Historic Uptown building taking on a new persona
Alexander Denmarsh, left, and Dale McNutt of StartUptown are seen here at the old film vaults in the Paramount building, Uptown. The vaults safely stored highly flammable film stock.
The ornate terra cotta logo of Paramount Films over the entrance of the Paramount building.
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With sunlight pouring through rows of large windows and skylights in the old Paramount Pictures Film Exchange, Uptown, photographer Alexander Denmarsh held out his arms and said incredulously, "They were going to tear this place down."
Demolition was what UPMC wanted to happen at 1727 Boulevard of the Allies. It was thwarted when the Historic Review Commission granted the building historic status in January 2010.
UPMC sold the building for $50,000 to Rick Schweikert, a Realtor who was involved in the decade-long Gist Street Reading Series nearby. His purchase set the former local distribution hub of Paramount Studios on a halting journey of reuse after two decades of vacancy.
With shareholders and big plans, Mr. Schweikert raised money for a new roof and an updated electrical feed, but last fall he passed the weighty project on to Mr. Denmarsh for what he had paid, and Mr. Denmarsh bought out the shareholders.
By September, Mr. Denmarsh said, the place should be ready to accommodate Denmarsh Photography's growing business and expand StartUptown, an incubator of small businesses founded by artist and designer Dale McNutt. It currently houses nine start-ups in a 12,700-square-foot, mixed-use building on Fifth Avenue that he and his wife, Jeanne, also live in.
The Paramount building is StartUptown's "first opportunity to create a campus," said Mr. McNutt, who also is negotiating on a third building in the neighborhood to accommodate more start-ups.
"I could fill three spaces this size right now," he said during an interview at the Fifth Avenue site. "I have had to decline requests."
Mr. Schweikert, who had hoped to use the building for performance and film events, called Mr. McNutt before selling last year to discuss how to take the Paramount to the next level. "And I said, I can put 60 people in here," Mr. McNutt said.
Twelve companies of 60 workers under the aegis of StartUptown will occupy 6,000 square feet of the Paramount building.
"One of my visions," said Mr. Denmarsh, "was to have a cooperative work environment for creative types. I was looking to expand my business because it has outgrown my house.
"I do location work but have more and more calls for studio work and I have employees who are apprentices who have an increasing need for studio space."
He is offering the nonprofit StartUptown a below-market lease and covering operating costs for the first two to three years "to support him in his mission," he said.
With help from Bernie Lynch, who operates Strategic Development Solutions, Mr. McNutt got a $250,000 grant from the county's infrastructure and tourism fund to support renovation at the Paramount.
Mr. Denmarsh said he will supply the remaining $200,000.
In the film vault room at the back of the building, Mr. Denmarsh wants a 2,000-square-foot cafe and restaurant with potential to expand to a roof deck above. He said he is scouting for a restaurateur now.
The 8,500-square-foot building was Paramount's distribution and screening location for area theater owners from 1926 into the early 1980s. The county used it to store chemicals for several years afterward. In 2008, UPMC acquired the building in the course of its merger with Mercy Hospital.
Drew Levinson, then a film student, and Dan Holland, president of the Pittsburgh Young Preservationists Association, nominated the building for historic status in 2009. Detractors predicted that the designation would be the death knell for a building that had attracted no interest before historic review.
Mr. Schweikert's attitude was that historic review would make renovating it more expensive and more of a hassle, but he told the commission, "I plan to restore it anyway."
Of the sale to Mr. Denmarsh, he said, "It was the best way for me to move the building forward. I wanted to save that building but I don't have a passion for the tenant stuff. And Alexander was serious about the history of the building and taking it to the next level."
First Published April 16, 2012 12:29 am