An aerial view of the planned development near the site of the Ninth & Penn garage Downtown. Photo courtesy of Davis Companies.

Thirty years after Pittsburgh’s Penn-Liberty Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places, the city’s Historic Review Commission (HRC) has approved a new development they hope will “balance the future of the city with preserving its past.”

Earlier this month — with just two votes out of three — the HRC approved the demolition of two early 20th-century loft buildings at 819 and 821 Penn Avenue Downtown. The Davis Companies of Boston plan to build luxury condos, 30,000 square feet of street-level retail and a new parking garage on the site.

But some original design elements will remain. By using a practice called “façadism,” the developer will preserve the façades of the buildings and affix them to the new construction.

Before demolition, the HRC will require the developer to document and photograph the buildings and inventory historic features like decorative brickwork, detailed terracotta elements and intricate cornices. The records will be housed in the Heinz History Center.

Ernie Hogan, acting chair of the HRC, believes this approach will allow the developers to mitigate structural issues like crumbling plaster and water damage while creating a unified appearance: “To look at it from the street, it will feel like a complete block when it’s done.”

The decision wasn’t taken lightly.

“We would’ve liked to have saved the building,” says Hogan. “Long story short, the process has taken eight to 10 months of work with the parking authority, the developer and city leadership to determine the most appropriate approach.”

Other iterations recommended by The Davis Companies included removing part of the rear structure while retaining the front and restoring the entire building.

“They looked at the typology and historical fabric of the street, looking backwards to see what was originally there,” says Hogan. “They’re mimicking these two buildings in the new buildings.”

The building at 819 and 821 Penn Avenue as it currently stands. Photo courtesy of Preservation Pittsburgh.

Preservation planner Jeff Slack cautions that façadism can set a dangerous precedent for historic preservation.

“Context is key — both in terms of being able to understand the significance of historic buildings, but also in terms of finding the highest and best use for a project site,” says Slack. “In many instances, I’d rather see the loss of these elements as opposed to making them ornaments.”

Hogan and Slack both cite the recent restoration of Point Park University’s Playhouse as an example of façadism that took the ornamental approach — to detrimental effect.

Slack adds, “Removing and adhering two to three feet of a historic building to a new building as a simple design element risks sending the message that historic buildings aren’t valued in Pittsburgh.”

But, he says, his concerns have as much to do with politics as they do with preservation: “From the perspective of policy and good government, I’m more concerned that just two members of the HRC could ultimately make the decision to demolish.”

Developer Todd Palcic understands the challenges of blending old and new while addressing practical concerns like fire safety code.

“I can’t blame anyone for tearing down those two buildings because they are not economically viable,” says Palcic, who was lauded for his 2014 renovation of the Lando Building on the 900 block of Penn.

But Preservation Pittsburgh Board Director Emeritus Melissa McSwigan thinks historic buildings can be successfully woven into the fabric of a modern development. She points to Trek Development’s Eighth and Penn project, which will unite two rehabilitated historic buildings with new construction in the Cultural District.

Ultimately, McSwigan and Slack want preservation to be seen as a viable option.

“Historic preservationists have a reputation as ‘building huggers’ and that’s not an accurate picture,” says Slack. “None of this is black and white.” 

Emily Stimmel

Emily fell in love with the written word as a teenager, when she published zines and wrote for her school paper. Today, she is a freelance writer with a decade and a half of experience in non-profit communications. She enjoys cooking, reading, crafting and exploring Pittsburgh with her husband and two sons.