Pa. state senator makes push to preserve Hunt Armory in Shadyside

With historic landmark designation, armory could be protected from demolition


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More than two decades after he was arrested attempting to halt the razing of a Pittsburgh concert hall, a state senator is hoping a local historic landmark designation will be a better barrier against the possible demolition of a nearly 100-year-old Pennsylvania National Guard armory that served as a venue for speeches by presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman.

The Alfred E. Hunt Armory in Shadyside has been used by local soldiers since World War I and was once one of Pittsburgh's largest public venues. But now it is heading for the auction block as part of a broader move by the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to consolidate and reorganize units and dispense with old armories and training sites.

"All of these armories don't fit with our current operations," said Staff Sgt. Ted Nichols, a Pennsylvania National Guard spokesman.

Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, has nominated the armory for designation as a historic landmark by the city's Historic Review Commission, which Mr. Ferlo says would give the seven-member commission jurisdiction over "all proposed new construction, demolition and exterior work to the building."

Mr. Ferlo said the nomination, which the commission will consider Oct. 2, came in response to a measure passed this summer by the state Legislature that authorized the sale of a dozen armory properties.

While the Hunt Armory was not among that initial group, the National Guard says it intends to move out of the 90,094-square foot building, which sits in a leafy neighborhood of single-family homes across the street from Sacred Heart Elementary School, and put it up for sale.

"Rather than selling off the facility, it is my hope that the armory will be designated as a historic landmark so that, with community engagement, an appropriate adaptive reuse can be found in order for the facility to continue to benefit the community," Mr. Ferlo said in a news release.

The armory was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991, but Mr. Ferlo said the city designation would provide an additional level of protection for the exterior and facade if it is sold, unlike what happened to the historic Syria Mosque concert hall in Oakland. That building was torn down when it was bought for $10 million in 1991 by UPMC and is now used as a parking lot. Mr. Ferlo, then a city councilman, was arrested while protesting the demolition.

"The Pittsburgh ordinance gives it a higher standard of protection to stave off demolition," Mr. Ferlo said. "I want to see the designation. I want people to join me in supporting this."

Sgt. Nichols said the two units that presently use the armory, D Company of the 1-110 Infantry Battalion and members of E Company, Maneuver Forward Support Company, 128th Brigade Support Battalion, are leaving because of parking and other logistical problems.

"We have initiated the process to sell this," Sgt. Nichols said, adding that the armory is used for drill, staff and recruiting offices and vehicle parking. "It is our intention to move out of this armory."

The 128th will move to the Beaver Falls Readiness Center and the 110th will move to the Greensburg Readiness Center. All sales of state armories must be approved by the General Assembly and the governor and are conducted by the Department of General Services, Sgt. Nichols said, adding that the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs will seek legislation this fall to authorize the sale of the Hunt Armory.

The state expects to use a process that allows buyers to purchase the armories for 20 percent below fair-market value if they agree to a "covenant" that requires the buyer to preserve the historical character of the exterior facade for 25 years.

If an acceptable offer isn't received, then the building would go on the market at full value without the protection, although the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs doesn't expect that to happen, Sgt. Nichols said.

"We have had numerous parties express interest in the property and maintaining its historic integrity," Sgt. Nichols said. "Our real estate guys expect it would sell on first offering."

The Hunt Armory, which sits on 1.84 acres and was appraised in May at a fair-market value of $2.7 million, costs $90,700 a year in utilities alone, according to a fact sheet from the National Guard.

The property is zoned for "multi-unit residential high density," attractive for developers, Mr. Ferlo said, and another reason he says he wants to start a public discussion on the fate of the armory.

Built between 1911 and 1919, the American Renaissance-style armory was designed by architect Joseph F. Kuntz, who also designed what is today the Andy Warhol Museum, the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and 25 other armories, including 18 in Pennsylvania, among other buildings, said Albert M. Tannler, historical collections director for the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

The armory was named for Capt. Alfred E. Hunt, a member of the Pennsylvania National Guard, veteran of the Spanish-American War and a founder of the Pittsburgh Reduction Company, later known as Alcoa.

Prior to the construction of the Civic Arena, the armory was Pittsburgh's largest auditorium, with the drill hall capable of seating between 15,000 people or more, according to Mr. Ferlo's nomination application. Presidential candidates Thomas E. Dewey, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson spoke there while on the campaign trail. Eisenhower and President Harry S. Truman addressed crowds at the armory after they were elected. The armory also was the site of the 1940 Auto Show, horse and craft shows, concerts and a major venue for popular polo matches that drew opponents from across the region and country into the 1950s.

Ideas that have been floated for a new use for the site include a hotel or movie studio, Mr. Tannler added.

The foundation supports Mr. Ferlo's application and a new role for the armory, Mr. Tannler said, "as long as the architecture and facade were respected."

"Being on the national register doesn't prohibit owners from making all kinds of changes," Mr. Tannler said.

Gretchen Stiehl, a longtime Shadyside resident who Thursday night was headed to a service at nearby Sacred Heart Parish Catholic Church, said she'd like to see the armory remodeled.

"It really is a landmark," Ms. Stiehl said. "It could serve a purpose in the neighborhood. I'm not sure what."

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Robert Zullo: rzullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909.


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