South Hills High School opened its doors on Mt. Washington in 1917 and closed them in 1986. The sprawling structure sat vacant for more than twenty years, during which time the Mt. Washington Community Development Corp. replaced the building’s roof and otherwise kept it stable. A developer finally purchased the building from Pittsburgh Public Schools in 2006 and thanks to the keen eye of architects Rothschild Doyno Collaborative and Thoughtful Balance, it has been reincarnated as the South Hills Retirement Residence, 106 units of senior housing with space for community assets such as a day care facility. The project was recently awarded LEED Gold certification accruing to a mix of co-generation and solar photo-voltaic panels that provide 70% of the building’s power, among other sustainable features.
The South Hills project is a shining example of adaptive reuse, or the re-purposing of older properties for a use other than their original design. Taking this route can be cheaper than new development, and financing for these projects is often easier to secure. Pittsburgh is filled with older buildings eager to be re-imagined including office buildings with a prime downtown address and schools whose architectural pedigree has placed them on the National Register of Historic Places.
Projects currently underway in the city include the RiverVue Apartments, 218 rental units in the former State Office Building that boast Point State Park as their front yard, and the expansion of 31st Street Studios, hulking former brick and metal warehouses that are morphing, Transformer-like, into Hollywood East in the shadow of the 31st Street Bridge.
Who are the next best candidates for adaptive reuse in Pittsburgh? It all starts downtown at the James H. Reed Building on Sixth Avenue, former headquarters of the Reed Smith law firm. The building’s elegant entrance screams “hotel!” and who better to do the retrofit than Kimpton Hotels, masters of adaptive reuse? Imagine “Hotel Monaco” over the doorway and a jewel-toned lobby acting as the living room lounge urbanites crave. Around the corner is the Henry W. Oliver Building designed by architect Daniel Burnham and close by is the Union Trust Building, whose stunning mansard roof commemorates the cathedral that formerly stood in its place. Both structures are woefully underutilized and if commercial isn’t the answer, perhaps they’re prime for downtown residential?