Preservation Trust coming to Pittsburgh to explore how landmarks help communities

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Historic preservation can be a tough sell in places where children shoot children, no one invests, lots grow weedy and houses sit vacant. It's often seen as a hobby of well-off white people.

But the chorus extolling the power of preservation and reuse of buildings has grown in minority neighborhoods as the evidence builds: The communities in the worst trouble are pocked with the absence of once-meaningful buildings, from the landmark to the everyday; and the neighborhoods gaining investment and visitors boast historic markers, fine architecture and reuses of old buildings.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is coming to Pittsburgh this week and again in the fall to talk about why saving an old theater here, an old house or a church there can strengthen a community.

It's obvious "on a gut level," said Tina Hochberg, one of the Trust's conference planners. People in well-preserved neighborhoods can say "here's my heritage, here's my history, here's where I've come from, here's my place in the world."

"When you begin to demolish, you remove what people are attached to, and soon you have no neighborhood," said Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. "People who are committed to their buildings also get committed to solving problems."

The Trust staff will visit from tomorrow to June 15 for a logistical rehearsal of scheduled sessions and tours for a November conference on which History & Landmarks has collaborated. As many as 2,500 people nationwide will attend the fall meeting and use Pittsburgh as "a living laboratory," said Ms. Hochberg. "We hope one of the benefits to the host city is to bring attention to" under-recognized areas, like Homewood.

Cathy McCollom, chief programs officer for Pittsburgh History & Landmarks, said Homewood made the schedule in part because of the work of longtime preservationists like Sarah Campbell, a neighborhood elder.

"The Homewood library [Carnegie branch] is fantastic, and the little garden lots are wonderful, but it comes down to the people, and Sarah is just one of them. She pushed long and hard to get the library restored and she made the garden parklets happen" as a leader of the Homewood-Brushton community group.

"She chipped away at things," said Ms. McCollom. "With committed people continuing that work, Homewood will see its way through."

Bernadette Turner, project director of the East Side Community Collaborative in Homewood, said neighborhood agencies have cooked up a field curriculum for Westinghouse ninth graders to research Homewood places and select buildings they think should be saved.

"If you make a connection between pride and heritage and where you come from, there has to be value" in preservation, she said. In a neighborhood with a wide range of problems, she said, "you have to hit continuously at all different angles with everything" including preservation. "Like with a disease, you don't just need chemo, you need a good diet and you need exercise. We have to do it all at the same time if we're going to get over the barriers."

The Trust also chose to tour Hill District haunts of the late playwright August Wilson, and en route, they will get to see the New Granada Theater while it remains standing.

The Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh nominated it for federal landmark status and the Hill District Community Development Corp. is trying to raise money to restore it. But it deteriorates "with each passing day, especially when it rains," said Dan Holland, founder and head of the Young Preservationists. "As a region we have done a good job of undoing our history, and it's affected black people the most," he said, adding that there are no federally designated landmarks honoring Pittsburgh's African-American history.

Marimba Milliones, chairman of the Hill CDC, said the New Granada "is probably one of the most important structures to restore in the region. It was where the most significant musicians stopped between New York and Chicago."

A structural analysis determined it will cost $1.5 million to rehabilitate, she said. Mr. Holland said his organization is consulting with the Hill Community Development Corp. to raise grant money.

"I'm really concerned that we are going to lose a lot more of our African-American landmarks," said Ms. Milliones. "I'm not sure it's a surprise to many people, but the reality is that so many are not even able to be restored, and that affects the institutional memory of a community."

Fortunately for East Liberty, a lot of fine buildings survived 1960s urban renewal and are getting new uses with the updated version of renewal.

The Trust conferees will tour East Liberty and Highland Park, including the reservoir and the Union Project, a community meeting place and art center that used to be the vacant Union Baptist Church.

Architect Andrew Moss of Semple Brown Design has been involved in restorations in East Liberty and said the variety of buildings is one reason it is "an exciting urban place."

"Yes, some may take a lot of resources to rehab and bring new life into, but it would cost four times that to re-create what is there," he said. "You can't afford to replace it with anything that would give the sense of character these older buildings give a place."

The neighborhood projects that History & Landmarks championed early were in areas in which blacks were abandoned by white flight, notably Manchester. It is now much stabler, integrated again and a nationally known model of restoration, said Mr. Ziegler.

The South Side was another example, he said.

"In the late '60s and early '70s, Carson Street was in trouble. It was old and low income, and the idea was to wipe everything out and start over." Now the South Side is a nationally known restoration district, according to Ms. McCollom.

More evidence is the North Side, where the Mexican War Streets and Allegheny West have combined to do a candlelight tour for the Trust's conference.

"The city was going to level from the Heinz plant over to Bidwell," which would have destroyed much of East Allegheny, the Central North Side, Allegheny West and Manchester. "All they got done was Allegheny Center. Now the life of the North Side continues to be strong and Allegheny Center is dead."

Stanley Lowe, the National Trust's vice president for community revitalization, led Manchester's preservation efforts after realizing the error of trying to make it look like suburbia. He is quoted in a History & Landmarks publication as saying, "When you tear a building down, you must be absolutely sure. There must be no doubt. Because when you tear down the buildings, you're tearing down the neighborhood, and they don't come back as fast as they disappear."

Mr. Ziegler said the argument against preservation -- that it will raise taxes and drive poor people out of the neighborhood -- is better made against gentrification. Preservation is enriching to everyone, he said.

"Most of the time when people say it's cheaper to tear down and build new, they are not weighing all the costs."

Correction/Clarification: (Published May 31, 2006) The Hill District Community Development Corp. is trying to raise $1.5 million to stabilize the New Granada Theater. This story as originally published May 30, 2006 inaccurately characterized the work as rehabilitation.Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Members of the National Trust for Historic Preservation will tour the New Granada Theater in the Hill District. A structural analysis has determined that it will cost $1.5 million to stabilize the landmark.
Click photo for larger image.

Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at or 412-263-1626. Correction/Clarification: (Published May 30, 2006) The Hill District Community Development Corp. is trying to raise $1.5 million to stabilize the New Granada Theater. A story yesterday inaccurately characterized the work as rehabilitation.

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