While driving to work in Oakland, Jan Littrell noticed a banner advertising loft apartments on an old school in Uptown. Although she was looking for an apartment, she didn't like the look of the area.
"My initial reaction was, 'This is a bad neighborhood. I don't want to live here.' " So she looked on the South Side, North Side and the Strip District. Then she came back.
"I was just floored when I walked in. It's not just the historical building. It's what they've done to the units. ... They could have gotten by doing so much less."
Ms. Littrell spends weekends in a house she owns in Hollidaysburg and works during the week in the Swanson School of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. She comes home to a second-floor, one-bedroom unit with about 1,150 square feet of space, large windows, 12-foot ceilings and an exposed structural steel post that she leans a dress form against to display her sewing.
A similar second-floor unit renting for $1,500 a month is one of five now available at Fifth Avenue School Lofts, 1800 Fifth Ave. (www.5thlofts.com or 412-242-0273, Steiner Realty). Fourth-floor, two-bedroom units have 1,600 to 2,200 square feet, skylights, stacked washers and dryers and more exposed steel.
The rents are $2,100 and $2,500, respectively, with a $50 per month fee for parking or $100 monthly for garage space. Since it's an all-electric building, tenants pay one bill for heat, AC and other electric. Rent covers water, sewage and trash. Many apartments have chalkboards.
"It's amazing how much tenants love them," said developer Casey Steiner.
"They really use the chalkboards," added Jonathan Hill, his partner in Impakt Development.
Few of the school's original fixtures were left when the two men bought the four-story building in June 2009. Built in 1894, the school was used until the late 1970s, purchased by another developer in the early '80s and turned into six office condominiums.
Only one sold, to XL Kitchens, which used the first floor and basement as a showroom until closing in 2008. When Impakt Development took over, gargoyles still peered down from the ornate exterior and there was some intact wainscoting, trim and decorative plaster. But the rest was a study in neglect.
"When I look at old pictures, even I feel a little queasy," Mr. Hill admitted.
The Mt. Lebanon resident and his partner, who lives in Edgewood, had been through this before. They turned an old industrial building into 54 units in the South Side Lofts in 2000 and the former Grant School in Bellevue into 21 loft units in 2005-06.
"We've become the loft guys," Mr. Steiner joked.
They spent one year planning this project, started framing its 65 units in April 2011 and had the first unit occupied by June of this year. Having to keep the large window openings while gutting the space gave the developers and architect EDGE Studio the chance to show off both the building's structure and its architectural history. The result is bright, contemporary living spaces and public areas that showcase restored and recreated woodwork from Allied Millwork and plaster molding by Harry Stites and Steel City Plastering.
Most first- and fourth-floor units boast 16-foot ceilings, lots of exposed steel posts and stacked bedrooms that share an opaque glass wall lit up by LED lighting. Bathrooms have glass sinks and the kitchens feature stainless-steel Whirlpool appliances, two choices of granite countertops and Jim Bishop maple cabinets in three shades of stain.
"It's a pleasure to save a building like this," said Mr. Steiner, whose aunt, Mary Adeline McKibbin, was an art teacher at Fifth Avenue School in the 1930s.
This was a thriving neighborhood then, home to Mercy Hospital and Duquesne University and just a half-mile from Downtown and the South Side and one mile from Oakland. But it has suffered since. There are as many empty storefronts as there are businesses and for every neatly kept rowhouse there is a crumbling one or an empty lot.
Despite many Pittsburghers' perceptions, crime rates are surprisingly low, Mr. Steiner said, and pioneers like Jeanne and Dale McNutt are encouraging others to buy and rehab the viable housing stock.
Ms. McNutt is executive director of the community organization Uptown Partners of Pittsburgh (www.uptownpartners.org), which celebrates signs of progress like ACTION-Housing's $12 million project to convert the Famous Biscuit Co. building on Forbes Avenue into 43 apartments for low-income workers and disabled people.
The biscuit building is visible through the tall TRACO aluminum double-hung windows on the back side of the Fifth Avenue School Lofts.
"Lots of good things are happening here," Mr. Steiner said.
Ms. Littrell, who moved in in June, agreed. "There's a sense of improvement and getting better."
About two-thirds of her fellow tenants are between the ages of 23-35, many of them doctors at area hospitals. She is in the other third, older, working people who love Uptown's proximity to everything. She said her commute to Oakland is either a five-minute bus ride or a 40-minute walk, and she regularly rides her bike on the Jail Trail.
"Five years ago I came from California, where nothing is old. When you walk around this neighborhood, you see these little interesting architectural things and once you get to know the people, they're the nicest people."
Kevin Kirkland: email@example.com or 412-263-1978. First Published November 17, 2012 5:00 AM