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An empty mall and churches are on Pittsburgh group's list of endangered historic buildings

The Young Preservationists Association has released its 2021 list of the Pittsburgh region’s 10 most endangered buildings. And one entry — West Mifflin’s shuttered Century III Mall — is sure to spark debate about what “historic” means and what structures are worth saving.

The list, released Dec. 27, is framed as Pittsburgh’s “top 10 historic preservation opportunities.” All the buildings are vacant, and many are in poor repair or even slated for demolition. But the Young Preservationists highlighted them in hopes of inspiring creative ideas for giving them new life.

“In a sense, it really is a last rallying cry for some of these places before we lose them forever,” said executive director Matthew Craig.

Many of the buildings are landmarks whose inclusion won’t raise eyebrows, like Saints Peter and Paul Church, in East Liberty, an 1891 structure with iconic gothic spires (as seen in the 1999 Kevin Smith film “Dogma”). Another church on the list is the century-old St. Agnes, in Oakland, designed by famed architect John Theodore Comés. Carlow University has proposed demolishing St. Agnes to make way for a new health sciences building.

Others on the list include the former State Bank of Elizabeth, in Elizabeth, Pa.; Union Station, in Brownsville; Fifth Avenue Hotel, in Monessen; and Uptown’s Tito-Mecca-Zizza House, a circa-1880s abode whose history includes its role as a base for bootlegging and gambling. The list is topped by the landmark former Mellon Bank branch in East Liberty, a Modernist building with distinctive green glazed brick, built in 1970 and slated for demolition by its current owner, Citizens Bank.

Also on the list is an item that’s not a building to save per se. Rather, it’s a call for signage to commemorate "all of the significant Underground Railroad sites” in the region, to help preserve the memory of the area’s role in aiding escaped formerly enslaved people in the 19th century. The Young Preservationists said they will help lead this effort.

A complete list is here.

But what about that mall? It was built in 1979, on a West Mifflin slag heap. For a time, it flourished, at one point hosting nearly 200 stores, according to the Young Preservationists. But as with many malls, changes in buying habits led to its decline, and it closed in 2019. Current plans call for demolition and redevelopment including office, retail, residential and restaurant components.

The notion that a 43-year-old mall is historic has been widely mocked on social media since the list was announced. But Craig said age alone doesn’t make a structure historic.

The Young Preservationists note that when it opened, Century III, at more than 1 million square feet, was one of the nation’s largest indoor shopping complexes, and its construction atop a slag heap provides a unique connection to the region’s industrial history. Occupancy topped out at nearly 200 stores, including anchors like J.C. Penney, and for a couple of decades, it was an important leisure and recreational hub.

Architecturally, the group notes the mall is a strong example of the stark Brutalist style popular in the mid-20th century. “It has a very distinct character of its time,” said Craig.

Craig said the Young Preservationists want to spark new ideas about saving structures like the mall. “It would not be hard to imagine that it could become very innovative apartments, and you could have support services within, coffee shops, and maybe a grocery store,” he said.

In other words, if old churches and warehouses can be repurposed, why not shopping malls?

“Do we want to let it sit there and rot, maybe for decades on end, because nobody can think about what to do with it, or should we say, ‘You know what? This is really a potential opportunity here,'" he said.

The Young Preservationists Association was founded in 2003. The group has traditionally focused on advocacy and cites recent successes like getting Homewood’s National Negro Opera Company House named on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2020 list of 11 most endangered buildings. The group said that listing was instrumental in securing, months later, a $500,000 grant to save the building from the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

Craig said the Young Preservationists are also expanding into fundraising for preservation projects. In 2021, he said, the group partnered with consulting and development firm DJS Ventures to raise $980,000 to clean out the century-old Penn McKee Hotel, in Mckeesport.