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Point Park University setting the stage for new Pittsburgh Playhouse

| Monday, Jan. 12, 2015, 2:01 p.m.
An artist rendering of Point Park University's Pittsburgh Playhouse along Forbes Avenue, Downtown.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Point Park University President Paul Hennigan discusses Point Park University's plans for the new Pittsburgh Playhouse during a visit to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Monday, Jan. 12, 2015.

Officials at Point Park University plan to dismantle facades of three historic buildings they will demolish on Forbes Avenue and incorporate them into the school's $74 million Pittsburgh Playhouse complex, despite opposition from two historic-preservation groups.

University President Paul Hennigan said the school, with enrollment of 3,841, weighed proposals for a decade and settled on the plan for the 1.6-acre complex between Wood and Smithfield streets, Downtown. Students, faculty and preservation experts were part of the design process, he said.

Matthew Falcone, president of Preservation Pittsburgh, has yet to see the most recent plans. But he said earlier plans did not sufficiently maintain the district's character.

“We cannot support the demolition or the reconstruction of these facades. It's our hope that, through discussions with the university and the city, we can better preserve the facades,” Falcone said.

The complex, with entrances on Forbes Avenue and Fourth Street, will consolidate Point Park's theater program, in the old Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland, into a spacious facility occupying most of a city block. It will have a 560-seat theater passersby can peer into through floor-to-ceiling windows on Forbes Avenue.

“We designed this from the inside out,” Hennigan said, adding that 34 architects competed to win the commission awarded to Cleveland-based architectural firm Westlake Reed Leskosky.

The facility will integrate the former Colonial Trust Co. building designed by Frederick J. Osterling that serves as the University Center and the former 1903 Pittsburgh Stock Exchange on Fourth Avenue into the complex.

“Stained-glass ceilings (at the Stock Exchange) that have not been seen in decades will be visible,” said university architect and planner Elmer B. Burger II.

It will utilize facades of historic buildings at 320, 322 and 330 Forbes Avenue. Point Park hopes to begin dismantling the facades and numbering them for reinstallation as soon as March. Hennigan said the school explored using them as part of the theater, but they aren't strong enough.

Before the work can begin, Point Park needs city approval. A hearing before the city Planning Commission is slated for Feb. 10.

Spokesmen for The Young Preservationist Association and Preservation Pittsburgh say the plan does not do enough to preserve the historic character of a corridor that once was Pittsburgh's version of Wall Street.

Hennigan said Point Park, which restored 10 historic buildings as part of its urban campus, wanted to do as much as possible to incorporate the spirit of the structures.

“We want it to look like it has been there for a while. The Pittsburgh Playhouse started as a community organization in the 1930s. We're honoring that legacy,” he said.

Arthur Ziegler, president of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, which has worked with the university, commended Point Park.

“They're very good stewards of preservation,” he said. “They are restoring the stock exchange as part of the program and taking the facade of the Casino theater and making it an important piece of sculpture in the courtyard that will be visible from the street and both levels of the building, and they're working the other facades into various points of the structure.”

Ellen Kitzerow, chair of the Young Preservationists, said the group “definitely would have preferred to see the facades remain on the street and the playhouse built around them. What Point Park is doing is chopping up the facades and displaying them as art.”

Kitzerow said she's hopeful that Mayor Bill Peduto will talk with university officials. “I know the mayor was able to influence Point Park to retain all three of the facades and we're very grateful for that,” she said.

Peduto could not be reached for comment.

The university will seek public comment on its plan at an informational meeting from 4 to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 21, at University Center, in the George Rowland White Theatre on the second floor.

Hennigan said Point Park raised about $45 million of the cost of the complex it hopes to open in fall 2017. Construction is expected to cost about $53 million. The remainder of the $74 million total includes site acquisition costs and an endowment for building maintenance.

Hennigan said the facility will allow the university to increase enrollment in its Conservatory of Performing Arts by 150 students. It will operate using proceeds from ticket sales and student tuition dollars.

Ziegler said the theater that will be visible through windows on Forbes Avenue should give the public an understanding of how a theater operates.

“It is going to be remarkable in theater design in the United States,” Ziegler said.

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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