The Pittsburgh area is lousy with vacant buildings, and the more of them I tour with new or prospective owners or municipal officials, the more I marvel at the amount of stuff people walk away from.
In Braddock, it was house after house full of everything you would need for the next house. I have toured houses in Garfield, Deutschtown and Hazelwood where people left clothes, appliances, furniture, toys, trophies and even photos behind. I remain perplexed by this evidence of untold stories.
In the case of Engine House No. 16 in North Point Breeze, the stuff was abandoned by the city.
Paul Fireman has a blueprint for its reuse as the home of his graphic design and Web development firm, Fireman Creative. With that name, what better place? It's a strong building at the corner of Penn and Lang avenues, built in 1889 and big enough -- 7,000 usable square feet -- for his firm and a companion firm to share, once he completes its purchase from the city.
He is plowing forward into the morass of 21st-century financing. If that weren't daunting enough, he has a heavy clearing job complicated by his hope to "keep as much out of the dumpsters as possible," he said during a tour he gave me of the building.
The city stopped using it as a fire station in the late 1980s or early 1990s, but an upstairs classroom was used for firefighter training as late as 2010, when the Urban Redevelopment Authority put the building up for sale.
It was a Community Oriented Police station at one time. A large front room upstairs appears to have been used as a Taser firing range pretty recently.
When the place was new, two large front bays opened for horse-drawn fire engines. A circular cutout in the ceiling near the front door indicates where the fire pole was. Mr. Fireman wants to reinstall one.
He said he hopes to find new owners for a lot of material inside that he is close to owning. That includes police driver training simulators, dozens of bicycles, shelving units, cabinets crammed full of files, framed art prints, office and classroom desks, a refrigerator, poker machines, McGruff the Crime Dog face down on the floor, waste bins brimming with tangled taser wires, a game of Pictionary, baseball bats, several 1970s-era radios and box upon box of materials that decorated the "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign as effectively as cardboard turkeys in classrooms instill thankfulness.
The weirdest find was a box with separators for rows of little plastic containers, each holding a squiggly purple brain. Another bit of maladroit anti-drug paraphernalia: This is your brain on Gummybears.
Mr. Fireman can see everything gone and look ahead to the part that would make any new developer nervous but excited.
"Should I say congratulations?" Joanne Chetlin asked outside as Mr. Fireman pointed out facade features to me. She was waiting for her bus to Oakland.
"I've been so nervous," he told her, but with a big smile as he rubbed his hands together.
The Urban Redevelopment Authority recently approved his plan, and a sale is imminent. Environmental engineers have been through the building and architect Andrew Moss is on board.
"Our goal in the proposed renovation is to preserve and maintain the great architectural character and quality that is inherent in the building while enabling [it] to evolve with a new use," Mr. Moss wrote in an email.
Mr. Fireman is working with the church across the street for a cooperative use of the parking lot.
The new entrance will be along the Lang Avenue side, and a skinny interior staircase will be widened. The drywall and drop ceiling panels are coming out, Mr. Fireman said. Gaps in the panels show the original tongue-and-groove ceilings 16 feet above. A room upstairs has a wood-beamed ceiling.
Mr. Fireman intends to use a city matching program for an energy audit and to make the building energy efficient. He said he also wants to return the facade "to its grandeur. It's a tricky building" because of the way it was cut up, "but it's a great building. I need to prove to banks that this is a wise investment."