For the past five decades, Point Park University has been an integral part of Downtown Pittsburgh. The University takes its role as a partner in preserving the past, while building for a vibrant future, very seriously.
The Academic Village Initiative, unveiled in 2008, laid out a vision developed by the community, regional stakeholders and the University for positive growth. Over the last five years, the University has worked to reinvigorate Wood Street, the Boulevard of the Allies and the Forbes Avenue corridors with projects that support the academics of the University while also complimenting the history, honoring the architecture and developing a strong economic future for the neighborhood.
“Point Park is honored to be the steward of an extraordinary collection of turn-of-the-century properties,” according to President Paul Hennigan. “These buildings have been lovingly restored over the years, giving each a new place in the vibrancy of Downtown.”
A campus stroll down Wood Street is also a tour of urban architecture, stretching from the classic terra cotta details of century-old West Penn Hall at First Avenue to the historic bank building that houses the University Center between Fourth and Forbes Avenues. The new Pittsburgh Playhouse, which will be relocated from Oakland to Downtown property adjacent to the University Center, will continue in the same tradition of historic preservation and creative reuse.
“Point Park has been the most preservation-minded user of historic buildings in Downtown Pittsburgh,” says prominent preservationist Arthur P. Ziegler Jr., president of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation (PHLF). “The University has made a huge investment in reusing, restoring and adapting these buildings, and has created a great deal of life in its urban neighborhood as a result.”
One of the most prominent examples, according to Ziegler, is the restored Lawrence Hall, a Benno Janssen-designed building at the corner of the Boulevard of the Allies and Wood Street, now serving as premier academic, living, art gallery and social space for the University. Known as the Sherwyn Hotel when it was acquired by Point Park in 1967, it was originally built as the Keystone Athletic Club.
Within the past decade the University has renovated Lawrence Hall to include a three-story, historically appropriate stone façade with new lighting fixtures and windows, a bookstore, and configuration of street-level gathering space for students and visitors as well as a grand entrance into the LEED Gold-certified George Rowland White Performance Center next door.
Grand Lobby Returns
The street level of Lawrence Hall previously consisted of solid masonry walls devoid of light and character, recalls preservation architect Ellis Schmidlapp, principal of Landmark Design Architects (LDA), which led the restoration. LDA has served as preservation design consultants in many projects in the Academic Village initiative, including the completed renovation of a conference room in the University Center (the former Colonial Trust), current renovations to the second floor of Lawrence Hall, as well as the upcoming new Pittsburgh Playhouse.
LDA is now leading a restoration of the second floor, which was the original lobby level of the Keystone Athletic Club (retail space occupied the street-level). A former dance studio, located to the left of the bridge entrance from Academic Hall, will be transformed back into a grand lobby: a club-like gathering area that will feature historically appropriate details and lighting while providing comfortable lounge space for students. To the right of the bridge will be a multi-purpose meeting space, and a classic portal will welcome bridge pedestrians into the building, according to Schmidlapp.
Inside the New Playhouse
As the University turns its attention to the footprint of the new Pittsburgh Playhouse, it will employ the same attention to detail, with an eye toward restoring what can be restored and reusing details of what cannot be salvaged based on the condition of the properties, according to University Architect Elmer Burger.
Two key pillars of the Playhouse design call on restoring and reusing the University Center, designed by Frederick J. Osterling for the Colonial Trust Company, as well as restoring and using the Stock Exchange Building on Fourth Avenue, designed by prominent architect Charles M. Bartberger.
Completed in 1904 to house the Industrial Bank, the Stock Exchange Building later served as home to nightclubs and has stood vacant for many years. However, its spectacular façade and many interior details remain. These include marble floors, a grand brass staircase, original woodwork and stained glass skylights now hidden above a ceiling that was inserted decades after the original construction.
The Playhouse design plans include restoration of the original details, including the lower level with original bank vault and the large main level. “We also plan to remove the later ceiling to expose the stained glass and coffers of the original,” says Burger. “It will rival the grandeur of the University Center.”
A new café will occupy a partial second level (to be installed under the stained glass), which will open onto a public outdoor plaza facing Forbes Avenue. The building will house technical theatre design areas as well as faculty and staff offices and will be incorporated into the Playhouse complex.
Historic Details, Modern Uses
The Stock Exchange Building and the new Playhouse “will be fully integrated and the space will flow easily,” says Burger. For example, “there are arches in the wall that will flow into the rest of the Playhouse. There is so much rich detail in this building that we want to preserve and retain.”
As part of the Playhouse project, buildings that house the University Center and other academic spaces will receive further renovations and restoration. The former Colonial Trust was built in 1902 as a narrow building that stretched between Forbes and Fourth Avenues. In 1925 an addition was extended to form a “T” that provides a grand entrance on Wood Street. The original building and addition were designed by Osterling, known for his design of such landmarks as the Union Trust Building.
Two adjacent historic buildings currently serve as academic space for Point Park. The first is the 1893 Freehold Realty Building, distinguished by large square windows, which currently houses part of the Department of Cinema and Digital Arts. Next door on Fourth is the former Commercial National Bank, designed in 1887 by legendary Boston architects Alden and Harlow. “These are buildings that Point Park already using and will continue to renovate and restore,” says Burger, including the spectacular facades on Fourth Avenue. A stroll along the street reveals details such as carved stonework, Roman-style brickwork and much more.
“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, and it has its own needs in order to function well, he adds.
“Point Park has been a very good urban steward. This project will bring new life to the block.”
Preservation and Revitalization
“The Pittsburgh Playhouse project is yet another example of historic buildings that will get new uses or improvements, such as the University Center,” says Ziegler. “It is therefore following in a great tradition. The Playhouse project will also bring a great deal of life to the Downtown neighborhood as well as a new venue for theatre and performances.
“The design of the Pittsburgh Playhouse is truly unique. The design will be both modern and respectfully historic, it will unite the new with the old.”
“Point Park has already enlivened the city by attracting new students and so many others to its neighborhood to attend classes and performances,” Ziegler adds. “This has made Downtown Pittsburgh a center for higher education. I commend (former President) Katherine Henderson who began the process, and President Paul Hennigan who is continuing it. The University is a model of leadership in revitalization, and preservation, in Downtown Pittsburgh.”
Text by Cheryl Valyo
Photo by Martha Rial
The Point is a magazine for alumni and friends of Point Park University.