On the North Side, activists -- and some neighbors -- want to preserve an historic former bank. | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

On the North Side, activists -- and some neighbors -- want to preserve an historic former bank.

"Make no little plans," Daniel Burnham famously exhorted his fellow architects, "for they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will themselves not be realized." This aphorism neatly condenses one of the more remarkable careers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Burnham famously orchestrated the sprawling and influential but temporary 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, after which he produced visionary designs, not always entirely realized, for cities including Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, Cleveland and Manila. His firm built iconic skyscrapers such as Chicago's Reliance Building, and the Flatiron Building in New York. In Pittsburgh alone, Burnham & Co. built the Frick Building, the Oliver Building, Union Station, the former McCreery Store (now the Press Club building), and the Highland Building in East Liberty, as well as a few lost structures.

With this substantial roster, does one tidy little bank on the North Side that may or may not be a Burnham building really matter?

In the case of the former Workingman's Savings Bank of 1902, at 800 E. Ohio St., the answer is a definitive yes. As part of the effort to nominate the structure as a local historic landmark, Michael Shealey, an architect with the Pittsburgh Housing Authority, has written a history of the structure under the auspices of, and with some collaborators from, the Allegheny City Society. While the original architect is not recorded, bank president Emil Winter was Burnham's client in the 1901 rebuilding of Pittsburgh's Exposition Building, near the Point. Subsequently, the architect for the building's matching addition in 1921 (after Burnham's death) was the firm Giaver and Dinkelberg, both of whom had worked for Burnham. In fact, Frederick Dinkelberg was chief designer on the acclaimed Flatiron Building. Most signs point to a Burnham & Co. authorship.

This historical pedigree may be instrumental in efforts to preserve the building, though other factors will weigh in as well. The structure was used in recent years as the ARC House, a halfway house. After that organization closed, in 2006, developer Bentley Commercial bought the building and posted an intention to demolish it for new development. Though Bentley Commercial did not return recent phone calls from City Paper, some observers described an initial proposal with a German Village theme, in reference to the nearby historic Deutschtown neighborhood.

What might have been a contentious process has gradually become a more harmonious one. Many residents of Spring Garden, in which the structure actually sits, supported demolition-based redevelopment. But the Allegheny City Society, on whose board Michael Shealey sits, began the historic-nomination process. Subsequently, city Councilor Darlene Harris has participated in a number of meetings among community members and the developer. "We're a work in progress," she says, "But I think we'll get where we want to be."

With preservation-based development on the table, architect Charles "Luke" Desmone, of Desmone & Associates, is now working on predesign studies. The firm has done numerous preservation projects, such as the Union Project, in Highland Park, and Brewers Row, on the North Side. Desmone's Doughboy Square office, in Lawrenceville, occupies a renovated bank. He cautions, though, that to make redevelopment -- for presumed chain-store tenants, with on-site parking, for instance -- feasible, a much larger parcel of land is needed. "How do you do a project like this and make it economically feasible?" he asks.

Meanwhile, a city council hearing on the historic nomination of the building is scheduled for May 20. While all participants in this process deserve praise for the open and amiable exchange of views here, preservation needs to be a requirement, not just a hope.

The historic-nomination form clearly indicates that the bank was a formative institution in the neighborhood's history, and the cheerfully pompous neoclassical style epitomizes the era, whoever designed it. The building clearly fulfills the necessary criteria for historic nomination. More importantly, the structure lends welcome dignity to the street, and has withstood the jarring, hideous onslaught of interstate construction. Also significantly, these days we almost never have the budgets or the high craft to build with this level of art and detail.

The value of Burnham's legacy lies as much in the elevated culture and civility of his built work as in the megalomania. Perhaps he should have said, "Destroy no old buildings, for even the small ones have power to stir people's blood." If we don't heed this advice, there may be less and less of Burnham to appreciate.

click to enlarge The vacant structure built as Workingman's Savings Bank faces possible demolition.
The vacant structure built as Workingman's Savings Bank faces possible demolition.

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