Pittsburgh Post-Gazette building district placed on National Register of Historic Places

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Many words have been written within the walls of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that hulk of a building that sits near the Point, Downtown, and that houses The Pittsburgh Press.

But in recent years, few words have been written in praise of the edifice.

It is, to put it bluntly, a brown box of a building, less a beacon for a free press and more a testament to utilitarianism.

But there our building was, we discovered today, listed in the nomination request to put the so-called Pittsburgh Renaissance Historic District — the area at the western tip of Downtown that is bordered by the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers and Stanwix Street — on the National Register of Historic Places. The development period for that district ranged from 1927 to 1974, and the term "Renaissance" refers to the urban renewal program that started in 1945.

And, although this building’s workday inhabitants might choose to follow the old saw that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything, the nomination, drafted by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation with the help of architectural historian Laura C. Ricketts, had plenty nice to say about our five-story building.

The building’s original form, a Romanesque Revival brick building completed in 1927 with a design by Cleveland architects Howell & Thomas, was “rather utilitarian,” the nomination admits. But in 1962, around the time of the construction of the nearby Gateway Center buildings, it was resurfaced with aluminum panels to “harmonize better with its modern neighbors.” (Somewhere along the line, the lighthouse, symbol of Press parent company Scripps Howard, was also removed.)

The nomination application continues with this dose of flattery that could turn a brown building red:

“The spandrels and an accent vertical band on the north elevation were overlain with aluminum screens of staggered squares and rectangles that are somewhat reminiscent of the contemporary art screens of Harry Bertoia.” (No mention of the birds that roost in them.)

It seems unclear that art — contemporary or not — springs to mind when anyone walks or drives or buses by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette building.

But the Pittsburgh Renaissance Historic District is, indeed, historic, the National Parks Service decreed in May, placing it on the National Register of Historic Places.

For a city with a long reputation of being a smoky, prone to flood place, the district near the Point "reflects an urban renewal and post-war planning efforts, to re-imagine and renew the city after World War II," said Keith Heinrich, historic preservation specialist with the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.

The area near the Point is the fifth district Downtown to gain entry to the National Register of Historic Places, a distinction that is mostly an honorific but which also qualifies property owners for possible federal preservation tax incentives.

New historic places are added to the register each week, said Carol Shull, interim keeper for the National Register."The idea...is that our collective historic places reflect the heritage of the entire nation," she said.

Ms. Shull works in Washington, D.C., and is from Texas, but she’s been to Pittsburgh, and she said it’s an attractive town, in part because it’s preserved its historic character, something that the National Register considers important.

"We don't want our country, everything to look just alike," she said.

So, instead of calling our building utilitarian, maybe its historic designation means it is time to give it something closer to a compliment.

It’s ... unique.

Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com and Twitter: @kaitlynnriely

First Published October 25, 2013 4:34 PM

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