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Decaying landmark in East Liberty may get new life

John Conti
| Sunday, Sept. 4, 2011

The eminent Daniel Burnham of Chicago was the darling architect of the Pittsburgh establishment a century ago.

His firm designed several buildings for Henry Clay Frick, including the opulent Frick Building on Grant Street, and several more for Henry Oliver, including, of course, the Oliver Building on Smithfield.

He also worked with Alexander Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and designed the glorious Rotunda that fronts the old Pennsylvania Station (now "The Pennsylvanian" office and apartment building).

So, it is welcome news this past week to anyone who cares about the architecture of Pittsburgh that a state redevelopment grant for, of all things, a modest parking garage is now likely to enable the restoration of another significant work by Burnham in our town -- the Highland Building in East Liberty.

It is hard to over-dramatize the inglorious arc of fate that the Highland Building has experienced in recent years. A13-story office building commissioned by Frick and opened in 1910, it has been unoccupied for about 20 years, and has served mainly as a derelict and decrepit reminder of the 40-year-long decline of the East Liberty neighborhood.

Its once-classy interiors have been all but destroyed. About half of a running band of Classical ornament at the top of the building has been removed and replaced by featureless aluminum strips. There's 4 feet of water in the basement, and several small trees grow from the roof. The street front is completely boarded-up. Even an entrance marquee installed in a mid-1960s modernization is now falling apart. To a casual observer, the building is probably little more than an eyesore right now.

Yet the building -- which stands at the center of East Liberty across South Highland Avenue from the huge East Liberty Presbyterian Church -- is a nationally recognized landmark and a fine representative of the "Chicago School" of skyscrapers that reshaped our cities a century ago.

Viewed carefully from the front, the Highland Building has the special quality of the "Chicago School" skyscrapers -- a solid granite base, then a gleaming white terra-cotta exterior (still mostly intact) that sweeps up to the roof, curving outward at the top to proclaim the building's end. It is full of 19th century recollections of Classical Greek details fashioned from terra cotta. Its windows -- typical of the Chicago style -- are huge, admitting great quantities of daylight to the interior.

Despite its outward elegance, the building has nevertheless defeated, over the years, about a half dozen proposals for renovation by both in-town and out-of-town developers.

But with state approval Wednesday of a $4.5-million grant for a 180-space parking garage needed as part of a redevelopment plan, there is new confidence among neighborhood activists, the city's planners and a new group of local developers that this time a plan will stick. It's a proposal by Massaro Properties, a unit of the local construction firm, and Walnut Capital, the big East End landlord, to develop the Highland Building and an adjacent three-story building into 129 apartments, with the parking garage in-between.

The target market for these mostly one-bedroom apartments will be graduate students at the city's nearby universities or medical residents at the city's hospitals, or, perhaps, employees of Google at its new offices up the street.

The plan is to strip the interior to the steel skeleton, keeping only the external facades intact, and rebuild from there.

The overall project will cost about $31 million. Financing will come from private lending (with HUD guarantees for the investors), tax credits that can be earned for the rehab of an historic building, and the state redevelopment grant for the parking garage. Architectural work is already underway, and a firm date for starting construction may be set soon.

The Highland Building will have huge advantages reused as an apartment building. It has a U-shaped configuration and with its large windows will have natural light entering all parts of every floor.

What's even more important is location. It's just down the street from the new Target store, and around the corner from the retail complex adjacent to Whole Foods. It is within shouting distance of the restored Kelly-Strayhorn Theater. And the new East Liberty branch of the Carnegie Library is just on the other side of the Presbyterian Church. The PAT busway -- offering a 15-minute ride to Downtown -- is about a block away.

"We were advised at the outset to start redeveloping East Liberty from the fringes in, and not try to do the center first," said Mayor Luke Ravenstahl on a recent tour of the building. "And that's just the way this is working out,"

The building is owned by the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Today, as a resurgence in the fortunes of East Liberty goes on all around it, the Highland Building, when brought back to life, can become an exciting element in the future of a valued neighborhood.

Photo Galleries

Highland Building

Highland Building

A decaying landmark in East Liberty may get a new life.

Additional Information:

Daniel Burnham

The renowned architect, who planned the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, designed a number of Pittsburgh buildings. A few of the best known:

Frick Building, Grant Street, Downtown

Oliver Building, Smithfield Street, Downtown

Pennsylvania Station (now the Pennsylvanian), Downtown

Highland Building, East Liberty

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