New buildings add to Greensburg’s landmark architectural designs
The art of good building is alive and well in Greensburg.
This small city 30 miles east of Pittsburgh has long been a town of landmark architecture. Now, in just the last year, it has added to its luster with a stellar renovation and addition to the prestigious Westmoreland Museum of American Art and a new Seton Hill University Arts Center, each within a five-minute walk of the town’s center.
The two new buildings represent the continuation of a deliberate effort in Greensburg to reinvent the city. It has always been the center of commerce and banking in Westmoreland County as well as the county seat. It is now, definitively, a cultural center, as well.
The addition to the museum building gives it an architectural identity that it previously lacked, while the new Seton Hill building, with its own extraordinary design, completes a program to bring all the university’s arts facilities downtown.
These new buildings accompany the historically careful restoration in recent years of landmarks such as the 1926 Palace Theatre and the 1910 Pennsylvania Railroad station. The Palace is a Renaissance Revival-style movie house that, like the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh, is now used for concerts and live theater. The train station, one of the most elaborate on the old Pennsylvania Railroad mainline, still functions as the Amtrak station, but is perfectly preserved and now incorporates a fine restaurant and offices.
Adding to all this, Seton Hill, in 2009, built in this same neighborhood a Performing Arts Center — with space for live theater and concerts.
This attractive mix of old and new buildings — all with quality design and all near to each other — helps bring back to Greensburg the kind of lively street life and attractiveness that have become lost features, desperately missed, of so many of the towns and small cities in Western Pennsylvania.
Greensburg traces its wealth to its position on the railroad mainline and the Lincoln Highway. Coal mining, banking and manufacturing made the early-20th century its period of greatest growth. Over the years, its remarkable architectural history has included everything from the First Presbyterian Church, designed in 1916 by the eminent Ralph Adams Cram, to an early-1960s office and printing plant for the Tribune-Review by the late Louis Kahn, a Philadelphia architect of legendary status in the profession.
There’s an imposing Beaux Arts style courthouse in the center of town; a large but serene cathedral for the Catholic Diocese of Greensburg, designed in 1923 by the Pittsburgh firm of Comes, Perry and McMullen; and several other downtown churches that merit landmark status. There are turn-of-the-century mansions designed by Alden & Harlow, a famous Pittsburgh firm in its day, and even a modern house designed by Pittsburghers Peter Berndtson and Cornelia Brierly in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Westmoreland Museum of American Art bills itself as a regional museum with “a national presence.” That’s not an exaggeration. It regularly mounts shows that attract wide attention. But needing to expand from a cramped and plain neo-Georgian building, it hired Ennead Architects of New York City to plan a $38 million addition. (Ennead is a new firm evolved from the Polshek Partnership, noted for a much-admired addition to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.)
Ennead transformed the Greensburg museum. Most obviously, it created a large cantilevered gallery with a slanted facade that dramatically looks out from the museum’s hillside site just above the city all the way to the mountains beyond. This gives the building a memorable identity that was previously lacking. The firm then extended a screen of sorts across the front of the old building to a modest 1960s addition where it put a fine-finish concrete pier that repeats the angle of the cantilevered facade at the other end of what now became an L-shaped building.
The entire renovation is a tremendous success. On the inside, the unusual gallery with a view is a special delight. Several interior views, across the galleries, mimic the angles of that cantilevered facade, as well.
The new Seton Hill building, which cost $16 million, is not in any way as richly appointed as the museum. It’s a functional building intended to look industrial with trendy gray corrugated metal siding — and is full of studios and workshops (metalworking, ceramics, photo-graphy and painting spaces, among others). But it was no less creatively designed.
The building, from the outside, features a variety of shapes that make it seem clearly modern. But its real virtues are found inside, when you realize that most of the spaces in the three-story building are flooded with natural light, from huge skylights or clerestories or just plain windows. You wouldn’t suspect it from the outside, but this is a virtually day-lit building on the inside.
It also incorporates a courtyard that is called the “Art Yard” — a space that can be opened to the sidewalk, making it a public space, and can be used for special events, outdoor art shows or as a sculpture court, among other things. The architects were designLab Architects of Boston.
Seton Hill’s main campus is on a nearby hillside above the city, but all of its arts facilities are now firmly in the downtown. Seton Hill’s other downtown building — the Performing Arts Center, for theater, dance and music students — is just a block away from the new building. It was designed in 2009 by MacLachlan, Cornelius & Filoni, the Pittsburgh firm that, among many other projects, oversaw the restorations of Heinz Hall and the Benedum Center in Downtown Pittsburgh.
All in all, there is no other town in Western Pennsylvania, other than Pittsburgh itself, that has so much distinguished architecture, both old and new, as Greensburg. It’s safe to say that the tradition is continuing.
John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.