Historic Building Restoration

I have enjoyed becoming a consultant, and not working exclusively in any particular town, as that has afforded me an opportunity to pick my projects. Some projects stand out more than others because of their unique nature. I try to take projects, big and small, and give them my full attention.

I have a project in Pittsburgh, remediating the Westinghouse Nuclear facility. The site is home to the first commercial particle accelerator. Particle accelerators, like CERN in Switzerland, where there was a new particle found recently, the Higgs Boson, which gives us insights to the nature of mass, are not your everyday buildings. This particle accelerator is small compared to CERN… but is a particle accelerator nonetheless… and the first commercial particle accelerator (atom smasher).

Upon the new owner, Gary Silversmith, taking title to the property and making a site visit with me; I realized the importance of the artifact. What was interesting about the atom smasher was that it was in a residential neighborhood, and they were smashing atoms with houses not that far away.

We planned to initiate a housing development on the site. Initially we wanted to move the atom smasher from the site. One of our potential clients said that the smasher would be a problem but an educational facility was fine. A newspaper article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette discussing the need to save the smasher.  

We were immediately inundated with support for the smasher. Nuclear scientists from everywhere said they wanted to help. A deputy school district superintendent of the Woodlands Hills School District, Al Johnson, came up with a proposal. Government officials from the Borough of Chalfant stressed the importance of saving the smasher. Tax credit people converged from all sides to offer services concerning maximizing the new Pennsylvania Historic Tax Credits.

What once was a hum drum remediation project turned into a historic restoration project. I felt I was in a good place at the right time. I have been in the right place at the wrong time as well as being in the right place at the right time and I know the difference.

In my career, I have worked on some high profile historic restoration projects. In three cases, the buildings I worked with have won state historic restoration awards. I am a preservationist. I believe that utilizing historic restoration in downtown revitalization is the key to success in many main street programs. It was in my consulting sweet spot.

The proposal from the school district, which is still being refined and has not been made public, asked the community to band together to create a STEM academy building that concentrates on nuclear physics. This would include public/private partnerships, and public/public partnerships with a host of different players with different skill levels. 

It appears that it is also eligible for a $4,000,000 grant, which could significantly change the landscape for the uses. Maybe the atom smasher could become the home to a high tech company. Maybe I could do the restoration of the century on the smasher utilizing a portion of the grant. I am not sure I could justify eight million dollars investment in the atom smasher site. That is a good problem to have. Maybe there is too much money available… have not seen that in a while.

Westinghouse was sold to CBS and we have the remnants of Westinghouse employees all over Pittsburgh. Many of the community members who have worked there or have pride in the Westinghouse name want to help with the project. It was like a huge group pulling for the atom smasher project. We remain hopeful.

I guess the moral of this story is that if you have community support and heritage of excellence, maybe historic restoration is not that hard? 

In Lock Haven I had a man named John Gummo, who along with his wife Joyce restored 100 East Main Street and won the Pennsylvania History and Museum Commission award. I remember he kissed me on the lips when he won. First time a man had kissed me on the lips.

In Phoenixville, I had Manny Demutis and Bob Hankin and their investment in the Foundry and the Superintendent’s building from the former Phoenixville Steel Site. Neither of them kissed me when they won.

Now in Pittsburgh, it is almost an entire community standing up for the atom smasher and the preservation. Which means people realize the connection to the past, if destroyed will operate to their disadvantage as a community. More communities should realize that is the case and treat old local landmarks with respect.