The beautiful 1916 Beaux-Arts Wilkinsburg Train Station once brought people into the community on the train. Now, following a painstaking $6.5 million restoration, the hope is that it will once again bring people to the borough.
The main space is being built out for a restaurant tenant, although the site hasn’t been marketed yet. It will be quite a distinctive space, with lots of natural light illuminating a vast interior lobby, and an imposing facade of brick and Italian marble, with a giant clock at the top.
Abandoned in 1965, the train station was once a prominent eyesore and a symbol of the creeping neglect and chronic disinvestment that has stalked Wilkinsburg.
“The roof was open to the sky,” says Tracey Evans, executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp., the organization spearheading the project. “After a rain, it was like standing in a lake. Once we did cleanups, the steel structure was in worse shape than anticipated. Copper was corroded; there was marble coming off the wall. Lintels were falling off onto the floor. Most of the cornices had all fallen off. It was heartbreaking.”
A $1 million grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation was the catalyst for the renovation project. It was a challenge grant, so the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp. asked for help from the public.
“In six months, we raised $175,000 from individuals alone, from all across the country,” says Evans.
It was a surprising and heartening vote of confidence in the old station by residents and people from all over who felt some connection to Wilkinsburg.
Work was done by experts from MCF Architecture, a firm specializing in historic preservation that has worked on some of Pittsburgh’s most iconic restorations — including Heinz Hall, and the Clayton mansion at The Frick Pittsburgh. Figuring out what to do about the missing roof made the rest of the project feasible. Now, there’s a skylight where a giant hole once opened to the sky.
Sota Construction Services worked on the project.
“We spent about a year replacing [about half] the marble in the building,” says Evans. “It came from quarries in Italy.”
A destination restaurant would be the perfect tenant. Once a “dry” community, Wilkinsburg passed a referendum in 2015 allowing restaurants to apply for liquor licenses, and helping to pave the way for this moment.
“We don’t have a significant amount of sit-down restaurants in Wilkinsburg. We’d like to have more places here to have a nice meal,” says Evans.
There’s a lower level — the train station’s former baggage area — that also has potential.
“We think there’s a possibility for artisans and maker space-type business in the lower level,” says Evans.
The train station is located at 901 Hay Street, on the East Busway, less than a block from busy Penn Avenue.
It’s not the only new thing in Wilkinsburg, or the only old thing made new.
The Lohr Building, built in the late 1800s at Wood Street and South Avenue, has been fully restored as part of a $2.5 million project, bringing 10,000 square feet of space to the heart of the borough. Wildman Chalmers Design worked on the project.
So far, the property has attracted a fast-growing tech company, Agot AI, which has more than 40 employees. The CMU spinoff created the Agot AI Kitchen Awareness platform to help restaurants eliminate bottlenecks and improve speed and accuracy in food preparation. Also, Rising Tide Partners, a nonprofit that acquires blighted real estate and preserves affordable housing, has moved into the Lohr Building’s third floor. The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp. is in the building too.
Nancy’s Revival, a popular diner serving breakfast, lunch and dinner on Saturdays, is on the ground level. Another ground-level retail space is available for lease.
Housing prices in Wilkinsburg have risen recently, to $90,000 on average, says Evans. However, property taxes are more than twice those of neighboring Pittsburgh.
That’s one of the major issues pushing the question of whether Wilkinsburg should be annexed by the city of Pittsburgh. A referendum was planned for November but has been pushed back to sometime next year.
Wilkinsburg Mayor Marita Garrett is an advocate of merging with the city, as is the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp.
“We’ve been looking at this for a very long time,” says Evans. “We want it to happen.”