'Lost' buildings have a style that can never be replaced

John Conti
| Saturday, June 15, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

What are the qualities of old buildings that make them worth preserving, sometimes even after their primary use has gone away?

In some cases, the beauty of a building is so blindingly obvious that a city still regrets tearing it down 50 years later. That's what's happening in New York City, where nostalgia for the old Penn Station — a Beaux Arts masterpiece razed in 1963 — is so strong that they've been talking in recent weeks about building a new station as remarkable as the old one.

Here in Pittsburgh, you can still hear similarly strong laments for the demolished interior (the exterior is still intact) of the old Mellon Bank building on Smithfield Street at Fifth Avenue, a palatial neoclassical banking hall nicknamed “the Cathedral of Earning.”

Its 230-foot-long marble interior, with a ring of 20 Ionic columns supporting a 62-foot-high skylit ceiling, was destroyed 14 years ago. Its replacement — a multilevel, suburban-like Lord & Taylor store — stayed in business all of four years. This building is topical again because it's in the midst of another renovation, this time as offices for PNC Corp. Of course, that lost interior can never be restored.

And so it goes. Preservation issues are always with us. Should the historic district in Manchester be expanded? Can the handsome old Schenley High School building in Oakland be successfully converted to apartments? And the issue that's most in the news today: Should we try to keep intact the entire old Produce Terminal in the Strip District as a new development goes up between it and the river?

Cases can be made and discussions can become heated. But each and every preservation question has to be judged carefully on its own merits. There often aren't easy answers. But if you hear an outcry over saving an “old building,” it's never a good idea to dismiss it out of hand. Once a building is demolished, it's gone for good. And it's rare that a saved building inspires a community's regrets.

So, let's take a look at what's special about some of these buildings.

Manhattan's Penn Station, opened in 1910, was a vast and beautiful gateway. Entering from the street through classical colonnades, you descended into enormous interior spaces, some as much as 138 feet high, all flooded with daylight from windows above you. The tracks, then as now, were electrified and ran underground, and as you descended you could observe all the bustle of the station on the concourses below.

Today, this very same site is still the nation's busiest rail hub, but thousands of travelers and commuters are greeted now by what might as well be just a large, low-ceilinged subway station. It is dismally squashed below Madison Square Garden, the sports arena that replaced the majestic terminal in the '60s.

There's an effort right now to limit the renewal of an expiring city permit that the operators of the now-aging Garden hold. The Municipal Arts Society solicited architects for ideas and has been provocatively promoting the possibility of a new Penn Station. Fascinatingly, one idea precisely evokes in a modern way the salient experience of the old station — entering from above into a broad and open space with daylight all around you.

The old Mellon Bank building here inspired awe, too. As you walked through it, you couldn't help but be reminded of the great 19th-century fortunes that built our city. At its 1924 opening, it was celebrated by a national architecture magazine as “… probably the finest edifice in the world devoted exclusively to banking.” Many of us went out of our way to show it when taking visitors around town.

But it has been a dark, shuttered hulk in recent years. Now, PNC is converting it to six floors of offices. But they will make at least one significant improvement. They are tearing down plasterboard walls that Lord & Taylor put up inside to block the building's huge windows.

So, what does the loss of two great neoclassical buildings have to do with the fortunes of a humble, workaday, red-brick fruit-and-vegetable depot in the Strip District? A lot, actually. Because the terminal building helps frame a public space unlike any other in our city. And if the lower third of the building is torn down, as the developer in the Strip wants, that impressive public space will disappear.

The Produce Terminal's extraordinary 1,500-foot length defines this space, with the terminal on the left, other warehouses on the right and the striking St. Stanislaus Kostka church at the end of the view. This is a vista of the kind that you normally see only in Europe, and as improvements are made in the Strip District and the terminal is repurposed to other uses as restaurants and shops, this could become a magnificent public plaza.

Two local architectural firms have advanced schemes to keep the visual impact of the 1,500-foot length of the terminal intact by opening up a passage through part of it rather than tearing a third of it down. This would allow access from 17th Street to the new developments planned between the terminal and the river.

It's a reasonable proposal requiring minimal expenditures for maximum results. Experiences like this space in the Strip, even when familiar on a daily basis, are what great public places are all about.

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

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