Shore, and The Waterfront in Homestead.)
PHLF’s work at Station Square actually extends across the Smithfield Street Bridge; PHLF got the Smithfield Street Bridge lit at night, a first for Pittsburgh.
As prime developer of Station Square from 1976 to 1994, PHLF worked with others to restore and bring commercial tenants to five historic P & LERR buildings: the Terminal Building (which houses PHLF’s offices), the Express House (currently home to Buca di Beppo restaurant), the Gatehouse, the Freight House, and a multi-story warehouse that is now Commerce Court. In addition to saving old buildings, PHLF used new construction to attract visitors. PHLF facilitated the construction of a hotel, parking garage, and docks for the Gateway Clipper. By the time PHLF sold the 52-acre site to Forest City, a Cleveland-based developer in 1994, Station Square was one of the most visited attractions in Pittsburgh.
Though no longer under PHLF’s direct control, historic character permeates the development. PHLF created the beginnings of a Riverwalk of Industrial Artifacts, and the converter-dominated Bessemer Court anchors many of Station Square’s outdoor activities. The Ladies of Stone, sisters to the Ladies at the Children’s Museum on the North Side, greet visitors at entrances. Train cars in the Freight House and waiting room benches in the Grand Concourse harken back to the site’s original use. Beyond historical interest, these objects remind visitors of the city’s foundation that Pittsburgh’s modern rebirth has built upon.
Station Square demonstrates the potential for old and new to successfully integrate in a way that makes sense aesthetically and functionally— something that, in my own experience, has been unique to Pittsburgh. In many of the places I’ve lived, the fate of historic buildings seems to be limited to two options: preservation in amber or demolition. Living in Pittsburgh and interning at PHLF has been an education in the viability of historic preservation as a method for creating vibrant, beautiful urban environments.
As an intern, I got to explore Station Square and the P & LERR building but it was especially interesting when I helped out with one of the transportation tours for local elementary students. At the beginning of the tour I was totally focused on herding stragglers and the kids were engrossed with taking pictures with their phones. However, as we traveled through Station Square and up to Mt. Washington, both I and the students were inexorably drawn into the history and the scenery. From Station Square you could see the history of downtown written in the levels of scale and development across the Monongahela River, with smaller buildings nearest to the river transitioning to early skyscrapers along Fourth Avenue, to the huge modern towers of PPG Place and BNY Mellon Center.
As I reflected on my time, both as an intern and as a Pittsburgh resident while writing this article, it really struck me how representative Station Square is of the city. On the one hand, you have Pittsburgh’s industrial past, represented by artifacts like the Bessemer converter and the railroad buildings. On the other hand, you can see Pittsburgh’s future: commercial development and revival, a growing tourism sector, and views of Pittsburgh’s constantly evolving downtown skyline. I think Pittsburgh’s greatest strength is its ability to value and preserve its past while adapting to modernity and embracing new ideas like green technology. Interning at PHLF has really shown me how diverse, rich, and unique Pittsburgh is and I will always be grateful for the chance I had to get to know this amazing city.