PNC to restore splendor of former Lord & Taylor building

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Welcome to the correction.

That is Geoffrey Leah's way of saying that the old is being used again inside the former Mellon Bank on Smithfield Street, the ornate building controversially stripped of much of its grandeur when it was converted into a Lord & Taylor department store more than a decade ago.

The new owner, PNC Financial Services Group, is hoping to restore some of that splendor -- piece by piece, in some cases -- as part of its plan to reuse the city historic structure as a call center.

"What we're trying to do is take the bones of the building and keep the architectural and historic significance, and do whatever we can to not disrupt the original structure in any way," said Gary Saulson, PNC executive vice president and director of corporate real estate.

While PNC has no way of fully restoring the majestic four-story, open air bank hall with its marble Ionic columns -- Lord & Taylor turned the structure into four floors of department store retail -- the bank intends to incorporate as many original architectural features as possible into the new design.

"I can't open up the floors but at least I can make it look neat," said Mr. Leah, PNC's project manager.

That means, for example, removing dry wall that covered the windows to allow natural light inside again, a move that not only will be in keeping with the hall's original appearance but will help to make the building more environmentally friendly.

The effect is particularly dazzling on the third floor, where massive 1 1/2-story windows offer views of Smithfield Street and Mellon Square, which is currently undergoing its own renovation.

"It brings the city into the building," Mr. Saulson said.

But the real reclamation is taking place deep in the sub-basement.

That's where many of the relics and remnants from the old bank's yesteryear are tucked away -- stack after stack of bronze and brass fixtures and discarded marble, some of which wrapped the hall's elegant columns; the bronze railing used to guard the bank's vault; and even heavy felt and brass rope that marked off teller lines.

It's where the bank's original bronze chandeliers are stored, 15 of which will be refurbished and rewired to accept 21st century LED lighting before being reinstalled.

"We're going to be saving the historical significance of the chandeliers, but bringing them into the 2013s by putting in LED energy-efficient lighting," Mr. Saulson said. "It's kind of the best of both worlds."

PNC intends to incorporate as many of the relics as possible into the call center space. The 1,200-pound marble check-writing desks that now lay in sections in the basement will be reassembled and used as tables for employees in the building's Eco Bistro cafeteria. Thick 175- to 250-pound bronze doors that no longer meet code requirements as doors will be reused for cafe screening.

Two bronze lamp posts that at one time were located near the teller lines will be retrofitted and reused.

"A lot of this we're using to remind employees and others of the historic significance of the building and we're using it as art," Mr. Saulson said.

After the bank acquired the building last year, an employee spent more than a month cataloguing the artifacts left behind in the basement. PNC also turned to preservation architect Ellis Schmidlapp of Landmarks Design Associates for help in identifying items.

Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, said he is hoping some of the artifacts can be returned to their original spots in the building, which opened in 1924.

Years ago, Mr. Ziegler lambasted the destruction of the interior to make way for the department store. He said he is "very comfortable" with the PNC effort and its use of the artifacts.

"I think PNC has done our city an enormous favor by acquiring the property and reusing it. It means the exterior will retain its original character and dignity. It will be filled with people again. It has been an empty building since Lord & Taylor moved in and out," he said. "PNC is reusing it in such a way that it will be a noble architectural anchor on that corner."

PNC bought the vacant building from Forest Hills-based J.J. Gumberg Co. for $3.85 million last June. At the time, the structure had been boarded up since Lord & Taylor closed in November 2004, four years after it opened. The city sank $11.8 million into a deal to lure the retail chain Downtown as part of former Mayor Tom Murphy's strategy to revive the Fifth and Forbes retail corridor.

Gumberg acquired the building at Smithfield and Fifth Avenue for $2.5 million in early 2005 with the hope of landing another department store or general merchandise retailer or multiple ones to fill the space but never succeeded.

While PNC is paying homage to the past in its remake of the interior, it has its eye on the future as well. It will be adding environmentally friendly furniture, flooring, lighting and heating and cooling systems in what Mr. Saulson described as "probably the biggest green historic renovation in Pittsburgh history."

"We're trying to reuse and reclaim as much as possible as opposed to buying new. Quite frankly, it's harder sometimes to figure out how to reuse things but we think it's the right thing to do," Mr. Saulson said.

PNC hopes to have the building ready this fall. About 800 employees will move in over the first two weekends in November and the building should be fully operational by Thanksgiving.

Although much of the emphasis has been on restoring what was lost, PNC also will incorporate some design elements left behind by Lord & Taylor. That includes the escalators and the hardwood floors used for the store's Ralph Lauren shop.

PNC took a look at the mirrors that covered many of the columns and "we thought about putting in a disco ball," Mr. Saulson joked.

But that, in the end, proved to be just a little too retro.

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Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262.


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