Headlines·Special Report

Pittsburgh foundation saves and flips old buildings

Nearly 50 years ago, a group of Pittsburgh residents founded a non-profit organization to save historic buildings. Some say it could work here.

Group of concerned residents formed a non-profit organization 50 years ago. Part 2 of Steel to Steel: Bright ideas from Pittsburgh to Hamilton

Station Square is one of the big successes of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. (PHLF)

Pittsburgh and Hamilton, two Steeltowns, two cities forced to struggle with decline of their traditional manufacturing economies, two cities trying to find a new way. Pittsburgh is frequently held up as a model of economic redevelopment. Three major magazines have named it America's most livable city. Major tech companies such as Google and Apple have located there. CBC Hamilton went to Pittsburgh to find three success stories that might have application here, from a warehouse full of artwork to a neighbourhood plan that turned an area known for drive-by shootings into a family-friendly hangout. This is the second part of our three-part series.


Even in the cold spring rain in early evening in Pittsburgh, Station Square is bustling.

It has rows of shops and restaurants. It has horse and carriage rides. It even has a Hard Rock Café.

Each year, about three million visitors come to the cluster of former Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad Company Station buildings, now a shopping and entertainment hub. The oldest building dates back to 1897.

To hear heritage advocates tell it, projects like this are the engine of Pittsburgh's success. Restoring old buildings isn't just a matter of preference. It's a tourism and economic driver, and "the individuality and human scale that people love about a city," said Louise Sturgess, executive director of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation (PHLF).

Steel to Steel: Bright ideas from Pittsburgh to Hamilton

YesterdayThe Mattress Factory

Today: A non-profit foundation that saves historic buildings

Thursday: A community plan for economic revitalization

If you want a successful city, the message is clear: preserve your heritage.

That's what the PHLF does.  Founded in 1964, the non-profit organization combs foundations and government grants to fill its annual budget of about $4 million.

Station Square — which it sold to Forest City in 1994 — is one of its biggest restoration successes. But PHLF has saved hundreds of historic buildings from demolition and ruin.

Started with one secretary

Arthur Ziegler and James Van Trump founded the non-profit after Ziegler drove through a neighbourhood full of Victorian homes. He remarked to a friend how beautiful they were.

"You'd better look fast," the friend said. The entire block was slated for demolition.

Ziegler went to the local historical society, which didn't have the energy or means to stop it, he said. Eventually, he connected with a local attorney who knew how to tap into grant money, and Ziegler's group purchased the homes and rented them to low- and medium-income residents.

"We wanted to demonstrate that it would be more economically productive and less of a tribulation for the people who lived there if the buildings could be restored," Ziegler said.

The foundation grew enough in the first year to hire a secretary. Then year by year, its programs spread, as did its ability to fundraise and tap into grant money. Now it has 21 full-time staff members and two part-time employees, and more than 125 volunteers.

The PHLF acquires and restores buildings across the city. It also owns and acts as landlord of several historic downtown properties that it has converted into apartments and retail space.

Face of a city

Each year, it offers grants of up to $10,000 to religious groups trying to maintain their places of worship. Such buildings, Sturgess said, are "the centre of social services and architectural landmarks." Each year, the PHLF awards about $75,000.

Other successes: the foundation loaned money to a business owner who transformed the long-vacant Alleghany Brewery into a successful restaurant and brew pub. It also loaned money to turn an old church priory into a boutique hotel.

When people think of cities, they don't think of new suburban homes, Ziegler said.

"When people travel, they want to see the historic areas," he said. "When you look at any travel magazine, communities are advertising their historic buildings and their history."

Pittsburgh does have an advantage that Hamilton doesn't — deep-pocketed foundations willing to donate to heritage, said Glen Norton, Hamilton's manager of urban renewal in the city's planning and economic development department. Here, most private contributions go to education or health care.

Heritage for Hamilton

"In the States, it's not so uncommon to focus money on cultural things," he said. "We don't get that as much in Canada and in Hamilton."

But Coun. Brian McHattie says a similar model already exists in the conservation world in the form of land trusts.

And Hamilton does have a deep enough interest in heritage buildings that the community would support such an organization, said heritage advocate Matt Jelly.

"I think a foundation (like the one in Pittsburgh) would be broadly supported" in Hamilton, he said.

Hamilton has a number of taxpayer-funded incentive programs for historic buildings. The Gore Building Improvement Grant Program, for example, gives grants to maintain historic buildings in the Gore. The Hamilton Heritage Property Grant helps conserve and restore heritage properties in certain areas of the city, and has granted $845,345.77 since its inception in 2008, Norton said.

Buildings make a downtown

But Hamilton has to get better at documenting its heritage properties and saving them from the wrecking ball, Jelly said. Even a local heritage designation doesn't save a property from being demolished. It just means a required 60-day stay before it happens.

In April, McHattie hosted a community forum to identify heritage properties. Hamilton has thousands of properties that could benefit from a structured foundation, he said.

"We're a bit behind (Pittsburgh), but I think the ability to do the same is definitely here."

McHattie echoes the sentiment that historic buildings define a city, particularly a downtown.

"It's the fabulous ornate buildings that were built in the late 19th and early 20th century that really provide the character of a downtown," he said. "We all travel to Europe and get excited about Paris and Rome and Copenhagen, and that's why we go there."

'Keep as much as you can'

Don Carter, head of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, advises Hamilton to "keep as much as you can.

"Pittsburgh has been fortunate — with a few really bad examples — of keeping everything we have," he said.

Carter hasn't been to Hamilton, but in an interview with CBC Hamilton, he guessed that it contained "a lot of really great buildings built between World War 1 and World War 2."

Not only is it more environmentally friendly to repurpose old buildings, but such structures are made with sturdier material that's built to last, he said.

"Neighbourhoods and old houses and old office buildings in downtowns can all be repurposed," he said. "Once you commit to that, there's so much value to it."