Arthur Ziegler: The Power of Community
When I was growing up, my parents used to take me by trolley to East Liberty for a Saturday night treat, dinner at Gammon’s restaurant. In those days, East Liberty was considered our “second downtown” in Pittsburgh, and so I had a vague affiliation with the area. Many years later, I would learn what the city was planning to do — demolish much of it, and rearrange the street grid. It was terrible.
That was about the time I met James D. Van Trump. “You should know him, Art,” an acquaintance said to me, “because you have an interest in Pittsburgh’s architecture, too.” So, Jamie and I met and got to talking. That’s when I learned of the city of Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) plans, which had already been enacted in some cases, leading to massive demolition, largely of African American neighborhoods.
Horrified, I went to city planning, about which I knew nothing, and got a map that I still have posted on my wall. By that time, the city had already demolished much of the Hill District and, before long, I learned that they planned to demolish all of the North Side, from the river to where we now have the Expressway North. They were also planning to demolish all of the South Side.
Here in Pittsburgh in the 1960s, the city also had plans to run a road down the middle of Manchester, on the North Side, where Pennsylvania Avenue is located, to link it up with a road they wanted to build parallel to Beaver Avenue. The demolition of Beaver Avenue was already advanced. So, I said to Jamie, “Why don’t we go down there? It’s a wonderful place, architecturally.” So, we went to look around. We wanted to meet the people who lived there.
Back then, there were no neighborhood groups, and little community structure. The Hill District had, by that time, however, begun mobilizing to stop further “urban renewal,” but much of the Hill was already gone. I had an affinity for the Hill District because as a child, my father who worked in a bank on Grant Street often took me shopping there.
- Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, President Emeritus (2021–present), Co-founder and President (1964–2020)
Over time, Jamie and I began to meet with residents of the various neighborhoods in Pittsburgh and walked the streets of their communities with them. In our estimation, the situation was a matter of historic preservation. Fortuitously, Jamie had developed a cordial relationship with Helen Clay Frick, the American philanthropist and art collector, and third child of the coke and steel magnate Henry Clay Frick. Jamie was invited to her house (which is now a museum) for dinner. He went there one Friday night and told Ms. Frick about Liverpool Street, a stretch of road that we were really focusing on.
She said, “Well, Mr. Van Trump, it sounds just terrible. Please bring Mr. Ziegler out here tomorrow morning and we’ll talk more about this.” So, Jamie and I went back and talked things over with Ms. Frick, who said, “It sounds like we have to start an organization. I’ll send you $2,500 to conduct the study you suggest about restoring one of the houses on Liverpool Street, to show that it’s cheaper to restore than to demolish, and that it would be much better for all the people in the neighborhood.”
The following Monday, her aide, Walter Cooley, called me up and said, “Ms. Frick wants you to have this money. What’s the name of your organization?”
“Well, as a matter of fact, it’s the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation (PHLF),” I replied. And that’s how it came to be that Jamie and I founded PHLF in 1964.
Jamie had another friend named Charlie Arensberg, a lawyer who was a member of the Society of Architectural Historians. We went to see him to get the paperwork going for creating PHLF, and we officially became a nonprofit organization. Charlie went on to become the chair of the board of trustees of our organization for 30 years. He was a wonderful and dedicated preservationist.
Next, we went back to see Helen Frick and invited her to be an incorporator of the organization. “Let me think about it,” she said. “I don’t usually do that.” However, it wasn’t long before she wrote me a note saying she would be an incorporator after all. When you form a nonprofit organization, a 501(c)(3), people must incorporate it. We went on to assemble a group of good people, and Helen Clay Frick was one of them. That was an auspicious beginning for us.
It was also around that time, in the early 1960s, that I saw an article in the newspaper about a fellow named David Lewis, who was coming to Pittsburgh to occupy a new post at the then Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University, as the Andrew Mellon Professor of Urban Design. So, I called him up. We met, and talked, and I said to him: “Look what’s going on here [on the North Side and in the different neighborhoods of the city]. All these buildings are going to come down. People are losing their homes and businesses. And, there’s a lot more to come.” That’s the way it was back then in every city.
It was the era of Robert Moses, one of the most polarizing figures in the history of urban development in the United States. Moses said terrible things about black neighborhoods, and his decisions favoring highways over public transit helped to create the modern suburbs. And his “vision” influenced a generation of engineers, architects, and urban planners who spread his philosophies across the nation, despite the fact that Moses had no training in any of those professions.
Because we were really new to this whole scene, Helen Frick kept tabs on us. We would go to dinner and tell her what we were doing and show her photographs. Then we learned that a resident of Pittsburgh named Barbara Hoffstot was on the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and she joined us at PHLF.
One important thing that happened early on was that we learned to embrace politics. So, together with residents, we formed the Manchester Citizens Corporation and went to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to try to convert their demolition funds into restoration funds. We lobbied the city and city council. We lobbied the mayor, and the URA. We lobbied HUD. It was an uphill slog, but we did it, day after day, and we won. In Manchester, the people who lived there taught us the power of political action. In turn, they learned from us the value of the architecture in their buildings.
The next important milestone was our approach to the A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust (which no longer exists). In 1965 or 1966, when we went there, A.W. Schmidt, an associate of the Mellons, was in charge. We planned to ask for a grant to restore a particular building, but Schmidt asked, “Why should we give you a grant for just one building? We’re going to give you a grant to do a survey of the entire county.”
Jamie and I did the survey. It took us two years, but we drove every street and road in Allegheny County, with Jamie writing everything down on little notecards. It was the first time in the United States that a countywide survey had been conducted. We noted architectural styles, who the architects might have been, the dates of completion, and so on, and we described why certain buildings, streets or blocks were particularly important, historically. When we were finished, we published “Landmark Architecture of Allegheny County,” which was last republished in 1997. It remains the “Bible” at PHLF.
