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Wilkinsburg restoration crosses threshold

By Christina Praskovich
Wednesday, November 7, 2007

After two years of searching, Jack Schmitt and his wife were about to give up looking for a house to buy when they stumbled upon a turn-of-the-century, stick-style house being restored by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.
It’s one of several homes the group wants to bring back to life in Wilkinsburg.

“It had a ton of character,” said Schmitt, 38. “We liked it as soon as we walked in. We held out for two years, and it was to our benefit.”

The house is one of several buildings being restored in Wilkinsburg. During the past few years, Wilkinsburg has taken steps to restore its historic homes and once-booming business district, something under way in other communities around Pittsburgh, as well.

“Every community is unique, and part of what creates that uniqueness is how the community looks,” said Bill Callahan, the Western Pennsylvania community preservation coordinator for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. “Historic preservation helps to maintain a sense of place.”

Although renovating historic homes and buildings, instead of tearing them down, is not new, Callahan said preservation has accelerated within the past 5 to 10 years. More people are seeing the social and environmental value of “recycling” older buildings and are appreciating the architecture and significance of these structures, he said.

In Wilkinsburg, Mayor John Thompson said, “We want to rebuild the community. We want to attract people to come and stay in the community. That’s the purpose of doing the revitalization, as well as building a revenue base. There’s room for us to come back.”

Wilkinsburg once had more than 31,000 residents and a thriving business district. But since the 1960s, many buildings have become vacant, homes have been neglected and crime has increased.

Although a 2004 inventory found that 38 percent of Wilkinsburg’s buildings were vacant, nearly half were historically significant and two-thirds of those historic buildings could be restored.

Tom Keffer, property and construction manager at the History & Landmarks Foundation, said the foundation found particularly strong potential for restoration in the Hamnett Place district, at Jeanette and Holland avenues.

After receiving two grants of $500,000 each from the Allegheny County Department of Economic Development and the Sarah Scaife Foundation, History & Landmarks hired Eagle Construction & Remediation to restore the houses.

At 524 Jeanette St. — a three-story, late-Victorian/Queen Anne house with a classic turret, arched windows and mansard roof — the company restored architectural features while rebuilding and updating the interior.

The Schmitts’ house at 811 Holland Ave. includes original wooden pocket doors, clapboard siding and intricate woodwork on the front porch.

“You couldn’t replicate these houses today,” said Dwight Quarles Sr., president of Eagle Construction. “They’re very excellent structures. There’s a warm personality to them, and a lot of solid woodwork.”

Keffer, 52, of Brighton Heights said he hopes the work done on the homes, priced between $75,000 and $95,000, will encourage others to maintain properties.

“It opens the community’s eye to what can be done,” Keffer said.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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