Downtown Pittsburgh 'swagger bank' part of Point Park restoration plans
January 22, 2015 12:00 AM
Point Park University’s new Pittsburgh Playhouse plans to incorporate the former Stock Exchange Building on Fourth Avenue, Downtown.
Elmer B. Burger II, Point Park’s architect and planner, looks around the upper floor of the Stock Exchange Building on Fourth Avenue, Downtown.
Stairs from the basement to the first floor of the Stock Exchange Building, Downtown.
Point Park University is looking to deconstruct the facade of The Royal building on Forbes Avenue and use it in a courtyard as part of the school’s Pittsburgh Playhouse project.
By Mark Belko / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When the Stock Exchange Building on Fourth Avenue, Downtown, was built in 1903, critics called it a “swagger bank” because the brawny neoclassical architecture made a big impression despite its small footprint.
A century later, Point Park University is looking to return some of that swagger with plans to restore the vacant building and integrate it into the school’s Pittsburgh Playhouse project.
It’s easy to see why. Once part of “Pittsburgh’s Wall Street,” the property that got its start as the Industrial Bank retains much of the opulence that characterized turn-of-the-century architecture.
Massive bronze doors guard the entrance at 333 Fourth Ave. Marble floors, railings and wainscoting dress the spacious bank hall. Rich, wood-paneled offices — one with its own second-level balcony — are tucked inside the Fourth Avenue entrance.
Palladian arches line both walls. At the top of the three-story hall, now hidden by a ceiling introduced later in the building’s life, is the piece de resistance — a series of stained glass skylights that will again gain prominence under the university’s plan.
“It’s really quite a little gem here,” said Elmer B. Burger II, Point Park’s architect.
Over the years, the building designed by architect Charles M. Bartberger has served as a bank; as home to the Pittsburgh Stock Exchange from 1962 to 1974; and as a restaurant and basement drinking spot, with a bar crafted from marble hauled from the first floor.
Point Park is looking to give the building a pivotal role in its playhouse production. The first floor will become a prop shop. The university will add a full second floor, with part of it being used for a costume shop and the rest for a 24/7 cafe.
That will change the look of the lobby, reducing it from two stories to one and defeating the effect of the Palladian arches. But Point Park intends to make up for that by removing the ceiling. It will then turn the cafe and costume shop into a dramatic two-story space, with the stained glass adding the exclamation point.
While the college has been criticized by some preservationists for removing three turn-of-the-century Forbes Avenue facades to clear space for the playhouse, Mr. Burger said the intent with the Stock Exchange Building is to preserve “as much as we can but also to make it a living, breathing kind of building.”
“The hope is that as many people as possible can come in and appreciate the splendor of the building, while at the same time they’re appreciating what the university is doing with the [playhouse],” he said.
Under a deal reached with Mayor Bill Peduto, Point Park has agreed to deconstruct the Forbes Avenue facades and feature them in a two-story outdoor plaza and colonnade that will be part of the playhouse complex. One will serve as the entrance to the Stock Exchange Building and the cafe from the plaza’s second level.
University officials tried to find a way to keep the facades on Forbes and incorporate them into the new building but found it impractical, Point Park president Paul Hennigan said.
Not only would the work have added $2 million to the playhouse’s $53 million cost, but the facades — the first-floor portions of which were removed long ago — weren’t strong enough to support what was to be built behind them, Mr. Hennigan said.
After seeing the college’s plans for the Forbes facades Wednesday, Matthew Falcone, president of Preservation Pittsburgh, said they were “definitely a step in the right direction” but stressed that there still may be alternatives that would better preserve them. His main concern is that Point Park is removing the facades from the Forbes streetscape.
While Preservation Pittsburgh has considered seeking a historic designation in an effort to save the structures, the next step is to discuss the situation with the group’s board and “come to a course of action,” Mr. Falcone said.
The city planning commission will be briefed on the playhouse plans next week.
Mr. Hennigan said he was “ecstatic” to be able to incorporate the Stock Exchange Building into the 1.6-acre playhouse complex, which will occupy part of Forbes between Smithfield and Wood streets and extend to adjacent Fourth.
Patrons will be able to access the space through the outdoor terrace and from a corridor inside the playhouse. As part of the restoration, Point Park will clean the building’s stone exterior and bronze doors.
Inside it will remove peeling paint from the walls and add new coats. The paneled offices — “turn-of-the-century power broker” rooms, as Mr. Burger called them — will become offices for prop and costume shops. A small bathroom off the second-story office will convert to a changing room, with the door and its leaden beveled glass staying.
Point Park will keep in place what marble remains, at least three different types, and in some cases replace the marble that has been removed by taking it from other spots, such as the basement bar. It also hopes to get an old elevator with brass doors working again and retain quirky elements such as the cast iron ladder running up one wall.
The reuse has been endorsed by Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. “The idea in general, we thought, was very good for the uses they were proposing, and it integrates the building into the playhouse and brings all that historical character into this new facility,” president Arthur Ziegler Jr. said.
Restoration is only part of the plan, Mr. Burger said. The ultimate goal is to mix “current day activities with the glory and the splendor of this architecture.”
“It could be set apart as a museum and that’s all it would be. But it’s going to have a life — and young kids, too, which is great,” he said.
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