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Young Preservationists take history into the future

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

Does Pittsburgh need another preservation group?

Dan Holland, marathon runner, husband, homeowner and bona fide young person, thinks so.

Jonnet Solomon and Miriam White stand with Dan Holland, chairman of Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh, on the front steps of the former National Negro Opera Company in Homewood. Behind them are YPA members, from left, Kim Falk-MacArthur, Colin Kelley, Lee Ann Antol, Chloe Velasquez, Matthew Ragan and Melissa Nickel. (Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette)

Last year, without fanfare, the Friendship resident established the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh as a charitable nonprofit. Its mission is to actively involve young people in saving older buildings, neighborhoods and towns.

Pittsburgh has "a tremendous record of historic preservation, but unless you instill that in a younger generation, it will die," said Holland, who at 34 is senior adviser for community affairs with the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland's Pittsburgh branch.

YPA's ambitious, nine-county reach is broader than that of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation's Allegheny County purview and Preservation Pittsburgh's city focus. Its emphasis, too, is different.

"We're trying to stay away from things like whether the Mellon Arena should be historic. There are whole towns and building types that are threatened.

"History is literally dropping before our eyes. We're not looking to assign blame, but somebody needs to do something," Holland said last week on a tour of sites the group has selected as the "Top Ten Best Preservation Opportunities in the Pittsburgh Area."

YPA has pledged not only to make its Top Ten list an annual Preservation Week event, but also to work on attracting partners and financing for restoration and reuse of the buildings.

In the past year alone, Holland said, three African-American landmarks were demolished: the Ellis Hotel in the Hill District, Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Elizabeth and the Homestead Workingmen's Club in Homestead, one of the region's oldest black fraternal lodges.

All three had been identified in the "African American Historic Sites Survey of Allegheny County, 1760-1960," a project of PHLF and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which published the survey in 1994. Holland was its principal researcher and a contributing author.

Three of YPA's 2003 Top Ten are related to African-American history, including a big, weather-beaten Queen Anne house on a terraced, wooded lot overlooking Apple Street in Homewood. This was the first home of the National Negro Opera Company, organized in 1941 by Mary Cardwell Dawson, which performed here at the Syria Mosque and toured nationally. Jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal studied there in the 1940s with Dawson, and Lena Horne once lived there.

"I want to turn it into what it was -- a community and music center," said musician Jonnet Solomon, a youthful member of her family's Steel Impressions Steelband. She bought the still-vacant house three years ago for $18,000.

The Hill District's New Granada Theater and the house that playwright August Wilson grew up in, at 1727 Bedford Ave., also made YPA's list.

At the top of the Top Ten are three commercial buildings on Uniontown's Main Street, including the Art Deco former Murphy Co. building. A consortium of local groups has formed to create a reuse plan, raise restoration funds and market the buildings.

Brownsville's commercial district, much of which is owned by Ernest and Marilyn Liggett of Churchill, is No. 2 on YPA's list. For years, the town has pressured the Liggetts to restore or sell their historic but dilapidated buildings. Last year, a Canadian Indian organization broke off negotiations with the Liggetts, who want to establish a gambling resort in the picturesque river town.

One structure, at least, has eluded the Liggetts: the former borough building, which the town donated to the Brownsville Area Revitalization Corp. Mayor Norma Ryan would like to restore the old ground-floor jail cell and police station as a museum exhibit and convert the upper floors to artists' studios with riverfront views. From the third-floor windows, "you can see all the modes of transportation -- the river, the National Road, the railroad and the bridge," Ryan said last week.

Another Mon Valley main street is YPA's No. 3 preservation opportunity -- Homestead's struggling Eighth Avenue, where Holland once worked as a loan officer for the Mon Valley Initiative, creating a new loan fund for small businesses. A Main Street manager, Steve Paul, was hired last year to help turn things around.

Holland earned his preservation stripes three years ago, as the driving force behind the designation of the Murray Hill Avenue city historic district, the Squirrel Hill street on which he was raised.

The son of dance instructor Dena Holland and the late Carnegie Mellon University art professor Harry Holland, he received a bachelor's degree in applied history from CMU in 1991 and later worked as a community reinvestment specialist in Washington, D.C., and in Philadelphia.

Last year, he completed a master's degree in public management from CMU's H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management. The founding of YPA grew out of a leadership class Holland took with Professor Lance Kurke.

"He said we could either write a paper or actually lead," said Holland, who chose the latter.

"I'd show up at Historic Review Commission meetings and there would be no one in the [audience] under 60. But so many young people showed up for Fifth/Forbes," to challenge the city's 1999 plan to demolish and redevelop several blocks of Downtown. "How do you sustain that?"

Holland thinks he knows how, and he is building a board of dynamic young entrepreneurs and community workers who plan to help him achieve it.

"I moved back to the city two years ago," said Lee Ann Antol, a bank examiner with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. "I always vowed that if I could get back with a good job, I would help move the city forward."

Both Holland and Antol have jobs that complement what they hope to do with YPA. One of Antol's responsibilities is to monitor the performance of banks on the Community Reinvestment Act, passed in 1977 to encourage them to meet the credit needs of low- and moderate-income people. As the Federal Reserve Bank's senior adviser for community affairs, Holland connects capital to communities, facilitates partnerships and provides technical assistance.

YPA's other board members are Deborah Gross, co-owner of the communications company Percolater; Colin Kelley, coordinator of a state-funded neighborhood assistance program with Manchester Citizens Corp.; Tracy Montarti, founder and president of In the Loop, a "green" purchasing service; Tereneh Mosley, director of talent attraction for the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance; Matthew Ragan, Heinz School graduate student; and Chloe Velasquez, president of Sabio Springs water bottling company.

Despite its name, YPA is open to people of all ages who want to involve young people in preservation -- through participation in tours, focus groups and community design charrettes related to buildings on the Top Ten list. The group also intends to fill a void here by creating a formal, electronic Preservation Network through its Web site, www.youngpreservationists.org.

Holland has big dreams: He wants to raise the money to hire a director in the next 18 months and envisions the group eventually going national.

"We want to make preservation fun again and be proactive. I never want to stand in front of a wrecking ball. For one thing, it hurts," he said with a laugh.

For another, it's usually too late.

Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh's Top Ten Best Preservation Opportunities:

1. Murphy Building and related structures on Main Street, Uniontown.

2. Downtown Brownsville.

3. Eighth Avenue National Register Historic District, Homestead.

4. National Negro Opera Company House, Homewood.

5. New Granada Theater, Hill District.

6. Ambridge National Register Historic District.

7. Peter Colley Tavern (built 1818), Fayette County.

8. August Wilson Birthplace and Home, Hill District.

9. B'Nai Israel Synagogue Sanctuary, East Liberty.

10. Armstrong Cork Factory, Strip District.

For more information, visit the group's Web site, www.young preservationists.org, and click on Historic Properties Inventory.

Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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