Real estate company rejuvenates Mt. Lebanon office building

If location is everything in real estate, the building that would become Howard Hanna's Mt. Lebanon office was perfect: in the middle of the uptown business district with views up and down Washington Road, the main artery.

Too bad the 80-something former medical office was on life support.

"The lintels crumbled in your hand. They were steel but reverted back to iron," said John Latsko, senior project manager for general contractor Martini & Co. "We still don't know how one staircase was supported."

Architect Stephen Casey said the long wall on Alfred Street was "a hodge-podge of materials. We called it mixed masonry, and it was cracking."

Yet the Hanna family wanted to reuse the building, and not just because company founder Howard W. Hanna Jr. had delivered newspapers there as a boy and caught trolleys in its shadow as a University of Pittsburgh student.

"This building was special to the whole family," said Annie Hanna Cestra, company chief operating officer and executive vice president.

Thanks to the Hannas' dedication and close cooperation with contractors and designers, the company's largest office is now a bright, modern workplace for more than 70 people, the hub of its southwest region and the healthy heart of Uptown Mt Lebanon. The 11,000-square-foot building was chosen as the winner of the commercial category in the 2013-14 Renovation Inspiration Contest.

The 7-year-old competition, which is sponsored by Dollar Bank and judged by staff members of the Post-Gazette, Design Center and Construction Junction, was created to honor excellence in residential renovation. The commercial category was added this year to recognize companies that choose reuse and sustainability over simpler and often cheaper new construction.

Like their residential counterparts, businesses often find character in old buildings that is lacking in new ones. For the Hannas, a key element was the terra cotta detailing at the top of the building's Washington Road façade. Its art deco imagery depicts an eagle and the intertwined snakes and staff often associated with medicine.

"In the 1930s, terra cotta was the latest and greatest thing," Mr. Casey said, noting that it looked like carved stone but was much less costly.

In this case, the terra cotta panels had been repaired and repainted so many times that their details had been lost. Instead of removing them, the company hired Marsa Masonry to take the frieze apart, clean and reassemble it.

The wall on Alfred Street was another story. A mixture of brick, concrete block, stucco and other materials, its rear portion was failing badly, prompting a special high-level meeting involving a structural engineer, Martini & Co. chief operating officer Angelo Martini Jr., Mr. Casey and Ms. Hanna Cestra.

"It was going to cost a lot more money," Mrs. Cestra said. "We did wonder why we didn't just tear it down."

But she's glad the family stayed the course.

"I think the end result is it's the best building for Mt. Lebanon and for the company."

The team decided to take down the rear two-thirds of the wall and to get it done before the start of school since Washington Elementary and Mellon Middle are just down the street, and Mt. Lebanon is a walking school district. Demolition was finished on time, and the wall's new portion blends well with the old -- right down to the size and scale of the window openings.

Although the building's shell appears original, the interior is all new. According to the architect, its design was driven by its prevalent tenant -- real estate agents. The majority of their offices are on the second floor. The wide-open work spaces are a far cry from cookie-cutter cubicles, and many have panoramic views of the business district or surrounding neighborhood.

"From this corner, you can keep an eye on everything in Mt. Lebanon," said Patrick Gray, vice president and manager of the Mt. Lebanon office.

Coffee bars and conference rooms are interspersed throughout the two floors, and a training room on the lower level can seat 40 people. The tall open lobby is white and bright from several large west-facing windows. It appears to be a brand-new building, and its cost -- less than $200 per square foot -- reflects that.

One of the best testaments to the skill of the building's designers and contractors was their ability to keep its only other tenant open for business during construction. Ross LoCastro, owner of Mt. Lebanon Shoe Repair, was once surrounded by a beauty parlor, Christian Science reading room, violin maker, and various doctors and health specialists. Now it's just him and dozens of real estate agents.

"People said, 'You can't move the shoemaker,' " Mr. Casey said.

So they didn't. They somehow mended a tired old building without removing its soul.

Kevin Kirkland: kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978.

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