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Architect defines the future by building on the past

| Sunday, Nov. 1, 2009

If there's a bright spot in these difficult economic times, Ellis Schmidlapp finds it in historic structures that have been saved from the wrecking ball when revitalization projects are canceled or put on hold because of lack of funding.

"Oddly enough, buildings are preserved in a bad economy because people don't have money to knock them down," he says. "The greatest threat is in boom times, when someone wants to do something bigger and better. A down economy is good for preservation. That's why places such as Nantucket (Mass.) and Charleston (S.C.) were preserved. Those areas went through real declines."

Schmidlapp is the founder and president of Landmarks Design Associates on Pittsburgh's South Side and a noted architect who specializes in restoration with a goal of maintaining the historic integrity of many of the city's structures.

His celebrated work underscores the philosophy of Arthur P. Ziegler Jr., president and co-founder with James Van Trump of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, who firmly believes that the key to a city's future is rooted in preserving its past.

"In many cases, it's the historic architecture that lines the streets, residential or commercial, that is the core attraction for retaining people, bringing them back and attracting them," Ziegler says. "It is vital to protect historic architecture. It's actually a central tool to revitalization."

For Schmidlapp, historic preservation always has been a concern. He earned a bachelor of architecture degree in 1970 at Carnegie Mellon University and served an internship with History and Landmarks during the turbulence of the East Street Expressway project, when preservationists fought against the demolition of St. Mary's Priory and St. Boniface Church and ultimately saved the historic buildings.

He worked for History and Landmarks for nearly a decade, where he served as director of historical buildings development. He was responsible for directing the original master planning, restoration and new construction of the 52-acre Station Square project as well as many other major architectural restorations. He established his own firm, Landmarks Design Associates, which was incorporated in 1978.

Ziegler says Schmidlapp cared about the preservation of historical structures in the city at a time when others hardly noticed them.

"Ellis began doing this work when no one was interested in doing restoration of 19th- and early 20th-century buildings," he says. "He began learning very early and built a lifetime of studying them, restoring them and adapting them to new uses."

Among his firm's more recent successes are the Schenley Park Visitors Center and the University Club in Oakland. The Schenley Park project included a restoration of a building from the early 1900s that Schmidlapp says was "badly treated over the years with an unfortunate addition on the front."

Richard Reed, executive vice president of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, says the building was used over the years as a garden center, a nature museum run by the city in the late '50s and '60s, and a storage facility in the '70s and '80s. Since no architectural renderings were available when he undertook the project, Schmidlapp's main visual resource for the 1 1/2 -year restoration was an image of the building on a vintage postcard from a series of Pittsburgh scenes.

Landmarks Design and Schmidlapp developed a design that, among other features, restored the heavy timber roof structure, added a new slate roof and incorporated "green" features and locally fabricated woodworking. The building opened in 2001. New uses for the building include a coffee shop, gift shop and visitors center. Their design earned a Preservation Pennsylvania Award of Merit and a Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission Award of Merit.

"Ellis' gift is that he is a master in restoring and recapturing historic buildings while introducing modern amenities into the design to make them energy-efficient and environmentally sensitive," Reed says.

At the University Club in Oakland, which was designed by Henry Hornbostel, Schmidlapp and Williams Hashinger, Landmarks Design's partner in charge, worked to restore the building with new heating, cooling, electrical and plumbing systems, a new roof deck overlooking the Cathedral of Learning, restored public rooms, an enlarged and redesigned entry lobby, a new coffee bar and restaurant and more. The work was completed earlier this year.

Park Rankin, university architect for the University of Pittsburgh, which owns the facility, said, "LDA did a very good job of finding light fixtures, chandeliers and furnishings that matched the era the University Club was built, around 1923."

Schmidlapp also won praise from Point Park University for his attention to detail in helping with the renovation of Lawrence Hall, originally built in 1927. The building today houses the university's dance studios, dining facilities, classrooms, dorms and bookstore. It originally was constructed as the Keystone Athletic Club, designed by noted architect Benno Janssen, and later served as the Sherwyn Hotel.

Bill Cameron, vice president of operations at Point Park, says the architect's historical research was meticulous, and included taking paint sample layers in the ballroom and lobby "to try and get the flavor of the original colors" of the interior walls.

"Wherever possible, Ellis is respectful of the existing architecture and sympathetic to it," Cameron says. "Especially on the first floor, the building was dark and gloomy from the outside, very uninviting. Now it's bright, open and lively."

One of Schmidlapp's most recent restorations is at Fifth and Market streets Downtown, where three historic commercial buildings were saved from demolition by the city when History and Landmarks purchased them and Landmarks Design Associates was selected to provide the architectural services. The Fifth and Market project consists of two late 19th-century commercial buildings facing Market Street and an adjoining retail structure facing Fifth Avenue.

The Fifth Avenue building, known historically as Regal Shoes, is one of the few Downtown buildings in a commercial medieval style with stucco walls and heavy timber detailing at the roof and first-floor storefronts, according to the architect. It also is one of the few small-scale commercial buildings by the firm of Alden and Harlow, best known as architects for Carnegie Institute, the Duquesne Club and century houses for Pittsburgh's industrial elite. Thomas Stevenson was Landmarks Design's partner in charge for the project.

Schmidlapp, who originally is from Piqua, Ohio, north of Dayton, says he appreciates the topography of Pittsburgh, "which has created some great neighborhoods." He finds it difficult to choose his favorite community, though. He currently lives in Schenley Farms in Oakland.

"That's like asking a father who is his favorite child," he says, smiling. "I've lived in Allegheny West, Schenley Farms and Shadyside as a student. I also like Lawrenceville and the South Side."

His profession presents its share of opportunities and challenges, he says, and his experience has taught him how to deal with both. He is an advocate for the "green" movement and welcomes the opportunities to make old buildings more energy-efficient through historic preservation.

Examples of his handiwork can be found all over the city, from his original master planning, restoration and new construction at Station Square and the design of 85 new and restored houses in the Manchester historic neighborhood, to an addition to Heinz Memorial Chapel on the University of Pittsburgh campus and the restoration and expansion of the Duquesne Incline's upper station.

It's apparent that, as an architect with a flair for reviving the unique character of historic buildings through his designs, one of his greatest pleasures is in knowing that his preservation work is appreciated.

"When I drive home from work, I see people using the roof deck at the University Club," he says. "It was historically built as a roof deck and is now completely restored. It's fun to see the building being used on a summer day."

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