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Deconstruction and preservation paves the way for new Playhouse

FacadeArchitects
In Point Park's University Center, University Architect Elmer Burger (left) and preservation architect Ellis Schmidlapp discuss deconstruction of Forbes Avenue facades, which will be reconstructed as focal points in the new Pittsburgh Playhouse.

The Point
Spring 2015

Preservation is a key element in plans for the new Pittsburgh Playhouse, a 92,000-square-foot cultural and educational hub that will be located on a 1.6-acre parcel between Forbes and Fourth Avenues in Downtown Pittsburgh.

Point Park will soon embark on the first phase of the Playhouse construction process: meticulous deconstruction of three historic Forbes Avenue façades that will be reconstructed as major focal points in the new building.

Led by preservation architects at Landmark Design Associates (LDA), which has worked closely with the University since the beginning of the Playhouse design process, the façades at 320, 322 and 330 Forbes Ave. were documented and numbered in preparation for careful dismantling, cataloging, storage and eventual reinstallation in an urban courtyard that will be part of the new Playhouse.

Meticulous Deconstruction

 “The historic value of these buildings rests in the terra cotta ornament on the façades, so we have concentrated our preservation efforts there,” says Ellis Schmidlapp, president of LDA. Although the lower sections of the three facades were removed (by previous owners) long ago, the upper façades represent a fine example of the commercial architecture that once characterized the district, he says.

“The most sculptural is the façade of the Royal building,” says Schmidlapp. Designed by well-known architects Alden and Harlow, that building later served for decades as the home of Honus Wagner Sporting Goods. The Royal, as well as the neighboring two façades, will be reconstructed in the Forbes Avenue courtyard of the new Playhouse.

The process requires skilled tradesmen who are accustomed to working with historic terra cotta. Masonry contractor Franco Associates is collaborating with LDA and Point Park to complete the work. “This isn’t like removing tile from a wall. There are different depths, armatures and brackets,” says Schmidlapp. All information will be documented to guide the puzzle-like process of reinstallation on the finished Playhouse.

Urban Sustainability

In addition to the façade work, materials such as brick and metal in the Forbes Avenue buildings will be recycled as part of the deconstruction, according to University Architect Elmer Burger. Construction Junction, a local organization that promotes conservation through reuse, was invited to walk through the buildings to reclaim wood and other materials that can be reused.

Signage from Pittsburgh’s past, including an old, lighted Honus Wagner Sporting Goods sign found in the Royal building, and a sign from the former DeRoy Jewelers long embedded in the Forbes Avenue sidewalk, will also find new homes.

Recycling “in place” means that some of the bricks and masonry can be ground up and used for fill,” says Burger. Deconstruction (rather than demolition) is a sustainable concept that has been incorporated into many modern urban construction projects, including the new PNC Tower across the street from the Playhouse site.

History in the Making

Plans for the new Pittsburgh Playhouse incorporate two historic structures – the University Center and the Stock Exchange building – with a new five-story addition that includes space for theaters, technical production, and cinema facilities.

Point Park’s University Center, which will be part of the completed Playhouse, has already been extensively restored and maintained as a university library and space for Cinema Arts. The center is made up of four former bank buildings, the oldest of which dates back to 1893. Also part of the Playhouse will be the Stock Exchange building, designed in 1903 by Charles Bartberger.

“A lot of attention has been paid to the design of the Playhouse to ensure it fits well with the character and scale of the street,” says Schmidlapp. “The new uses and old elements really have to be able work together. The vision for the Playhouse is that it will be a great teaching and learning center and theater.

“Point Park has been a very good urban steward. This project will bring new life to the block.”

Text by Cheryl Valyo
Photo by John Altdorfer
The Point is a magazine for alumni and friends of Point Park University.