For architects, Pittsburgh poses unique challenges

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In the midst of Pittsburgh's latest development boom, a score of architects has found a niche reclaiming the nooks and crannies of neighborhoods, making redesign of old structures and filling gaps between them a revitalization buzz of their own.

Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette
Karen Loysen and Peter Kreuthmeier, partners in Loysen + Kreuthmeier architects, a firm that specializes in re-use redesigns, stand next to a large window opening onto a courtyard in their office in an old building they redid in Garfield, saving it from demolition.
Click photo for larger image.

Every architect takes on the occasional mess. These architects, working mainly with small developers and nonprofits on gritty, quirky, stubborn, skinny and sometimes nightmarish projects, thrive on it.

"We often say our motto is '20 feet wide, 100 feet deep, horrible conditions and no money,' " said Karen Loysen of Loysen + Kreuthmeier.

Firms get paid roughly 10 percent of construction cost, but these most troubling projects usually come with voracious mechanical, electrical and plumbing budgets. That means they have little of the client's money left to create a good design.

"Creativity is even more critical when there are no dollars to spare," said Eve Picker, the pioneer developer of Downtown lofts in "sliver" buildings. They include Firstside, a former paper warehouse at 429 First Ave., the Bruno Building at 945 Liberty Ave. and an in-fill sliver in the 20-foot-wide lot beside it. She has hired Edge Studio for all of her projects over 10 years. Of the polished concrete floors in the Firstside project they did together, she said, "we couldn't afford to cover them with anything."

The Carnegie Library is also doing lean projects that don't look lean. The Brookline branch was a complete and dramatic makeover, a doubling of library space and infusion of daylight for just over $1 million.

The yellow brick rectangle, between a bakery and barber shop, had a leaky roof and a "pretty creepy" basement that had to be reinvented, said Ms. Loysen. By pulling the floor and roof plates back from one side and adding a continuous skylight, the sun shines even in the basement.

The library system has favored Loysen + Kreuthmeier, Edge Studio and Pfaffmann + Associates for its recent projects because of their designs, their generosity with neighborhood groups, their vision and their interest in the common good.

"It's a significant responsibility to integrate the needs of the community," said Barbara Mistick, director of the Carnegie Library, which is planning new construction in the Hill and the North Side. "It's a far more complex process dealing with a neighborhood that is frustrated from disappointment."

North Side mavens of the neighborhood's historical districts rejected the design Ms. Loysen and Sallyann Kluz presented at a recent meeting because it was contemporary -- a tall, one-story building of textured stone and huge windows.

The lot, a former gas station on Federal Street, was chosen for its centrality to library users and in expectation of other development, but it's a tough spot. The building will have to be stuffed into 14,000-square-foot lot on a slope, with few clues to follow. The rest of the street suggests only muddle as context.

"It's a challenge to figure out what building would present the civic image in the midst of all that," said Ms. Loysen. "We haven't quite solved it yet."

The architects will return to the neighborhood with a new presentation this fall.

Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., has worked with Ms. Loysen and Dutch MacDonald of Edge Studio on buildings that, in other hands, might have been demolished, he said.

"These folks are vital to pushing the agenda for neighborhoods," said Mr. Swartz, whose offices are in the same four-block area as the offices of Loysen + Kreuthmeier and Edge.

In 2000, Ms. Loysen decided to take on a dilapidated building on Penn Avenue that the BGC owned. It had no windows, water was running through the basement, parts of it were crumbling, it had no roof membrane and there was other interior damage.

VWH Campbell, Post-Gazette
Dutch MacDonald, of Edge Studio, stands behind a model at the firm's Garfield offices.
Click photo for larger image.Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette
The courtyard of the Loysen + Kreuthmeier offices.
Click photo for larger image.

"We decided to put our money where our mouth is," said Ms. Loysen. "We all have similar ideas about reusing, and we walk to work, so it was like helping rebuild our neighborhood."

Five years later, the brightly lit, 20-by-100-foot studio with 13-foot ceilings and an interior courtyard shares a building with two loft apartments.

"Saving something is compelling," said Mr. Kreuthmeier. "It's like a cool found object that makes you think, 'What could you do to make it cooler?' "

Four blocks east, Edge Studio revamped and occupied a 1920s era commercial garage four years ago.

Mr. MacDonald said his firm is committed to the challenge of reclaiming and "working with the ghosts of an old building." He and his firm have worked with numerous nonprofits in the area, including revamping a building for use by some of its neighbors, including Dance Alloy and the Friendship Development Associates.

The firm could afford to buy where it did because investment so close to Graham Street was risky. A nuisance bar, now closed, held down the corner. Drug dealers and their customers still roam the area, but the violence associated with the bar has abated.

Changes in demographics and values have come to the rescue of cities in the last decade, said David Dixon, a principal at Goody Clancy in Boston and a spokesman for the American Institute of Architects. "Demand is growing even in cities that are shrinking." He cited the call for a new neighborhood in New Orleans, which lost half its population after Hurricane Katrina.

"Your little band of architects is doing the kind of work that has never been done to this extent. In fact, we haven't seen this demand for cities since the Depression, and now we are wealthier, so the impact is amplified."

Pat Ford, Pittsburgh's economic and development director, said he is arguing for the need to preserve building stock and small places for small businesses that can't afford more than 400 to 600 square feet, precisely to cater to the people on shoestring budgets who are valuable to a city.

"The city should be a steward in trying to retain these spaces and adapt them for future uses -- for the shoe repair guy, the dry cleaner, the florist," he said.

One of the most challenging jobs is to fill a narrow gap between buildings.

Daniel Rothschild, president of Rothschild Doyno Architects of Regent Square, took a commission from Hillel to build the Jewish University Center on Forbes Avenue, which was completed in 2001. It was his firm's "quintessential shoehorn job," he said -- a 40-foot-wide lot surrounded by three buildings with basements.

The sleek three-story result sits between a Starbucks on the corner, and a Chinese restaurant. It abuts Union Grill in the back.

"We had no ability to store materials and had to take out one lane of traffic," he said. "We had our sign up, so I got phone calls from people in their cars berating me."

Andrew Moss of Moss Architects has something old and something new in the works in East Liberty. With Rob Pfaffmann, he is designing prototypes for East Liberty Development Inc. to build in-fill houses. He also has a 90-year-old ghost to resurrect at Whitfield Street on Penn. It's a two-story rectangle that used to house a showroom for cars.

"It's fun to do something new," he said, "but it's more interesting to recreate an existing building, to be part of the evolution of an old building.

"One reason I came back from Denver was the architectural heritage and building stock here," he said. "Pittsburgh is rich with it, and there's more money going into it now than in the last 50 years."


Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.


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