Clubby style: Century-old Pitt Building spruced up
April 14, 2017 12:00 AM
A view of the restored Pitt Building at the intersection of Smithfield Street and the Boulevard of the Allies.
By Marylynne Pitz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
At Teddy Roosevelt’s presidential inauguration, members of the Americus Club of Pittsburgh marched in the big parade on March 4, 1905, in Washington, D.C.
Thirteen years later, these cigar-smoking, card-carrying Republicans opened a first-class headquarters in the Pitt Building on Downtown’s Smithfield Street. The top two floors were laid out by Edward B. Lee, an important early Pittsburgh architect who also designed the Chamber of Commerce Building, the Harvard-Yale-Princeton Club and the Edgewood Club.
Inside the three-story, red-brick building, club members could drink and dine, rent a room, relax in the library, shoot pool or sweat their way to fitness in a third-floor gym.
Since last spring, the Georgian Federal-style building has undergone a major renovation. Three retail storefronts along Smithfield are available in the range of $30 per square foot. The first has 1,273 square feet, the second 2,190 square feet and the third 2,594 square feet. A connected, two-story building that faces Third Avenue has 7,000 square feet available for office (mid- $20s per square foot) retail or a restaurant (low $20s per square foot). Information: firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-361-1005.
Michael Blum, a developer from Miami, is part of Hippeus Capital, a Florida company that bought the Pitt Building and two structures connected to it for $2.9 million in January 2016. The purchase included the Traveler’s Aid building at 343 Blvd. of the Allies and a two-story structure at 340 Third Ave.
“The building had been neglected for a very long time,” Mr. Blum said. “The second floor was partially demolished and it looked like somebody had started work and forgot about it or left it. It was a complete mess.”
The Third Avenue building was previously used as an artist’s studio and nightclub, said Mr. Blum, who moved from Miami to The Residences at the Historic Alcoa Building, Downtown. He has spent the last year-and-a-half overseeing the project.
“This is my first historic renovation. We actually broke the project up into two phases. We cleaned out the building to really understand what we were working with.”
Before the renovation started, workers removed a cough-inducing century’s worth of Pittsburgh dirt. Now exterior wooden trim and arched windows sparkle in tan paint called Shiitake by Sherwin-Williams. Two large coach lanterns that frame the lobby entrance have been restored and repainted. The lobby is trimmed in wooden battens, thin strips of variegated cherry paneling.
The building has new bathrooms and mechanical, plumbing, heating and ventilation systems. On the third floor is the former gym.
“We demolished the layers of dropped acoustic ceiling tile to expose this amazing ceiling,” Mr. Blum said.
Now you can see the superb craftsmanship, which includes Douglas fir trusses on the gym’s vaulted 28-foot ceiling. Two nearly 12- by- 15-foot skylights on the third floor afford views of the Times Building’s rusticated stone cap and the silvery twin towers of One Oxford Centre, a building from the boom-boom 1980s.
Downtown streets were closed on March 18 and a crane was brought in so the two skylights could be installed in the original openings cut for them in 1918.
“It took four months to get them drawn, designed, approved and shipped here. And then it took three hours to get them in place,” said Jeff King, an architect with The Design Alliance, the architectural firm on the project.
After old heating and ventilation equipment was removed from the roof, workers installed a new, third skylight framed in beadboard trim. Mr. Blum and Mr. King were pleasantly surprised by the space.
“When we bought the building, we didn’t really know the condition of the third-floor gymnasium space,” Mr. Blum said. “We suspected there were vaulted ceilings. We knew from original blueprints that there were skylights. I knew it had potential. I just didn’t know how breathtaking the space was going to be.”
When the Pitt Building opened in 1918, its first-floor retail businesses included Wormser Hats and a men’s clothing store. Lee’ s design called for a symmetrical structure and that’s how it looked until Second Avenue was widened during the 1920s. That’s when city workers “cut three bays of the building off,” Mr. King said.
During the past decade, one of the Smithfield Street storefronts housed a pizza shop. Now, that storefront, which has 2,600 square feet, is vacant and has enough room for a commercial kitchen. An original tin ceiling could be cleaned and repainted with fireproof paint. Mr. Blum thinks it would be a good spot for a coffee shop or restaurant.
As work progressed, Mr. King said, the goal was to “let the space shine through.” That’s why architectural details on the second floor have been kept, including dentil and egg-and-dart molding and eight white Doric columns.
The second floor, which has 12,000 square feet, has the creamy Doric columns and a 14-foot-high ceiling, which give it a formal air. New, double-hung, energy efficient windows overlook Third Avenue, Smithfield Street and the Boulevard of the Allies. Originally, this space held a dining room with a stage, a kitchen, a dining room and a billiard room.
The Pitt Building’s historic wood trim, once covered in peeling paint, has a fresh coat of tan paint.
“We installed a new storefront on the Boulevard of the Allies,” Mr. Blum said. “There was just formerly a brick wall at Boulevard of the Allies and Smithfield. We created a new retail bay where one didn’t exist.”
To link the ground level with the rest of the building, Mr. Blum said, “we extended the cornice that wraps around the front part of Smithfield Street. We rebuilt it all the way across to the Boulevard of the Allies. We repaired the detailing of the columns and the medallions above the windows.”
Marylynne Pitz: email@example.com, 412-263-1648 or on Twitter: @mpitzpg
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.