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North Hills Monthly

PHLF Adding to Quality of Life by Preserving, Restoring Historic Buildings

Sep 30, 2018 05:54PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

A row of PHLF-restored houses on Jeanette Street in the Hamnett Place neighborhood, a National Register-listed Historic District in Wilkinsburg

If you’ve been in Pittsburgh long, you’ve probably seen a Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation plaque posted on a building, acknowledging its historical significance. The nonprofit organization, founded in 1964, has been involved in preserving, redeveloping and recognizing the beautiful buildings, places and landmarks that are the literal foundation of Pittsburgh.

We spoke with Karamagi Rujumba, director of development and communications for the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, about the scope of the organization’s activities in and around the area and how they are helping to revitalize neighborhoods.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the mission of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation?

Karamagi Rujumba (Rujumba): The mission of our organization is to identify and save historically significant places; renew historic neighborhoods, towns, and urban areas; preserve historic farms and historic designed landscapes; and educate people about the Pittsburgh region’s rich architectural heritage.

NHM: Why was there a need for an organization such as this in Pittsburgh?

Rujumba: PHLF was founded primarily to push back against what was then known as urban renewal, a federal government policy that encouraged mass demolition of buildings in the core of urban neighborhoods as a way of redeveloping them. Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation was formed in opposition to that idea. We believe that we don’t have to demolish buildings to renew communities. Instead, we know that restoration of those buildings can be the basis for creating new life and revitalization in the communities.

NHM: Why is it important to preserve history? 

Rujumba: It is not just a question of preserving history. It’s about saving, restoring and creating new forms of use for our existing architectural landscape. Since the growth of the preservation movement in opposition to urban renewal policies, it has been proven that people generally appreciate the historic building aesthetic. In fact, we have seen that over time, neighborhoods where historic preservation was adopted instead of demolition are the places that have retained the cultural value and building aesthetic that continues to make them among the most desirable places to live.

NHM: How does a building receive historic recognition by the PHLF?

Rujumba: People interested in getting an acknowledgement that their building is an historic landmark can apply to a committee of our Historic Landmark Plaque program for the designation. The committee receives nominations from the public, considers the history and architectural significance of the building, and makes a decision to award a plaque. PHLF plaques are pretty much an honorific that recognizes the historic significance of a building or a place. We have no regulatory authority on the building as a result of our plaque.

NHM: Is there a minimum age for a building to achieve historic status?

Rujumba: In the United States, generally what is considered historic is a building or place that has been in existence for 50 years or more.

NHM: How many sites in Pittsburgh have achieved PHLF designation, and can you cite some noteworthy examples?

Rujumba: PHLF started awarding historic landmark plaques in 1968 and we have awarded 575 since then. Most landmarks in downtown Pittsburgh and surrounding towns in Allegheny County have a PHLF plaque on them. Some examples include the Allegheny County Courthouse, the City County Building, the Smithfield Street Bridge, Soldiers & Sailors Hall, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, a number of church buildings and other significant buildings and places.

NHM: What is at the heart of what you do, specifically when it comes to renewing, revitalizing and preserving neighborhoods and landscapes?

Rujumba: The main thing that we do is help improve people’s quality of life by applying historic preservation principles; this can range from building restoration in historic neighborhoods to helping revitalize economic activity in Main Street communities.

The other aspect we bring outside of our technical assistance and planning is building restoration itself. We acquire buildings and restore them for a purpose, either for housing or for retail, or we restore them to sell as single-family homes to new residents. We have done this in many neighborhoods, from Manchester to the Mexican War Streets on the North Side to Wilkinsburg, to downtown Pittsburgh and other neighborhoods.

Beyond that, we also have a lending subsidiary corporation that lends funds to community development corporations, to businesses and to individuals within a certain area that are restoring historic buildings or doing business development in Main Street communities or in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods.

NHM: Tell me a little bit about the Main Street program.

Rujumba: For many years, we managed Allegheny County’s Main Street revitalization program, known as Allegheny Together, in 13 communities. Our work in Main Street revitalization started on Carson Street on the Southside in the late 1960s, where we helped jump start what was essentially a dying business corridor. We came up with an idea of how to market Carson Street and started with restoration of storefront buildings and creating housing in upper floors. It caught on as other developers followed suit, and Carson Street rebounded economically. That idea of main street revitalization caught on and is now a major program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 

NHM: What educational programs do you offer, including those in the northern suburbs?

Rujumba: We have programming for people of all ages, including field trips for students and a variety of summer camps. We also have educational programming that is geared toward those primarily interested in the architecture and history of Pittsburgh.

We have a Landmarks Scholarship Program, where we have awarded scholarships or honorable mentions to 11 high school seniors from either North Allegheny or North Hills since 1999, and we involve students from various schools in the North Hills area in Architectural Design Challenges, walking tours, and mural-making activities. Our educational programs are designed to help young people learn more about their neighborhood and city––particularly about historic ‘built’ things––so they feel a sense of belonging and pride. We also offer Free Friday walking tours in downtown Pittsburgh and in various neighborhoods on various dates.

NHM: What else should people know about PHLF?

Rujumba: PHLF is involved in a broad range of areas. On one hand, we want to educate the general public about the varying aspects of our rich history and the architectural beauty of our city and region. On the other hand, we do real hands-on work in either technical assistance for people trying to acquire historic buildings, or we do restoration of older and historic buildings ourselves. 

For example, in the core of downtown Pittsburgh, we own a number of historic buildings which we have restored and shown that retail can thrive in these older buildings that define the architectural landscape of our city. In Wilkinsburg, we have just come off the third phase of a 15-year period in which we’ve invested in the restoration of single-family houses and apartment buildings, and we’ve even reclaimed vacant lots and created community gardens. That is a broad spectrum of what we do, but the main thing to know is that primarily, we are a community development organization—we are driven to help community development through principals of historic preservation, education, and advocacy to improve the quality of life for people and communities.

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