Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation rehabs Wood Street facades

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For years, the three nondescript buildings on Wood Street rarely drew a second glance, let alone a first. Now, after nearly $1 million in renovations, some folks can't believe what they're seeing.

"Some of them were trying to get photographs of what they looked like before because they didn't believe they had walked by these buildings without noticing them," architect Milton Ogot said of a few friends and colleagues and even some passersby.

In some cases, people "kind of assumed we took down the existing facade and replaced it with a new one."

Once the plainest of Janes in a drab stretch of Wood between Fourth and Forbes avenues, the "three sisters" now stand out like diamonds on black velvet, thanks to the work of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

With the help of $829,000 in state redevelopment capital assistance, the foundation spent nearly a year reviving the intricately detailed cast iron facades or creating fiberglass facsimiles as part of the effort to restore the historic character of the buildings at 418, 420 and 422 Wood.

Before the work began, it was easy to see why people ignored the cast iron structures -- or averted their eyes.

Part of one facade had been covered by concrete block and ceramic tile, another by a plain white plaster that blocked out the rich architectural detail. There was rust, peeling paint and broken or deteriorating windows. The street-level storefronts were a hodgepodge of styles and materials.

In sum, the cast iron, which gained prominence as an architectural style in the late 1800s and early 1900s, "had been covered over, lost or allowed to deteriorate," said Arthur Ziegler, PHLF president.

To begin the Eliza Doolittle-like metamorphosis, workers with Repal Construction removed the concrete, plaster and other coverings that had obscured much of the original facades for some time.

One reason the restoration took so long was that fiberglass panels had to be molded to replicate missing or deteriorated pieces of cast iron. In the end, about 35 percent of the combined facades ended up being fiberglass, mostly near street level.

Because the buildings weren't consistent in height or width, very detailed adjustments had to be made in the work to restore the historic character of the structures.

Since no photos could be found of the cast iron buildings before they were altered, the restoration team had to rely on images of similar structures in New York and Chicago to serve as a guide.

However, the new gold color of the facades was not chosen for any historic reason but simply because it blended well with the brown, green and rust-colored trims on the three buildings.

When the scaffolding was finally removed about two weeks ago, even those who worked on the restoration had a hard time believing what they were seeing.

"We are kind of shocked," Mr. Ogot said.

The buildings were renovated under the Downtown Preservation Project, a city Urban Redevelopment Authority program aimed at restoring old facades and improving the upper floors of buildings for residential or office use. It was made possible through a $4 million state redevelopment assistance capital grant and is being overseen by the history and landmarks foundation.

Other facades being rehabilitated under the program include the Italian Sons and Daughters of America building, also on Wood, where burnt orange metal panels were removed to reveal a handsome limestone facade, and the PHLF-owned Thompson Building at 435 Market St., which will house a grocery.

"This project, supported by so many great partners, has done wonders to put life back into Downtown Pittsburgh along with all the other development and public investments throughout," said Yarone Zober, URA board chairman and chief of staff to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. "This is one of our babies, and we're glad to see it birthed."

For the history and landmarks foundation, the three sisters represent another reclamation project Downtown. The organization also spent more than $3 million restoring three structures at Fifth Avenue and Market, including the arts and craft-style former Regal Shoe Co. building and another that was nearly on the verge of collapse. Those structures now house a men's clothing store, a men's shoe store and apartments.

PHLF currently is in the process of purchasing two of the three cast iron buildings on Wood from the URA for $500,000. The other is privately owned.

Mr. Ziegler said the foundation would like to put a women's boutique in the first floor of its structures. It also has an "economic understanding" with Point Park University to use the three upper floors for student housing but is still trying to bridge a "significant" financial gap to make that project work.

The restored "three sisters" will anchor "one of the most architecturally significant blocks Downtown," Mr. Ziegler said. They also will serve as a visual old-vs.-new contrast to the new PNC glass skyscraper being built several doors down on Wood.

On a broader scale, the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation's Downtown holdings and the various restorations are "intended to anchor an area and protect it for the future so the blocks can't be demolished," Mr. Ziegler said.

The PHLF president, who fought former Mayor Tom Murphy over plans to tear down a number of older buildings Downtown in the 1990s to bring in new retail, said the foundation's Main Street approach has proven to be effective.

"We're showing that it's the older buildings that are attracting the retail -- historic buildings in dense historic blocks," he said. "So we're protecting architecture, restoring architecture, reusing architecture and showing that it works."

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Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262. First Published October 6, 2013 4:00 AM


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