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Historic Preservation Helps Define Pittsburgh's Identity

Most Pittsburghers are familiar with the narrative of mid 20th century urban renewal in neighborhoods like East Liberty and the Hill District: displacement of longtime residents to make room for large publicly funded projects or revitalization efforts. 

Not as many, however, know that most of the buildings along East Carson Street on the South Side and in the North Side's Manchester neighborhood were also scheduled for demolition.

In 1964, a group of citizens stood against developers and offered a different approach: preservation.

Arthur Ziegler is the president and co-founder of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. He doesn’t speak highly of urban renewal.

“It was coined ‘urban removal’ for a while and that’s what it was,” Ziegler said.

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A scale of Pittsburgh's south side in the headquarters of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation in Station Square. The organization is 52 this year and has a released a new documentary about the impact of preservation in the Steel City.

Two years after PHLF's founding, the National Historic Preservation Act was passed, which created the National Register of Historic Places and incentives for groups like Ziegler’s. The Act celebrates its 50th anniversary on Saturday. Structures on the register aren’t immune from demolition, but qualify for grants, loans and tax incentives.

With the newly formed register on their minds, Pittsburgh preservationists began going into neighborhoods in need of revitalization and asking residents what they wanted to see happen.

“Our goal was to work with the people there,” Ziegler said. “They decide what their neighborhood should be and how it should be done, rather than someone from a planning office.”

Often, those on the development chopping block were low-income, minority neighborhoods, who had recently been isolated by the construction of highways.

“Transportation systems that existed were dismantled,” Ziegler said. “(The construction) made it easy to go and develop suburbs and we made it easy in that way to discriminate.”

Major projects like the Civic Arena isolated and displaced many Hill District residents. On the North Side, the new Allegheny Center had failed to revitalize the neighborhood, especially after the construction of Interstate 279 provided a portal to northern suburbs.

Single-use development is also a major flaw of the urban renewal trend, according to Ziegler. He said use-segregated zoning and planning dismantled neighborhoods in cities.

“You could only have housing or you could only have retail," he said. "And it didn’t work, you couldn’t walk to the dry cleaners."

One of the PHLF’s first major projects was in the mid-1970s at Station Square along the Monongahela River. Ziegler said people weren’t optimistic the site would succeed, but 40 years later, the spot has become a major tourist hub.

By raising money from local foundations, Zeigler and the PHLF have restored homes throughout the North Side, creating “spin-off to stabilize neighborhoods.” They rent many homes to low-income families.

On the South Side, Ziegler and the PHLF helped convince building owners along East Carson Street to preserve their facades. In 1996, the stretch became a Great American Main Street winner.

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More than 100 years old, the South Side Market House in Bedford Square is one of the last remaining such structures in the city. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.

They’ve also had a hand in creating a men’s corridor downtown, redefining Market Square and got many Lawrenceville buildings onto the National Historic Register List.

Michael Sriprasert, president of Landmarks Development Corporation, said their involvement in real estate in historic buildings occurs in a variety of somewhat unpredictable ways.

“Government may ask our help to look at a building with them, we may get interested in certain buildings ourselves because they’re strategic,” Sriprasert said. “We also might get calls from developers who are going through historic restoration and going through a tax credit process that needs our expertise on that.”

Sriprasert’s Landmarks Development Corporation acts as the lending subsidiary for PHLF and was one of the first of its kind, beginning in the 1985. They also help navigate the use of federal historic tax credits, which incentivize restoration of historically significant building by providing 10 or 20 percent credits to developers.

PHLF is celebrating 52 years in the city and the 50th anniversary of the NHPA with a documentary release. The film, called “Through the Place,” chronicles the impact of the organization and the transformation of the city through the lens of preservation.

“The reception, overall, has been really wonderful,” Sriprasert said. “It captures a lot of what people remember in Pittsburgh’s history. In the context of the city, I think they’re so pleased to see the treasures that we all have today.”

A core message of the film, according to Sriprasert, is the necessity of preservation. He said mentalities have changed in Pittsburgh since Ziegler first started PHLF in the 1960s.

“With the generations that we have today and with many cities bouncing back through concentrated redevelopment through restoration, you’re seeing gravitation toward historic buildings,” he said. “Pittsburgh’s a perfect example of that.”

Sriprasert said historic neighborhoods that have remained intact, like Lawrenceville, have seen the greatest jump in value. He said the city has been put on the national map for its restoration successes and expects the trend to continue.  

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community. kblackley@wesa.fm