Developer has plans to bring back Union Trust Building's grandeur



The Union Trust Building, Downtown, is getting ready for a comeback.

Brass is being polished, the ceramic tile is being restored and the new owner, The Davis Companies, has plans to bring back the grandeur of the iconic Grant Street building built nearly a century ago by industrialist Henry Clay Frick, while adding 21st century upgrades.

“The way we look at this is that we’re launching this building into its second century,” said Jonathan Davis, CEO and founder.

While the Boston-based real estate investment and development firm toyed with the idea of converting the building to residential or hotel space, it ultimately decided to keep the structure as an office complex, with a healthy dose of retail, Mr. Davis said Wednesday.

“The geometry of the building does not lay out well for multifamily or a hotel,” he noted.

PG graphic: Union Trust building
(Click image for larger version)

That being said, The Davis Companies, which bought the ornate 11-story building for $14 million at a sheriff sale in March, plans to spend “north of $25 million” to renovate the office space, 60 percent of which is vacant, and to make sure all other aspects of the property are in prime condition.

It already has hired a masonry consultant to determine how to remove stains from the building’s exterior and to restore the original color.

“Ultimately, whatever needs to be touched is going to be touched,” said Mr. Davis, who grew up in Squirrel Hill and attended Taylor Allderdice High School. “I can’t tell you the full scope of that. All I can tell you is our plan is to bring this wonderful building up to class A standards.”

The Davis Companies has hired Elkus Manfredi, a noted Boston architectural firm, to lead the restoration. It will be assisted by Perfido Weiskopf Wagstaff + Goettel Architects, Downtown.

Mr. Davis said his company plans to rehabilitate the vacant office space in the building, which opened in 1917, to bring it up to modern standards, perhaps adding lofts on some floors.

“We’re taking our cues from buildings of the same era in places like New York and Chicago that have paid homage to the past but created younger, more energized spaces,” he said.

While the building is more than half vacant, with Siemens as the primary tenant, Mr. Davis said experts have told him the improvements could make a big difference. “The building is so architecturally important that, despite the fact it’s 100 years old, there’s a strong belief among brokers that if we do a high quality job, it will command class A rents,” he said.

One target, he added, will be the fast-growing, tech-based companies that have been popping up in Pittsburgh. “We hope to do something new, interesting and intriguing that will attract some of those companies Downtown,” he said.

The Davis Companies also has hopes of restoring the building’s retail space, which, like the offices, is mostly vacant. Mr. Davis said the firm sees the potential for one or more restaurants at street level. Many of the retail spaces face both the street and the interior lobby. That could create opportunities for seating in the lobby, he said.

It also is looking into the idea of adding retail kiosks in the lobby.

Overall, one of the goals is to add elements to the building that will both enliven and complement the historic elements that are so critical to the structure’s identity.

Helping with the leasing of the office space will be Jason Stewart, executive vice president of the Jones Lang LaSalle real estate firm. Assisting with the retail will be Herky Pollock, executive vice president of CBRE.

Mr. Davis said he hopes to get started on the improvements in the third quarter.

In securing the building, The Davis Companies outbid SA Challenger, an affiliate of U.S. Bank, which won a $41.4 million judgment against the former owner, 501 Grant Street Partners, in 2012, triggering the foreclosure.

SA Challenger got the right to proceed with the sheriff sale in December when a U.S. bankruptcy judge in Los Angeles dismissed a 501 Grant Street Partners bankruptcy filing and lifted a stay that had prevented the foreclosure from going forward.

A Flemish Gothic structure designed by famed architect Frederick J. Osterling, the Union Trust Building opened as a four-story shopping arcade with 240 shops on lower levels and 700 offices above. Its defining feature is a central rotunda with a stained-glass dome.

Mr. Davis said his company has no plans to alter the historic characteristics in its bid to modernize parts of the building.

“You can’t walk into the building without realizing what an important historic building it is,” he said.


Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.

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