Preservation Pittsburgh, Point Park University debate dismantling of three Downtown buildings

Preservation group says facades have key role in Downtown plan


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A local preservation group may seek a city historic designation for three buildings on Forbes Avenue to prevent them from being dismantled in the move of the Pittsburgh Playhouse to Downtown.

Peter Margittai, president of Preservation Pittsburgh, said Wednesday that nominating the buildings at 320, 322 and 330 Forbes Ave. as city historic structures is "an option" in the quest to save the terra cotta facades.

But he stressed the group isn't ready to go that route just yet.

He said Preservation Pittsburgh currently is in discussions with Point Park University, the owner of the buildings, to try to "come up with an agreeable solution" relating to the properties.

"I think where we are right now is that we are working in good faith with Point Park University. As long as the dialogue is progressing and they're weighing our concerns, we don't see a need to set a timetable [for possibly nominating the buildings]," Mr. Margittai said. "If we reach an impasse, obviously, we're going to have to look at other avenues."

Point Park won permission from the city planning commission in July to demolish the three buildings on Forbes, including the former Honus Wagner sporting goods store, to make way for the relocation of the playhouse from Oakland.

In securing the approval, the university told the commission that it intends to dismantle the Beaux Arts facade of the Honus Wagner building, with its scrolled brackets, swags and wreaths, piece by piece, number it, and then reassemble it in a courtyard on Forbes that will be part of the new playhouse complex.

Point Park officials also said they hope to preserve, as much as possible, the facades of the two adjacent buildings, one a two-story classical revival building with intricate architectural detail near the top and around the windows. The other is a three-story Beaux Arts building with colossal fluted Corinthian pilasters and round arch openings, capped by a projecting cornice with urn finials. They would be incorporated into the playhouse design.

But Preservation Pittsburgh believes the university can do better.

Mr. Margittai said it would like to see Point Park keep all three facades in place and incorporate them into the playhouse construction.

The university, he said, has countered that "it's a technical challenge to achieve the design that would suit their purposes and preserve the facades.

"They've had a hard time proving those technical challenges to us," he added.

Asked if the university would alter its plans for the playhouse to keep the facades in place, Mariann Geyer, Point Park vice president of external affairs, said it "continues to have an open ear" in conversations with various constituencies Downtown regarding the project.

She noted that Point Park is continuing to work on the designs related to the playhouse.

Mr. Margittai said the school has been "open to our suggestions" but not committed to anything at this point.

A historic nomination, he said, would be the group's "most powerful tool" in trying to preserve the facades. A successful nomination would make it much more difficult, though not impossible, for Point Park to dismantle the buildings. The historic review commission and, ultimately, city council would have to approve any historic designation.

But Preservation Pittsburgh does not want to file for a nomination if at all possible, Mr. Margittai said. At this point, it is focused on continuing a dialogue with the university.

Mr. Margittai, an architect, praised Point Park for its work on Wood Street and the Boulevard of the Allies, saying it has been a "great steward of Downtown buildings" and has contributed to the restoration of a number of structures.

As part of the playhouse construction, the university intends to restore and reuse the vacant early 20th century Stock Exchange Building on Fourth Avenue.

"What Point Park wants to do is excellent. The whole development is just amazing. It's going to put them more on the map. When it's done, they're going to be competing with other conservatories such as Juilliard. We want to help them as much as we can but, obviously, we have a job to do," Mr. Margittai said.

In its research, Preservation Pittsburgh found that the Honus Wagner building housed the Royal restaurant after it was constructed in 1904. Just after World War II, it was purchased by the Shapiro brothers, founders of the National Record Mart chain, and used to sell records, said Michael Shealey, a Preservation Pittsburgh board member. At one point, it was described as the largest record store in the United States, he said.

Point Park hopes to begin the demolitions later this year. Construction of the playhouse featuring a 500-seat main theater, two black box theaters and other amenities would begin in late 2014 or 2015.

neigh_city

Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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