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Senator John Heinz History Center expanding into former chair warehouse

Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
The Heinz History Center (left), seen here Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014 is planning an expansion into a building on the 1200 block of Penn Avenue. A recently-built walkway going over Mulberry Way connects the two buildings.

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The Heinz History Center is the third most popular attraction in Pittsburgh, according to Trip Advisor, drawing more than a quarter-million visitors a year.

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Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014, 9:40 p.m.

The Senator John Heinz History Center is turning a long-vacant early 20th century chair warehouse on Penn Avenue into a home for its 135-year-old artifact collection and a new source of revenue to augment charitable donations.

The museum has spent nearly two years and $6 million renovating 1221 Penn Ave., the former nine-story brick warehouse of the Marietta Chair Co.

“When they build warehouses like that, it's as strong as Fort Knox,” said Betty Arenth, Heinz's senior vice president. “It can hold the collection we have stored on the upper floors without any problem at all.”

Arenth said staff began moving artifacts in November to the 97-year-old building, dubbed the Museum Support Center, which Heinz History Center bought for $1.35 million in 2011. It was vacant for about a decade.

In February 2013, the center received a $2 million state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Project grant and pledged a $4 million match.

Five of the floors will house the museum's artifact collection, which previously were shipped to storage facilities when not on display. Keeping them on-site means less opportunity for damage, Arenth said, and the museum will save about $70,000 a year in storage fees.

The building has a specially designed, Smithsonian-standard heating and air-conditioning system to control temperature and humidity. The three spare floors will be leased to other museums in the region, Arenth said.

“Over the next 25, 50, 70 years, as our collection grows, we will probably need those floors,” Arenth said.

Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Washington-based nonprofit Center for the Future of Museums, an initiative of the American Alliance of Museums, said museums have had revenue streams sputter. Leasing space or running a conservation lab are ways to raise money, Merritt said.

“The economy is changing in fundamental ways, and museums are having to experiment with that,” she said.

For the tax year ending in June 2012, the center received almost $8.9 million in grants and contributions. The previous year, it received nearly $5.6 million, according to the center's tax filings.

Arenth said opening the center to special event rentals has helped generate revenue.

“We've had to become more entrepreneurial,” she said.

One storage floor will be open to the public, starting this fall. Visitors will be able to cross a newly built walkway from the main center to the fourth floor of the Museum Support Center for a “visible storage” exhibit, showcasing unique items from the museum's collection normally not on display, such as antique cars, Civil War-era artifacts and early 1900s police and fire equipment.

“It's not an exhibit that tells a single story; it's just some of the best of our collection,” Arenth said.

Finishing touches are in the works on the first floor. News releases from the museum have indicated a publicly accessible restoration center, though Arenth said an announcement regarding those plans is expected in April.

Contractors are restoring the original hardwood floors and adding lighting. Construction is expected to be finished by March.

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or

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