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Former morgue gets life as Allegheny County Health Department headquarters

Tom Fontaine
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Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Allegheny County Health Department Director Karen Hacker with Public Works construction engineering manager Michael Dillon and Health Department deputy Ron Sugar in the new entry of the renovated former morgue, Downtown, Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015.
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Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
A large conference room space in the renovated Allegheny County Morgue, Downtown, where the county Health Department has relocated, on Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015.
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Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Stained-glass windows in the area once used as a chapel in the former Allegheny County Morgue, Downtown, on Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015. The area now has cubicles for Health Department staff.
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Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Allegheny County Health Department Director Dr. Karen Hacker
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Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
The exterior of the renovated former Allegheny County Morgue, Downtown, now offices for the Health Department.

Allegheny County Health Department Director Dr. Karen Hacker enjoys talking about the historical features of her department’s Downtown headquarters.

Talking about what used to go on in the building — the former Allegheny County Morgue — is another matter.

“We kind of want to disassociate ourselves from that. Our goal is to keep people alive and enhance their lifespan,” said Hacker, who is moving into her third office since becoming director in September 2013.

The Health Department was based on Forbes Avenue in Oakland before taking temporary offices in the Kane Regional Center in Glen Hazel in late 2013.

“It’s been an upgrade each time,” Hacker said, noting the Forbes building fell into disrepair and employees used patient rooms for offices in Kane.

The county spent about $8.7 million renovating the former morgue in a project that began in 2009. Fifty-one of the department’s 350 full-time employees will work there. The building is at the eastern end of Fourth Avenue, across from the County Office Building.

The morgue originally sat about 300 feet from its location.

In 1929, workers from the Balkans using rails and wooden causeways moved it to make way for the County Office Building.

“I think this increases our visibility,” Hacker said of the Downtown location.

Hacker gave the Tribune-Review a tour last week. An open house is scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday.

Construction workers gutted the 102-year-old Romanesque building’s interior as part of the renovation, although many of its original touches remain — marble flooring, woodwork, copper balustrades and 12 of 13 original stained-glass windows in the building’s former chapel.

In the early 1900s, morgue officials laid out bodies in the former chapel when loved ones arrived to identify them.

“They thought it was more sensitive,” county spokeswoman Amie Downs said.

For years, young people would sneak past deputy coroners at the front desk, wait until the desk was unattended, or lie or beg deputies to gain access to the area where unidentified bodies were kept, former Coroner Cyril Wecht said.

In one of Pittsburgh’s more macabre traditions, young men took prom dates to the morgue.

The former chapel, with fresh white paint and plaster on its 40-foot-high arched ceiling, houses about two dozen cubicles on the second floor. Several employees arranged their belongings and settled in Thursday.

Hacker’s office is on the second floor, along with several of her deputies’ offices. Hacker occupies the same space that the county’s former coroners and medical examiners did through 2009, when the Medical Examiner’s Office moved to the Strip District.

Eight newly constructed offices and two new conference rooms are on the first floor. Construction workers built a second stairwell and enclosed entrances for fire-safety reasons.

A handicapped-accessible entrance is in the rear of the building.

The basement’s layout remains largely the same. The morgue’s old incinerator remains there. Downs said the Health Department didn’t need its space, and it would be costly to remove it.

Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or [email protected].

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