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Historic designation urged for rest of Fineview incline

Tony LaRussa
| Thursday, Nov. 4, 2010

As local historic landmarks go, the red-brick building and soot-streaked stone retaining wall that runs several hundred yards along Henderson Street in the North Side give little indication of their importance to Pittsburgh's past.

Trees, shrubs and weeds have pushed their way through joints of the wall's cut sandstone blocks, and sections lean precariously under the weight of the hillside rising above.

The walls and building along Federal Street are remnants of an incline that curved 70 degrees and ferried riders up and down the hillside between old Allegheny City and Nunnery Hill. The neighborhood perched on the hill behind Allegheny General Hospital was named for Flemish nuns who ran a school for girls there in the 1830s. It became Fineview.

"What's left of the incline, which ran from 1887 to 1899, is a part of Fineview's history that's worth saving," said Ed Lewis, director of Fineview Citizens Council. "We consider this a community asset that can be utilized in our long-range plan to create an inviting gateway to the neighborhood."

On Wednesday, the city's Historic Review Commission agreed.

In a 4-2 vote, the commission recommended that Pittsburgh City Council designate the structures as historic landmarks. Commissioners Linda McClellan and John Jennings voted against the nomination.

The incline was designed by prominent civil engineer Samuel Diescher, who designed the Duquesne Incline and the machinery for the Ferris wheel.

The building at the corner of Federal and Henderson was the incline's base station but was not part of the original petition seeking historic preservation. Commissioners thought it was important to preserve the structure and the wall.

The building's owner, Jonathan Shepherd, does not have to agree to a historic preservation designation for the process to proceed. He could not be reached.

"In the long run, I think the historic designation will be a benefit to the community and the owner of the property, especially with all the development that's occurring along Federal Street," said Walt Spak, vice president of the citizens council.

"And if there are any ways we can help the owner by obtaining grants or whatever is available to make improvements, we'll be behind him," he said.

A historic designation means property owners must obtain commission approval before making changes to the exterior.

Bill Weis, who grew up in Fineview and is a citizens council board member, said preserving the structures is a "big first step."

"When we were kids, we used to play up where the tracks were located," said Weis, 63. "It was deteriorating then and has only gotten worse. So if we're going to save it, now is the time."

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