Through years of work, we developed a culture of reliability and results, not studies. Our feeling was that our book was a treasury for the county and for the people who live here. We didn’t come in with answers. We simply asked questions, such as, “How can we do a better job together?” We decided that our organization should have serious but sensible advocacy and educational components. We wanted to demonstrate that our way is better than the other way. Of course, we always try to be practical, to understand what others want to do and why, and to help them understand what we believe, to see if we can come up with a practical result.
In our desire to be practical, we decided that we ought “to do a big project, and show that our way works,” even though we didn’t have any money or any real knowledge of how to do it. That was the genesis of our development of Station Square.
By that time, in the early 1970s and early 1980s, our organization was growing and gaining great capacity to create change in the neighborhoods where we had been working, particularly on the North Side and the South Side. We also started to receive critical support from singularly important donors such as Richard Mellon Scaife, better known as “Dick” Scaife, who had funded our work in the neighborhoods.
One day, I got a call from Mr. Scaife’s staffer at the Allegheny Foundation saying that Dick and his wife had just been to Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco and had asked, “Why isn’t Landmarks doing something like that in Pittsburgh?”
I said, “Great. We’re just ready to look at a possibility.” We weren’t, however, going to appeal to Dick for any more money. He’d already given so much for the neighborhoods. But, in any case, we met Downtown at the site we were considering, and Dick gave us some money to study it, after which I went back to him and said, “I don’t think it will work. But I have another idea. How about the P&LE [Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad] site? There are some good buildings there.”
“Well, let’s take a look,” he said, and we did.
So, Dick Scaife went with me and met with the railroad company to let them know that we had a serious backer, and we signed a deal that was novel. I knew we couldn’t do a master plan. We had to continue to be very practical. So, we started with a small building, the Express House and the Gate House, and what we now call the Freight House. Only then could we begin on the Landmarks Building. All the while, the railroad was still operating.
PHLF would lease pieces of their land over a period of time and start work. Of course, the Department of City Planning wanted a master plan, but we said we couldn’t do one because we still didn’t know what would work. We expected to add some things that didn’t, at the time, exist in Pittsburgh, such as high-quality retail, expanded food service and some new, modern bars, which we planned to put into the Freight House — and off we went. Fortunately, once again, luck was with us.
Around that time, the Board of Realtors invited me to give a speech about our efforts. When it was over, they said, “We want to rent space in the first building you’re doing.” So, they were our first tenant, which was a great endorsement. We were always told that it would never work. “There’s a railroad track there, for goodness sake,” to which we responded, “people love railroad tracks; they love rivers, and to look at cities across rivers.” We were again lucky to get Chuck Muer, from Detroit, to create the Grand Concourse restaurant.
We owned Station Square beginning in 1975, and created it piecemeal. After a while, many of the industries that the railroad served along the river and down the valley went bankrupt. As a result, the railroad was going out of business as well. So, we bought all the land and buildings instead of continuing to lease. We owned it and either leased or developed it from 1975 to 1994, when we sold it. At the time of the sale, the project that we were told would fail, which we had done according to principles we believed in, was attracting 3 million visitors per year. No urban renewal project in this region has ever done that.
As for Pittsburgh’s urban renewal through the years, I still don’t understand Allegheny Center. URA tore down so many wonderful buildings and destroyed many African American homes. They tore out the centerpiece of the park. And they tore down the Allegheny Market House, something that was precious to people all over the city because they went there to shop. They also took out all the streets. At PHLF, we don’t want to upset street plans, which have worked for 100 or 150 years. Why would we tear out streets and reorganize them? That has never worked. Someone latches on to the latest idea, or brings in a consultant, like Robert Moses, and simply buys into a vision coming from the outside. I think that they believe that they are doing the right thing. But they seem to never consider one question: “Will this work?”
Our organization employs about 25 people, and we try to give most of our work to our staff, although we’re always willing to learn other ways of planning from outside preservation-minded professionals. Still, we continue to learn the most from folks who have lived, worked and maintained businesses in the neighborhoods. We introduced to the national preservation movement not just the retention of buildings, but the retention of people. We don’t want to just say, “Here’s an historic building or neighborhood, come and see it.”
At PHLF, our mission statement has never changed. We have built a culture that perpetuates a vision that our staff and board believe in, but we are not a stationary organization. We are always evolving programs to satisfy needs, emergencies and ideas. We started our organization working in an African-American neighborhood, and then a series of them, and have always had a diverse staff and diverse boards.
Over the years, our staff has grown and evolved not only in diversity, but in work and life experience. Our goal has always been to attract excellent people to our staff. We provide an opportunity for them to show us new ways of how to think about how to achieve our goals. And so, when Michael Sriprasert joined our staff some 15 years ago, for example, we quickly saw in him the qualities of a leader.
Michael helped shape our strategies on community investment, ranging from brick-and-mortar restoration efforts in neighborhoods, in downtown Pittsburgh and in Allegheny County main street communities. He also helped to grow our revolving loan fund in the Landmarks Community Capital Corporation (LCC), a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), which enables us to lend critical funds in communities that cannot easily access traditional bank financing for preservation projects. Because of the time he spent internalizing our culture and principles, Michael naturally grew into a position of leadership and now serves as the president of our organization.
Our people are completely dedicated, and all work creatively, and very hard. We give one another the latitude to come up with fresh ideas, programs and funding sources. We evolve with changing needs and changing opportunities, but our culture and our mission remain steadfast.