Vintage Pittsburgh buildings get new life

John Conti
| Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012, 8:59 p.m.

Restore, don't “modernize!”

That's a simple enough injunction, but one that is only recently becoming current in development circles.

Too often in the past, attractive, old commercial buildings have been subjected to “modernizations” that fundamentally destroyed their good looks and left neighborhoods looking decayed as the modernizations themselves aged.

So, it's gratifying to see that trend reversed these days in some notable places.

One place right now is on Baum Boulevard where two historically important, prominently situated and architecturally fine buildings are undergoing restoration and “re-purposing” — giving new uses to old buildings.

Both buildings are remnants of what used to be Pittsburgh's first “Automobile Row” — once a mile-and-a-quarter string of car dealerships, repair shops and even the world's first drive-in gas station, all built in the early years of the 20th century.

There was also a huge five-story facility built by Ford Motor Co. about 1915 to assemble the Model T from components and sell it right out of the assembly building to Pittsburgh buyers.

This remarkable building — still standing at Baum and Morewood — is being renovated by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. It is near Hillman Cancer Center, and UPMC says it will someday use it as laboratory space.

The other renovation is at Baum and Roup, where the old Baum Boulevard Dodge showrooms and service facilities are being converted into an Aldi's supermarket and offices. Built in the 1930s, the building was designed with a beautifully proportioned, streamlined sleekness by Albert Kahn, a versatile Detroit architect often regarded as the leading industrial architect of the 20th century.

Both renovations pay particular attention to the historic appearances of the buildings, though deep-pocketed UPMC is going further in its restoration than what's happening with the Dodge building, owned by Detroit investors.

The history of the UPMC building is fascinating. When Henry Ford decided to assemble Model T's closer to buyers, he built a number of these “factories plus showrooms” in cities around the country — all to a very similar design by a Seattle architect. This one was built alongside the old Pennsylvania Railroad mainline, which runs through Shadyside and Bloomfield in a cut well below street level. A rail spur went into the lower level of the building, at the bottom of a 90-foot-high crane bay that's still there.

Parts were shipped from Detroit or other locations and delivered by the industrial crane to various floors. Assembly began on the fifth floor and was completed on each of the lower floors. Ultimately, finished Model T's would be rolled out and put on display in the first-floor showrooms facing Baum and Morewood, ready for eager Pittsburghers to buy and drive away.

Car manufacturing ceased sometime in the 1930s, and the building was then used for various light-industrial facilities. Over time, some of the upstairs windows were filled in with cement block and decorative elements decayed, giving the building a decrepit look overall. The downstairs showrooms were most recently used by PaperMart party products.

UPMC's renovation is being carried out by Celli-Flynn Brennan architects and is a textbook example of good practices.

A prominent feature of the old building was its huge steel windows with multitudes of small panes. But after nearly 100 years with little maintenance, they were rusted and inoperable. Celli-Flynn Brennan replaced them with new metal windows that retain just enough of the small-pane character of the originals to preserve the looks and scale of the old building. All the red brick on the facade was cleaned and repointed, and a terra-cotta cornice and other details were repaired and restored.

Farther down Baum, at the corner with Roup, the former Dodge building is an even more significant piece, architecturally. Built of stone, concrete and plate glass, it is very similar to other showrooms that Albert Kahn designed in the '30s for Chrysler Corp. in the “streamline moderne” style of the times

Kahn had an unusual architectural career. His functional early designs for American automobile factories helped inspire the European fathers of modern architecture, who wanted to develop a style that would be expressive of the machine age. Yet, he designed stately neo-classical buildings at the University of Michigan and even a gorgeous Cotswold-style stone mansion for Edsel Ford. Whatever style he chose, though, his buildings were exceptional.

Aldi's and the building's owners have committed themselves to maintaining the materials, lines and proportions of the building, though, sadly, they are not replacing the windows in kind.

Making a mistake that many homeowners installing replacement windows make, they are using a single pane of glass for each window rather than the pattern of several panes that marked the original, and they are then applying interior grids that will sit behind the single panes. While they have been scrupulous about matching these new grids to the color and proportions of the originals, this is never as good visually as showing the window dividers on the outside. A comparison with the UPMC building, where extra money was spent to keep a more original look, will show the difference.

In both cases, though, redevelopment is going a step beyond what's necessary for functionality. And that's absolutely necessary in a city that wants to preserve its attractiveness and livability.

John Conti writes about architecture for Trib Total Media.

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