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March 20, 1997

Commission votes against historic designation for two Pitt buildings

The Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission has voted against recommending that Pennsylvania Hall and the Mineral Industries Building be designated as historic structures. The 4-0 vote came at the commission's March 14 meeting.

The nomination, which was opposed by Pitt, will now go to the City Planning Commission, which within a month is expected to consider it from a planning standpoint, and then City Council, which has the final say on such designations.

Neither body is expected to oppose the Historic Review Commission's recommendation against historic designation for the two pre-World War I buildings, according to Jay Roling, Pitt's director of local relations.

For the Planning Commission to vote in favor of a historic designation for the two buildings would place it in direct conflict with Pitt's master space plan, which the Planning Commission helped to develop and approved in 1995. On those grounds, Roling said, he "would expect that the Planning Commission will deny the nomination." Both the Historic Review Commission and the Planning Commission will forward their recommendations to City Council. Roling could not recall City Council ever opposing a Historic Review Commission recommendation and said he does not expect it to do so in this case. "But crazier things have happened," he added.

Pitt opposes the nomination of Pennsylvania Hall and the Mineral Industries Building on the grounds that neither of the buildings is worthy of historic designation. In the master space plan, the University identified the land on which the buildings stand as prime possible sites for new student housing.

The two buildings were nominated for historic designation by Pittsburgh residents John Murdock and J. R. Daniel. Under the city ordinance governing historic buildings, any city resident may nominate any building for historic designation. Murdock and Daniel nominated Pennsylvania Hall and the Mineral Industries Building because the buildings were part of famed architect Henry Hornbostel's 1908 Acropolis Plan, which sought to model the University along the lines of the Acropolis in ancient Athens. Rich Holmes, Pitt associate general counsel; John Sysko of the Office of Facilities Management, and John Myers, an historic consultant with the Albany, N.Y., architectural firm of Enhorn Yeffe and Prescott, argued against the designation on the grounds that the two buildings were minor elements of the Acropolis Plan and not architecturally significant.

The Historic Review Commission generally agreed with the arguments of Holmes, Sysko and Myers. Under the city's historic structure ordinance, a building must meet at least one of four criteria to qualify as historic. It must: * Be a location "at which events that made a significant contribution to national, state or local history occurred, or which involved a close association with the lives of people of national, state or local significance." According to the Historic Review Commission report, a search by commission staff "did not discover any evidence that the nominated buildings were the location of significant historic events, nor that they had any association with the lives of historically significant people." * Be "an outstanding example of a period, style, architectural movement or method of construction." The commission report found that "there is nothing outstanding about the overall architectural character and design of these buildings. Both Pennsylvania Hall and the Mineral Industries Building are relatively utilitarian in nature." * Be "one of the last surviving works of a pioneer architect, builder or designer." Commission staff found that numerous better designed buildings by Hornbostel remain in Pittsburgh, as well as in other cities around the nation. They included a large portion of the Carnegie Mellon University campus, Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, the City-County Building and Rodef Shalom Temple. The report found that Pennsylvania Hall and the Mineral Industries Building rank near the bottom in design and quality of Hornbostel's work.

"The mere fact of connection with Hornbostel – without high quality – is not enough to justify designation of these buildings," the report concluded.

* Be "one of the last survivors of a particular style or period of construction." While both buildings have a few Classical details and moldings, the commission staff did not consider those details important enough to merit a historic designation. According to the report, "there are many other and better examples of the use of Classical design principles in the Oakland neighborhood, to say nothing of the rest of the city." University counsel Holmes said he was pleased with the Historic Commission's recommendation.

–Mike Sajna

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