Imagination lets old buildings take on new lives

A former post office and former stable show how creative re-use can extend the lives of old buildings

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Colleen Rohm has stepped up to the counter at 132 E. Main St. many times since moving to Carnegie 25 years ago. But where she used to drop off packages, she now picks up a cup of coffee.

"It is a little strange, but I really like it. This is a destination for us," she said, looking at her friend, Andrew Welsh.

"I come here quite a bit -- I'm a coffeeholic," he said, smiling.

The red-brick building that was Carnegie's main post office for nearly a century closed several years ago, and its operations moved to a smaller building across the street. Developer Craig Cozza, pharmacist Greg Romeo and his wife, Ashley Comer, have reimagined the space as the Carnegie Coffee Co. and the Medicine Shoppe, both of which opened in June. Serving illy coffee roasted in Italy and a variety of sandwiches and pastries, the lively open space blends modern design elements, such as stainless steel and exposed ductwork with marble counters salvaged from the walls of an old restroom and faced with hundreds of mailboxes.

It's the sort of adaptive reuse that urban planners and community development agencies love. To highlight success stories like this one, the Post-Gazette and Design Center have added a commercial renovation category to the Renovation Inspiration Contest (see story at right). Besides bringing new life to old buildings, such projects can jumpstart a neighborhood.

Just ask James Frederick, who moved his James Gallery from Dormont to a former stable and carpet warehouse on South Main Street in the West End nearly 11 years ago. His family wondered if he was making a mistake moving his art gallery to the city.

"It was a bit of a ghost town," he conceded. "There wasn't a car on the street when we came."

Now his neighbors include Artifacts (art and antiques), Jacob Evans Kitchen & Bath, Ceramiche Tile & Stone, Steinway Piano Gallery, and Pittsburgh Musical Theater.

"We saw potential here. These buildings worked for us," said Gayle Irwin, Mr. Frederick's partner.

"We wanted to be part of the city's rebirth," Mr. Frederick said.

Ms. Irwin designed the main gallery space, an adjacent smaller gallery and a courtyard garden that links the two. Eighteen-foot ceilings, halogen lights and large windows that replaced stable doors show off the original artwork that changes periodically. A show featuring paintings by Carnegie Mellon art professor Patricia Bellan-Gillen ended earlier this month. The main gallery is now showing "Obscure/Reveal," a collection of 10 artists' work in encaustic.

The transformation began when the larger building was gutted, leaving four original sandstone columns that define the front. Moving the entrance from the front to the side highlighted the new garden and brought a different traffic flow to the circa 1910 stable. Blumcraft created the new entry doors and the wood, aluminum and glass railing on the open staircase that's home to some of the architectural pieces that hint at the buildings' age. The cast-iron balustrade -- intentionally installed upside-down -- was salvaged from an old building by Norbert Frederick, James' father and a well-known designer in Pittsburgh.

General contractor Danny Brown of MBM Contacting also incorporated eight solid cherry doors that Mr. Frederick and Ms. Irwin found at Construction Junction. Ms. Irwin came up with the idea to use iron towel bars as door handles and designed the steel gate leading to the garden. Christopher Wyland designed a unique kitchen counter that folds like a knife. It's a focal point for guests at art openings and other events held at the gallery.

"We wanted a little bit of theater," Mr. Frederick said.

Antique arched doors from Belgium, purchased at Architectural Emporium in Canonsburg, highlight the entrance to the garden, where a wine press purchased from a Paris flea market takes center stage.

The smaller building, which is a little older than the stable, once held a toy factory, a print shop and later a carpet warehouse. Exposed trusses on the ceiling were black with soot when the renovation began. In the rear of the building is a frame shop.

"We wanted to be respectful of the building," Mr. Frederick said.

That was also a key consideration in the redesign of the old post office.

"It's just a neat building in the heart of Carnegie," said Mr. Cozza, a principal of Cozza Enterprises and owner of Pro Bikes.

He initially stored bikes in the building while looking for the right tenant. Mr. Romeo, meanwhile, was looking for a new location for his pharmacy, then a short distance down the street. He and his wife had long wanted to own a coffee shop and saw a chance to house both businesses in the same building. Jeff Stephan, a Coldwell Banker Real Estate agent and former director of Carnegie Community Development Corp., brought them together.

Architects Smith & Associates of Rochester, N.Y., worked closely with Mr. Romeo and Ms. Comer to design a space that was a clean, bright backdrop for fixtures and finishes like those she found on Pinterest. Yet it also preserved the best parts of the old post office. Adding complexity to the plan were very specific size and design requirements for a pharmacy and handicapped accessibility.

Mr. Cozza's contractors, who usually build retail centers from the ground up, enjoyed the challenge of reusing the mailboxes, doors, Douglas fir floors and marble counters that now give a satisfying "clink" when someone sets down a coffee cup. And Mr. Romeo got the performance space he wanted for his friend and shop manager, Matt Harkness, to practice the art of coffee-making.

"Matt is doing every shot of espresso by hand," Mr. Romeo said. "It's the performance and interaction with the customer, the sound of it, the taste and smell. You can't leave anything out."

As attractive as that may be for coffee lovers, it's a little confusing for people who come in and ask, "This isn't a post office anymore?"

But most Carnegie residents have caught on by now.

"People come in all the time to see their old mailboxes," Ms. Comer said. "Sometimes they take pictures with them."

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