Hays School had been empty for 30 years when Bob Dagostino drove by one morning and saw the "For Sale" sign. He copied the number and called for a tour. At the time, his electronics business Downtown was outgrowing its third location.
"At our other place, [employees] sat an arm's length apart," said Chuck Roberts, vice president of Dagostino Electronic Services. "Bob brought me in look at the school and I said, 'Why don't we get a renovated space?' and he said, 'No, no, this is our headquarters.' He had a vision."
It often takes vision to remake a century-old school. Pittsburgh has scores of them, some in private hands, some long vacant, several converted into apartments and 19 still to be sold. Pittsburgh Public Schools has contracted with Fourth River Development to sell them.
The former Schenley High School in North Oakland sold last year for $5.2 million and is slated for luxury housing. McCleary School in Upper Lawrenceville sold last year for $410,000 to a residential developer. Morningside School has been approved for sale to the Urban Redevelopment Authority for $275,000, also for housing; negotiations are underway "as we speak," said Patrick Morosetti, sales and leasing manager for Fourth River Development.
At between 40,000 and 65,000 square feet, most vacant schools sit in neighborhoods attracting little if any investment. Hays, arguably Pittsburgh's most rural neighborhood, with a population that plummeted from 2,200 in 1940 to about 350 today, might serve as an example of hope -- that there is a right buyer in the right place at the right time.
"There have been hundreds of calls and we have had conversations about all the schools," Mr. Morosetti said. "But these are tough assets to redevelop, not so much the purchase price but renovation costs."
Most interest is for residential, he said, "but we have had some inquiries related to community use, a potential boutique hotel, an incubator and offices."
The Hays school is small by comparison at 27,000 square feet. When Mr. Dagostino, his wife, brother and father went through it in 2003, Mr. Dagostino said, "cold, musty air poured out when the guy unchained the door." When he decided to buy it, he said, "My dad said, 'You're a glutton for punishment.' "
There's punishment and then there's punishment.
In 2009, Impakt Development paid $640,000 for the former Fifth Avenue High School in Uptown. It was in horrific disrepair with water damage from a collapsed roof and years of vandalism. The developers used historic tax credits to finance a $10 million renovation for lofts.
Mr. Dagostino, president of his company, paid $250,000 and spent $700,000 on the renovation. The seller had replaced the roof but there was little damage to the interior. Asbestos abatement cost less than $50,000, and Mr. Dagostino and his own crew did the electrical, drywall and interior demolition work. They hired contractors to replace windows and plumbing.
"These buildings were built to last," said Mr. Dagostino, who grew up in Mount Oliver and Knoxville and became passionate about technology in junior high, during the space race of the early 1960s. "I thought an old school could be a fantastic showpiece for our clients," some of whom represent boards of education and universities.
The company, with 100 employees, found the biggest growing pain was parking. The school had little. Mr. Dagostino bought two city-owned lots and three houses he demolished to add parking.
The school had 14 classrooms. One is now the conference room. Another was divided to hold Mr. Dagostino's office and human resources. One classroom is for operations and dispatch, one is the company's lunch room. The gym is now the data center. File cabinets sit in the old locker recesses. The original terrazzo floors line the hallways.
Mr. Dagostino said he was not daunted but excited about taking on the renovation. "I love the high ceilings and big windows. And you can't wear a place like this out. When it's green outside, it's beautiful here, and we can open our windows."
Mr. Dagostino started the company 40 years ago on West Warrington Avenue in Allentown. He specialized in electrical wiring.
When telephone companies were deregulated in the 1980s, he began contracting with telephone equipment manufacturers. From there, the company moved into data cabling. It now also provides voice, data and broadcast video, multi-media, security systems, access control, camera installation and monitoring.
From its second location on Banksville Road, it grew into a larger space Downtown before outgrowing that.
Asked if 27,000 square feet in Hays is enough, Mr. Dagostino said, "It depends on my ambition." Then he noted that technological advances have less to do about space than ever before: "Freeing people from their desks is one of the services we offer our clients."
Diana Nelson Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.