Sylvia Colagrande, born and raised in Braddock, stood atop the Ohringer Building, looking down on her hometown.
The Edgar Thomson Works filled the right side of her view. On the left, Braddock Avenue was a series of grassy, vacant lots separating clusters of mostly 100-year-old storefronts. The old Isaly's roof was falling in, its counter open to the elements. In the windows of its neighbor, D & W Novelties, the only objects remaining, novel or otherwise, were some fleurs de lis attached to the walls. At least half of the buildings were vacant.
"Will it ever come back?" she asked her great niece, Tonya Markiewicz.
As Braddock Redux project coordinator, Ms. Markiewicz is the right person to ask. She hopes the Ohringer Building, 640 Braddock Ave., is part of the answer.
A Cricket phone store opened four weeks ago in the first-floor storefront and a 3,000-square-foot first-floor space on the 7th Avenue side is available. A walled "green" roof is under construction along with a loft condominium for actor David Conrad, a native of nearby Swissvale. Ms. Markiewicz designed the space for him and Massaro Corp. is the builder.
At a glance
- Website: www.15104.cc
- Population: 2,159 (2010 Census)
- Size: 0.6 square miles
- School district: Woodland Hills (www.whsd.k12.pa.us)
- Enrollment: 4,076
- Average 2010 SAT scores: 446 verbal, 457 math, 428 writing
- Total taxes on a property assessed at $100,000: $3,833; Borough: $1,170 (11.7 mills); School: $2,565 (25.65 mills); County: $398 1 (4.69 mills)
- Claim to fame: In 2010, Braddock served as the muse for Levi Strauss & Co.'s "Go Forth Ready to Work" national marketing campaign. The ads featured borough residents -- including Mayor John Fetterman -- in a series of print ads and television commercials.
- 1 Includes the Act 50 Homestead Exclusion, which reduces assessed market value by $15,000 for county taxes.
"This is the only viable, rentable office space in Braddock," she said last week. "We want to turn it into an important economic driver and place to live."
Built in 1929 as a furniture store, the Ohringer Building is newer and larger than most of the commercial buildings that rose here along with the steel mill in the late 19th century. Curved glass-block windows at one corner of its seven floors displayed furniture with art deco flair. Ms. Markiewicz's father, Marc, bought his first television at Ohringer's, signaling a time when TVs were considered furniture rather than an appliance. Ohringer's, which closed in the 1970s, was one of a dozen furniture stores that served Braddock in its heyday.
Until 2006, Allegheny County's Human Services Department had its offices on the building's first three floors. When the county moved, artists moved into the 4,000-plus square feet on each floor, leaving behind wall paintings and bits of sculpture. Braddock bought the building for $15,000 in an absolute auction in December 2009.
Mayor John Fetterman hopes Cricket is the first of several businesses that will occupy the first two floors. He'd like to see a sandwich shop or casual restaurant in the 3,000-square-foot space along Seventh Avenue. He wants it so much that he would charge no rent -- ever.
"If it's a business that supports the community, no rent, just your utilities," he said. "If someone want to invest in us, we want them to know we're in this with you."
Mr. Fetterman noted that Cricket's owner took him up on the same offer for the 1,000 square feet in front, and hired local workers.
"It's a win-win. It improves our quality of life," he said.
This summer, dozens of graffiti artists from around the country converged on the building, decorating all four sides with colorful images, words and their "tags."
Floors 3-6 are to be housing. Massaro has begun gutting the seventh floor to make way for Mr. Conrad's loft. The work has been slowed by the inability to raise the freight elevator. Debris has to be removed by the stairs or a small Westinghouse passenger elevator. Ms. Markiewicz is hoping for government or foundation help to repair the freight elevator.
"We need a little push. With just a small investment, we could get it going," she said.
A Heinz Endowment grant sparked the green roof's construction, which began about a year-and-a-half ago. Ms. Markiewicz has done drawings that show living walls and vines climbing the green-painted steel girders that once supported the ceiling of an Ohringer family member's eighth-floor apartment. Original window openings in the terra cotta and brick walls offer 360-degree views of not only Braddock but also Kennywood, the Carrie Furnaces and the Rankin and Homestead Grays bridges.
"People want to have their wedding here," Ms. Markiewicz said, laughing.
Hopefully, they haven't set the date yet, for there isn't much green on this green roof so far. In the summer of 2010, Ms. Markiewicz and eight teenagers taking part in the Braddock Youth Project planted sedum for one wall and painted frames around it and a painting of a steel mill left on one wall by an anonymous artist. It will be up to the next group in the summer employment program and other community members to add more rooftop plantings.
Ms. Markiewicz, 30, grew up in Peters, Washington County, and feels lucky to have contacted Mr. Fetterman for a volunteer opportunity in 2010. Starting as an architectural intern, she has become a key player in this Mon Valley town's attempt at revival.
"I would never have had the creative freedom or this amount of input in an [architect's] studio," she said.
Her father and family members are delighted that she is helping their hometown.
"I always heard about Braddock and what it was," she said.
Since her Americorps term technically ended in August, she is looking for a job. But she plans to see through her work on the Ohringer Building. Having traveled in Europe, she was amazed at the longevity of cities that measure their history in centuries rather than decades.
"Such a short life for a city," she said, looking down from the Ohringer Building's roof.
She's hoping there's still life in the city yet.
For more information on space in the Ohringer Building, e-mail email@example.com or call 412-596-0758.
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20102011SALES6661MEDIAN PRICE$12,000$8,000HIGHEST PRICE$54,500$68,000
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20102011SALES233188MEDIAN PRICE$15,000$13,000HIGHEST PRICE$199,000$158,000
20102011SALES13568MEDIAN PRICE$63,000$54,900HIGHEST PRICE$252,000$135,000
20102011SALES9163MEDIAN PRICE$85,000$73,500HIGHEST PRICE$185,500$171,000
20102011SALES7435MEDIAN PRICE$105,500$65,000HIGHEST PRICE$295,000$269,900
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20102011SALES1919MEDIAN PRICE$44,500$34,997HIGHEST PRICE$117,500$135,900
20102011SALES2615MEDIAN PRICE$22,000$15,000HIGHEST PRICE$89,900$75,000
Kevin Kirkland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1978.