Everything Old is Old Again: Historic Preservation Paradoxes

Historic preservation for old buildings, especially old buildings that appear to be completely worn out, brings out the best in some people and the worst in others, and which is which depends entirely on where you stand ... or sit. Two stories in the paper today and yesterday bring that point crashing home. Each of the stories is interesting; together, they frame a window onto the conflicts in Pittsburgh's soul.

Yesterday, the PG carried a long feature about the future of the "old" Children's Hospital, in Oakland, now that the new facility in Lawrenceville is up and running. The story was filled with quotations from folks who used to work there, or who had friends or family treated there. The nostalgia is thick; the building is part of them.

This isn't a historic preservation fight -- yet -- but watch out for fireworks when UPMC, which owns the building and controls the site, comes up with a plan to reuse it. The Children's building sits on prime real estate in Oakland, and the despite the thick crust of meanings that connect the facility to a large number of living locals, UPMC would be foolish not to push forward with a plan aggressively to redevelop it. The building is undistinguished architecturally, but there will be push back. Pittsburghers have an awfully difficult time letting go of the recent past, which is to say, their own recent past.

Today, the PG reports that a rotting building on the Boulevard of the Allies is on a track to receive historic status following a recent recommendation by the city's Historic Review Commission. Once upon a time, and beyond the scope of living memory, the building and its neighbors played key roles in the city's history of film distribution and exhibition. I have to admit that I've wondered about the building, as I've ridden and driven up and down the Boulevard. Over the door facing the street is a faded, chipped "Paramount Pictures" logo, and I've thought: Where did that come from?

As the PG reports, and as the proponent of historic status found (that's Drew Levinson, a local student) there is a nifty little story behind the door. Contemporary efforts to bring a feature film production business to Pittsburgh have a decades-old historical bookend. "Hollywood on the Mon" ("Hollyburgh," anyone?) isn't a completely novel concept.

But historic status? It turns out that historic preservation here offers a sliver of financial advantage to certain modes of renovating the property -- but not in a way that would reconnect it to the city's filmmaking revival. And aside from certain features of the terracotta facade (that sign, for example), again the building is undistinguished architecturally. The building, like its neighbors, is a warehouse, and the owner (UPMC - again! Surprised?) makes an entirely plausible argument that the thing shouldn't be treated differently than any other old warehouse. Aside from the film buffs, to whom I'm usually pretty sympathetic, there will be no public outcry if UPMC were to bring in the bulldozers. The whole of Pittsburgh just doesn't care. To put the point less cynically and to quote a different piece from today's paper (the letters), "Nostalgia for the past is prolific. We must remember, however, that any architecture is never separate from the culture of its time."

Pittsburgh is fundamentally Victorian: it likes to collect and preserve old stuff. But like the original Victorians, Pittsburghers' collective sense of history usually extends back only a generation or two, and only along a handful of dimensions. For us, that's 50 or 60 years into the 20th century, and not much farther, and the relevant dimensions either involve us personally (or our parents and grandparents) or bear the imprint of steel, either literally or, as in the case of a certain sports franchise, metaphorically. The old Children's Hospital fits the first dimension; expect lots of public resistance to whatever UPMC proposes. The Paramount building fits neither; expect UPMC to fight vigorously to protect its power to tear it down.

Often, I wish that Pittsburgh's Victorian culture were more inclusive and that the community's historical sense ranged more broadly. The stories of the native populations of the region (not native Pittsburghers, but pre-Europeans) are badly neglected in public discourse, aside from their roles in the French and Indian War, and Pittsburghers' view of that affair is usually reduced to "Duquesne, Braddock, and George Washington were here." Iron built Pittsburgh in the 19th century; steel was forged on its industrial foundations. There were industries here before iron, especially glass, which was world-beating in its own right, and boat building.

Re-reading this post, I suspect that some might infer that I'm making an apology for UPMC, which I don't mean to do. A final note, then, and something that has to be left for another time and other posts, is the role of dominant institutions in framing Pittsburgh's historical narratives and future trajectory. Should UPMC's current dominant status (and the status of US Steel as the predecessor dominant institution in the region) give it the power to frame Pittsburgh's historical narratives? That's a rhetorical question. But if we want to resist that influence, what's the best way to do that?


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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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