Open House | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Open House

A newly renovated structure reveals new possibilities in East Liberty

Open House
Photo courtesy of Doug Cruze and Liza Wellman

Stand in front of 5515 Penn Avenue looking east, and you can see down the gently sloping street into the business district of East Liberty and beyond. Punctuated by steeples, the view is framed picturesquely against the green East Hills in the distance. An 18-story brick residential structure, the East Mall Tower, used to straddle Penn Avenue and block much of this visual corridor, but it was demolished last year. In its absence, an unfettered panorama stimulates the imagination: What sort of additional construction could further beautify and revitalize this area?

5515 Penn answers this question with an unblocking of its own, albeit one carried out in a gentler fashion. A recent renovation by architects Doug Cruze and Liza Wellman has restored rather than removed the two-story structure. In the process, the first-floor windows, which had been almost entirely bricked in, have been replaced with expansive storefront windows and accented with new canopies. The architects have opened the building to new ideas of material and use as much as they have opened it to the sun and views of the streetscape around it.

Cruze and Wellman came to Pittsburgh 11 years ago for precisely this sort of opportunity. They met at Virginia Tech's architecture school and set out after graduation to find a city where they could pursue dreams of design and building. Pittsburgh, with its healthy stock of early 20th-century houses and other real-estate opportunities, fit the bill. "We moved here because we liked the city. We wanted to be able to do stuff like this," Wellman explains.

While practicing both independently and in local firms, the couple restored a sizeable Graham Street mansion. Flush with that success, they began to look for a building that would allow further exploration of real-estate enterprise, perhaps with a bit more modernist expression. "We enjoy it more when we're the developers and the contractors and the architects," says Cruze.

5515 Penn was daunting at first. During its history, it had been a car dealership, a bakery and a dance studio. Each function had unique ways of being unkind to the structure, whether through lowered ceilings, blocked windows or oil stains. But like so many things in Pittsburgh, the structure's essential character contained the seeds of future glory. All that was needed were the hands of some thoughtful architects.

Cruze recalls, "Our vision was that it could be an awesome gallery." Or maybe a few. The left-hand bay of the façade recedes into the mass of the building, revealing an elegant white oak sheathing on walls and ceiling of the resulting entry niche. The inner window is an almost Mondrian-like composition of wooden mullions, creating a set of individual vitrines -- with individual controls for lighting -- that are especially suited to display precious objects. Factor in the pleasantly austere box-like space inside, and this would be a perfect storefront for a gallery.

So would the space inside the façade's adjacent windows. Behind them is a broad, double-height volume with sturdy exposed steel beams and unmarked expanses of smooth drywall. This may yet rent out as an office, but you could hang some large-scale paintings very advantageously in here. Artists, a few of whom have studios in a scrappier area in the back, should take notice.

The upstairs floor includes a residential unit, which is a particular showcase. The white oak, which comes across so elegantly in the entry niche at the street, continues here in similar fashion. And it also reveals its origins: It's the flooring material from the former dance studio -- salvaged, reused and enhanced. Now it continues crisply into the walls and kitchen island of the loft-like apartment, all with the resolute rectilinearity of Modernism. Yet the material also harmonizes effectively with the thicket of exposed wooden trusses above (which were formerly enclosed in drywall) while counterbalancing the relic-like sensibility of the brick walls. "Is it something that is a new addition," Wellman ponders, "or does it try to look as if it's been there?"

It's the best of both. Cruze and Wellman have opened our eyes to architectural potential that has long been there, and they have done so with a minimum of demolition.