I Picked Pittsburgh: Doug and Liza Cruze

For this pair of architects, Pittsburgh is a feasible feast

An occasional feature in Portfolio, "I Picked Pittsburgh" is about people who came to Pittsburgh purely on purpose.

Fresh out of architecture school in the mid-1990s, with their T-squares in hand, Doug and Liza Cruze had an unusual blueprint for success.

"We decided to look for a cool city to live in and then find a job, rather than pursue jobs first," recalls Liza.

As is so often the case, never did they think Pittsburgh would be that "cool" city. Yet their criteria led them here.

"We compiled a list of what possible candidates had to have -- a strong urban fabric of manageable size, interesting topography and, of course, good architecture," Liza explains. The couple wanted a place where people felt like they belonged. But in order to belong, you have to be able to afford the entrance fee.

"So a place where we could afford to buy a house and renovate it was important," Doug notes. They also wanted to be able to purchase properties and transform them.

Liza had visited here as a child and, later, read Annie Dillard's "An American Childhood," a memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh. For her, Pittsburgh was a contender. It scaled the list after an artist, whom Doug met at an artists' conference in Tennessee, recommended that they check out Pittsburgh.

Doug, who grew up in Washington, D.C., still was not so sure. He knew Pittsburgh from watching Steelers games on television. "That convinced him there was a blizzard here at least every Sunday," Liza says. But the fear of grueling winters melted away one summer evening in Polish Hill.

"We had dinner on the roof deck of the artist's house in Polish Hill. The view overlooking the city made a lasting impression," says Doug. "It was an industrial building he converted into his studio and living space." Their lodging made another good impression: Two complimentary cans of Budweiser greeted them when they checked into the freewheeling Doug's Motel on Route 30. "I think that was the first time we visited the city," he says. "It was another unusual Pittsburgh moment."

The couple logged a lot of miles that summer nearly 15 years ago. "I think we looked at about 10 cities, and it came down to a decision between San Francisco and Pittsburgh." It's no accident that Pittsburgh is sometimes called the San Francisco of the East, with our steep streets, inclines and gay-friendly community.

So after comparing bridges to bays and earthquakes to potholes, the decision was made:

"We hashed it out over a fateful Denny's hamburger on Route 51," Doug remembers. Liza was leaning toward Pittsburgh and he was thinking maybe the Pittsburgh of the West would be better. San Francisco has fog, but our gray skies took a little getting used to.

The cost of living, in the end, made everything look brighter.

"In San Francisco we'd probably still be renting a studio apartment," Doug says with a laugh. "The cities are actually very similar; San Francisco has neighborhoods like Pittsburgh. But it is obviously more affordable here. And the architecture here is just awesome."

They ended up settling in Friendship and spent seven years renovating their home. "We had too many tools and too many skills to stop," says Doug, "so we bought another building ... and then another." At this point, Doug is a self-employed designer/builder, while Liza is a weekend warrior on their projects. She works full-time at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, a Downtown architecture firm.

Right now they are working on a new restaurant in their Penn Avenue building: Salt of the Earth, a project with the innovative chef Kevin Sousa.

"We really like Pittsburgh," said Doug, speaking for Liza as well. "I don't see us going anywhere else."

Patricia Sheridan: psheridan@post-gazette.com , 412-263-2613. Contact Portfolio at 412-263-1255 or page2@post-gazette.com .


Hot Topic