Industrious couple making progress in Pittsburgh's Allegheny West
February 3, 2014 11:10 PM
Elaine Stone and Mitchell Schwartz have turned the lights back on at Hipwell.
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The old Hipwell flashlight factory in Allegheny West is humming with new life as the repurposed home of SMARTSolution Technologies, a custom audio-visual technology and equipment company.
Mitchell Schwartz founded the company in the mid-1990s and moved it to 831 W. North Ave. two years ago from the city's Knoxville neighborhood.
Mr. Schwartz and his wife, Elaine Stone, bought five adjacent buildings on North Avenue at the end of 2010. Four formerly housed the Hipwell Manufacturing Co., the other Donaldson's Transfer. The couple's original plan was to renovate space for 11 condos and their own living quarters.
"Our plans kept evolving based on what we could do to move forward without outside financing," Ms. Stone said.
After establishing the new business on the North Side along with their own makeshift quarters, serendipity intervened with a knock on the door last year. A scout for the new A&E show "Those Who Kill" was looking for immense industrial warehouse space for a series of location shots.
"They wanted a scary basement," said Ms. Stone.
The cast and crew set up shop for three months over parts of three buildings, with more than nine sets that included a torture chamber and use of the couple's 1979 Airstream Motorcoach.
Local industrial settings are becoming fewer and farther between, and there aren't many more lucrative arrangements than the ones you make with the entertainment industry.
The show, which stars Chloe Sevigny as a homicide detective, premieres on March 3.
"If it gets renewed, we will be the happiest campers," Ms. Stone said.
Ms. Stone said it didn't take much to alert the neighborhood that life had returned to the Hipwell building.
"We put some flags outside and I had a planter with mint in it," she said. "People from the neighborhood came by taking pictures. Even just a few small touches made a difference."
For years, the 800 block of West North was lifeless, dark and grim, an industrial belt in one of Pittsburgh's smallest but most affluent neighborhoods.
Hipwell, which closed in the mid-2000s, established there in the 1880s in a brick fortress with foot-thick walls between each building. It started out as a stamping plant and later manufactured automobile grilles, telephone parts and the first Lionel train. In the 1920s, Hipwell attained some of the first patents on the flashlight, having invented the single cell battery. Two million flashlights were produced there every year.
Mr. Schwartz and Ms. Stone inherited hundreds of boxes of flashlight parts. They have incorporated flashlights as hanging light fixtures in a street-level lobby of their briefing, training and events center. A chandelier made of old chairs from the building also hangs in the lobby.
The couple will occupy the entire fourth floor once they finish renovations. The current plan is to renovate space for four other apartments, allowing for the possibility of eight more at some point, Mr. Schwartz said.
The Allegheny West Civic Council recognized the potential of that block when so many buildings were vacant at the same time. None suggested a future of manufacturing to deter possible housing developers, said John DeSantis, vice president of the council.
"We did a master plan for redevelopment of that entire block into housing for sale and rent at multiple price points and began assembling properties and looking for other parties," he said.
The council recently sold one of those buildings, a former Value Added Foods warehouse around the corner on Galveston Street, to a developer who intends to renovate it into housing, he said. The council has just one building left in the block to redevelop or sell, a historic municipal stable directly across from the Hipwell building.
"The remarkable opportunity is having an entire block ready to be reused with solid buildings that are the perfect neighborhood size but with lots of space that can be interpreted in many ways," Mr. DeSantis said. "We think our master plan is ready to pop in 2014."
Diana Nelson Jones: email@example.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.
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