Progress made on preserving blast furnaces, historic farmhouse in Pittsburgh area

Two properties put on state's at-risk list in 1990s closer to being saved

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Efforts to save Allegheny County's Carrie Furnaces represent "preservation in progress," according to a statewide organization that seeks to protect historically and architecturally significant structures.

That is a step up from 21 years ago when Preservation Pennsylvania had placed the 19th century blast furnaces along the Monongahela River on its 1992 list of endangered properties.

Since then, multiple partners, including the county and the nonprofit Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, have combined efforts to make the towering industrial structures the centerpiece of a multiuse redevelopment project.

The Carrie Furnaces is one of two sites around Pittsburgh included on Preservation Pennsylvania's 20-year retrospective report on what are called "at-risk" structures. The report, released last week, includes one historic property from each year's at-risk list and describes what steps have been taken -- or not taken -- to preserve or rehabilitate it.

The Carrie Furnaces produced iron for what became U.S. Steel Corp.'s Homestead Works for almost a century. The two remaining furnaces are on a 168-acre brownfield tract along the Mon that extends into Pittsburgh, Swissvale, Rankin, Munhall and Whitaker.

The county's Department of Development hopes to reuse much of the land around the blast furnaces as an office and industrial park.

The plan for mixed-use development, like that proposed for the Carrie Furnaces site, has the support of Preservation Pennsylvania. Restoration and maintenance costs for industrial structures like the Carrie Furnaces are very high, said Erin Hammerstedt, a field representative with Preservation Pittsburgh.

"Industrial sites that just want to be museums tend not to succeed," she said. "A mixed-use scenario, with new commercial buildings nearby, should produce additional income to offset some of the costs of maintaining the furnace site."

This spring, visitors will have opportunities to see how restoration efforts are progressing. The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area once again will offer guided and self-paced tours of the Carrie Furnaces starting in April. Information on visits is available at www.riversofsteel.com or 412-464-4020.

The other former at-risk property in southwestern Pennsylvania included on this year's retrospective list is the Thomas Kent Jr. farm in Franklin, Greene County. Preservation Pennsylvania now classifies the property, which includes a farmhouse built in 1851, as "saved -- sort of."

The Kent farm was placed on Preservation Pennsylvania's 1999 at-risk list after the state approved long-wall mining under the property. Removal of coal was allowed to go ahead, but a memorandum of understanding required that any damage caused by mine subsidence had to be repaired.

After 1 3/4-inch cracks appeared in the exterior wall, one corner of the house -- made up of more than 15,000 bricks -- had to be reconstructed, according to the Preservation Pennsylvania report.

The designation of "saved -- sort of" was given to the farm because the owners fear that, although the farmhouse has been cosmetically restored, "the integrity of the building has been compromised."

Of the more than 200 structures included on Preservation Pittsburgh at-risk lists over the past two decades, 32 percent have been saved, 50 percent remain in danger and 18 percent have been lost.

At-risk structures demolished in the Pittsburgh area over the past 20 years include St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church and Mellon Arena, both in Pittsburgh, and Reed Hall, part of the former Dixmont State Hospital, in Kilbuck.

Among the most prominent of the at-risk buildings classified as "saved" is the former Armstrong Cork Factory in Pittsburgh's Strip District. It has been converted into apartments.

Ms. Hammerstedt said one conclusion stands out after 20 years of assembling lists of at-risk properties.

"Keeping buildings occupied and maintained is the best form of preservation," she said. Most of the structures that have appeared on Preservation Pittsburgh's annual lists were vacant at the time they became endangered, she said.

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Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.


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