Architectural rendering of the proposed design for the Forest Hills municipal building. Courtesy Pfaffmann + Associates.

Forest Hills’ unobtrusive brick municipal building, which sits along busy Ardmore Boulevard, has been in acute need of a renovation for some time. And that’s despite the fact that the building received a substantial addition in the 1990s to alleviate overcrowding.

Now, plans for a new building on a nearby open site give the borough a vivid image of both its future and its past. Along with proposed state-of-the art features like photovoltaic panels and geothermal wells to provide electricity and HVAC,  architect Rob Pfaffmann wants to move the shell of the old Westinghouse “atom smasher” and reconstruct it on the new building site.

The atom smasher, which is really a huge van de Graaff particle accelerator constructed in 1937, was the subject of substantial attention three years ago, when developer P&L Investments planned to restore it as part of a redevelopment of the old Westinghouse site. Plans fell through, and the lightbulb-shaped top of the structure has been lying forlornly by the side of the road ever since.

“Wouldn’t it be cool to bring this up to the [municipal building] site and make it a feature and an interpretive object?” Pfaffmann asked, initially to skepticism, then to increasing interest from the borough council.

The atom smasher is on the list of Pittsburgh Landmarks, and according to Franklin Toker’s 2009 book, Pittsburgh: A New Portrait, the structure was the first testing ground for the industrial application of nuclear physics. It was badly damaged when an attempt to move it last year went awry.

The Westinghouse Atom Smasher. Photo by Lee Paxton via Wikimedia Commons.
The Westinghouse atom smasher, in better days. Photo by Lee Paxton via Wikimedia Commons.

New York University professor Patrick Vitale sees the artifact as an achievement and a cautionary tale. “The Atom Smasher reminds us that long before roboticists invaded Lawrenceville, scientists contributed greatly to the growth and decline of the region.”

But moving the atom smasher is not a done deal. Pfaffmann says a feasibility study still has to be conducted.

The borough decided against reconstructing its existing building, which Pfaffmann says has numerous security and ADA issues, and borough council vice president William Tomasic says has “tremendous” utility bills. The borough council found it owned an underutilized site near Greensburg Pike, which would significantly reduce their overall construction costs, Tomasic says.

The new site is also higher and sunnier than the site of the older building. Pfaffmann explains that the broad site allows the building to be placed in a way that allows for maximum solar orientation, and have a low, broad roof with an optimum angle for photovoltaics.

At least some of the open space on the site will be taken over from parking for cars and used as a bioswale to capture rainwater. With ground-sourced geothermal systems serving HVAC functions, they aim for a building that generates about 80 percent of its own energy needs.

The architects presented preliminary design studies last month for a one-story, 14,000-square-foot shed-roofed structure. It will combine council chambers, administrative offices and the police headquarters with a community room and library.

Council member Patricia DeMarco is a long-time environmental policy analyst and former Executive Director of the Rachel Carson Homestead. “We have an amazing history in Forest Hills because of the nuclear facilities and other Westinghouse plants that have been here,” she says.

DeMarco believes that the expired atomic engineering and developing sustainable technologies go together well. “This is what was here before,” she says. “It gives you inspiration about where to go next.”

Charles Rosenblum is a journalist, critic, and scholar who specializes in the built environment and visual arts. His work has appeared in Architectural Record, Preservation, Architect’s Newspaper, Public Art Review, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly. Charles has taught history and theory of art and architecture at Carnegie Mellon University since 1998.