The Brimstone Building, one of YPA's Top Ten Best Preservation Opportunities. All photos courtesy YPA.

In 1963, when  New York City razed palatial Penn Station to make way for Madison Square Garden, The New York Times penned a scathing op-ed that ended with the indictment, “And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”

‘Cause once it’s gone, it ain’t never coming back.

Every year for past 15 years, the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh has highlighted 10 historic structures in Western Pennsylvania whose existence is in peril.

“These places are significant to the history of the region, and they sure do need some love,” says YPA Executive Director Matthew Craig. “They have contributed in the past, and what we’re trying to show is how they can contribute in the future.”

This year, the number one spot goes to Virgil Cantini’s “Mosaic Tunnel” inside the pedestrian tunnel at Chatham and Seventh Downtown. Created in 1964, the installation, made up of three dozen individual mosaic panels, may end up a casualty of the plan to cap the Crosstown Expressway with a park reconnecting the Hill District to Downtown.

Virgil Cantini’s “Mosaic Tunnel.”
Virgil Cantini’s “Mosaic Tunnel.”

Whereas last year’s list contained three churches, this year’s has three theaters: Butler’s Penn Theater Performance Company, Perry Hilltop’s Atlas Theatre and the Regent Square Theater.

The good news is that, if all goes according to plan, the Regent Square Theater will re-open October 29.

“We wanted to highlight the fact that it’s really a significant cultural hub on the east side of Pittsburgh,” says Craig. “We really wanted to lend our voice of support for Pittsburgh Filmmakers and the work they’re trying to do to maintain the theater.”

It wouldn’t be YPA’s first success story: past top 10 inclusions have given a second life to the Dormont Pool (2005), Highland Park’s Union Project (2004) and the Strip District’s Cork Factory (2003), among many others.

That’s not to say there haven’t been losses. Craig mentions a Washington County home that was torn down that was part of the Underground Railroad.

“There are going to be those stories,” he says. “It’s a great big loss, but there are only so many resources to go around.”

Regent Square Theater.

Other structures on this year’s list include Wilkinsburg’s Lohr Building, which the YPA heart bombed in February. Outside the city, there’s Connellsville’s Brimstone Building, New Kensington’s Alcoa Research Facility, the 200-year-old James Hezlip Tavern in Fayette City, and Monessen’s Castle Blood, a “hauntingly beautiful” Victorian mansion constructed in 1905.

YPA includes one broad selection most years, and for 2017, it’s “farms and farmland across Western PA.”

Nominees for the annual top 10 list are solicited on YPA’s website. Typically, there are no repeats from year to year.

Craig says that those interested in the plight of these and other historic structures would be wise to remember the words of Benjamin Franklin: “If you would persuade, you must appeal to interest rather than intellect.”

“I hate to make it sound so base,” he says, “but ultimately it’s about real estate. The real estate has to have value, it has to contribute to the economy of the neighborhood it’s in, pay its bills and property taxes and rehabilitation costs, or else it’s not going to come together.”

But they’ll keep fighting, especially for buildings with the greatest historical import, like the National Negro Opera Company house in West Homewood – a structure YPA’s has been championing since they started 15 years ago.

“We’re like a dog biting someone’s pant leg — we’re not going to let go of it. “

Brian Conway

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.