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Character of old buildings isn’t easily replaced

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Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
The Penn Plaza apartments feature glass connections between buildings in East Liberty on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016.
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Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
The Penn Plaza apartments in East Liberty on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016.
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Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Large bands of concrete that emphasize the floors of the Penn Plaza apartments in East Liberty on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016.
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Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Curving brick piers along the facades of the Penn Plaza apartments in East Liberty on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016.

I’ve written this here before, and I’ve said it many times, too, but buildings are a lot like people.

When they are 50 or 60 years old, they are just, well, old. But by 80, they begin to get new respect. And by 100 — if they survive — they are celebrated.

As someone who is past 60 but not yet 80, I can say this with some certainty. And I can also say with similar certainty that Pittsburgh is doing a poor job respecting what’s come to be called midcentury modern architecture — those buildings from the recent past that are 50 to 60 years old and are being remodeled without regard for the integrity of their design. Or, worse, they are being torn down.

A prominent case in point is Downtown’s Wyndham Hotel (formerly the Hilton), a 1959 landmark of the first Pittsburgh Renaissance. A recent addition to the front of the building, although it added importantly to the building’s interior space, made hash out of the vision of William Tabler, one of the best-known hotel architects of the midcentury. The demolition of the Civic Arena was, to many others, another example of disrespect for midcentury designs and history.

And now, comes another case: The Penn Plaza apartments in East Liberty.

Attention in news columns to what’s going on there has rightly focused on the situation of a large number of lower-income residents who are being forced out of Penn Plaza so that it can be rebuilt. Many of those leaving are black and tend to be older. But, based on what’s already been happening elsewhere in the current frenzied rebuilding of East Liberty, many of those who ultimately move into new buildings there will almost surely be white, younger and wealthier.

That’s bad in the long run for the city. It leads us in a direction that can perpetuate both economic and racial segregation when we ought to be seeking changes that do exactly the opposite.

But what’s also bad for the city is the loss of the buildings themselves. It has been little noted, but this collection of four- to nine-story apartment blocks is among the best and most sophisticated of large-scale housing designs from the 1960s. They are not the anonymous and depressing slabs that so much of the unloved architecture from that period represented, but rather a sophisticated mix of what are essentially six buildings of varying heights set in two clusters of three buildings each, with joining, multistory glass passageways between the buildings.

They are set in a large sweep of green space that encompasses the Enright Parklet, a city playground at the center of the development. Broad green lawns and about two dozen big, mature shade trees characterize the landscape. There’s little in the city that matches this.

The buildings are in a modified form of the Brutalist style of architecture that was popular throughout the 1960s. They have some of the exposed concrete that characterized that style in the way the floors are emphasized horizontally by the concrete. But the overall feeling of the development comes from the abundant use of red brick, which very much softens the Brutalist origin of the design.

Two different shapes of brick are used, in the structure and in the walls as fill-in between the windows, and the brickwork has varying colors and bonds. The windows are made to appear from the exterior as floor-to-ceiling.

All in all, it’s a satisfying composition and a satisfying grouping of the buildings.

The complex dates to 1968 and was designed by Tasso Katselas, long known as one of the city’s most prominent — and adventurous — architects. The main Community College of Allegheny County building on the North Side, the County Jail on Second Avenue and Pittsburgh International Airport’s terminal are among his firm’s best-known works.

The Penn Plaza complex has always been a landmark given its prominent position at the corner of Penn and Negley avenues. This is the dividing line between East Liberty, Garfield and Friendship, and, if you’re coming from the direction of Downtown, one of the main entrances to East Liberty. It’s a corner that deserves landmark architecture.

But Penn Plaza’s status as an informal landmark is not reflected in any official status. Traditionally, landmarks are not formally recognized as such until they are at least 50 years old, and so Penn Plaza would not qualify for official landmark status for a few years yet. The current owners say, in any case, that the buildings are functionally obsolete and can’t be saved.

Chances are these buildings and the associated green space will be replaced by the kinds of buildings that characterize new construction in East Liberty right now. The redevelopment may well add some mixed-use commercial spaces to the neighborhood, but it’s likely that the new buildings will be the same blocky, smooth-paneled structures with just enough color, just enough in-and-out indentations and just enough decorative projections at the cornices to maintain their postmodern “street cred.” If so, the endless conglomeration of them will be dull and boring compared to what is there today.

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

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