Schoolhouse Electric's headquarters in Portland, OR. Photo courtesy of Schoolhouse Electric.

A Portland retailer and a local design firm are on a mission to uncover the full potential of a large vacant building in East Liberty known as the Detective building or the former AAA headquarters.

Brian Faherty, owner of the lighting and lifestyle brand Schoolhouse Electric, settled on the Detective Building at 206 North Euclid in part due to the confusing one-way streets that ring East Liberty’s business district. “My Uber driver dropped me off in a different place than usual – near the McDonald’s,” says Faherty, who was in town to view the new Ace Hotel that his company had outfitted. “I looked up and I could feel my heart start beating faster. I was like, wow, this is incredible. I saw the loading dock and I knew I had to investigate.”

schoolhouse electric
Brian Faherty, owner of Schoolhouse Electric

Faherty’s luck continued as he discovered that the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA) owned the building. As Tom Link, director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the URA, said, “Our job is to make the business case for Pittsburgh and make sure companies are aware of the full array of products and programs we have to support them.”

URA staff worked with Faherty to see if the building was the right fit for Schoolhouse, and whether this project was the right fit for Pittsburgh. Once this feasibility study was completed the real estate dispensation process began and the URA Board voted earlier this month to sell the building to Schoolhouse, with one final vote in the process outstanding.

Schoolhouse Electric & Supply, Co. is owned by Faherty and his wife, Jill, and currently has 110 employees. They are based in Portland, OR and have only opened up one other retail store – in New York City ten years ago. Pittsburgh is their next venture. “We are growing slowly and thoughtfully,” says Faherty, “and we are really proud to be opening in Pittsburgh.”

Since the company currently sources its glass from Morgantown, WV, a Pittsburgh location will allow the company to be more efficient. Faherty notes that they will be reusing the building’s basement and an original conveyor belt system for the distribution portion of the facility.

The first floor will consist of a retail store, design library and coffee shop– with a possible clock factory. Upper floors will be rented to tenants with similar brand values and an appreciation for the building’s character. Extensive exterior site work will be done, including the addition of a public plaza.

The Detective building was built, in what is now called the Formalist style, around 1972 as the headquarters for American

The former AAA Headquarters also known as the Detective building in East Liberty, Photo by Maya Henry.
The former AAA headquarters, also known as the Detective building in East Liberty. Photo by Maya Henry.

Automobile Association (better known as AAA).  When AAA relocated to motor square garden the building was occupied by the City of Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.  The URA had recently acquired the building from the Parking Authority but had not made plans for the property. “I thought in Pittsburgh I’d be looking at an old brick factory building when we started thinking of locating here,” says Faherty.  Instead, he has found cast concrete pillars and 16-foot ceilings.

Faherty has hired Lawrenceville-based Moss Architects to complete the design work for the project. “There’s a beauty to this building,” says principal Andrew Moss. “We want to let that existing building shine and breath new life into it. So to do that we will take a subtractive, minimalist approach to uncover the essence of the architecture.”

Both Faherty and Moss noted their desire to “pull back” with the design work to let the character of the building shine through. “I am excited for this to become a catalyst and reinterpret how people think about this building,” says Faherty.

Maya Haptas has an M.A. in Historic Preservation Planning from Cornell University and is a freelance writer covering various topics from architecture and urban design to wellness and skateboarding. She is currently the assistant editor of Bigfoot Skateboarding Magazine.