Architectural Preservation on Forbes and Shady
By Ian G. Rawson
When I first came back to Pittsburgh in 1962, the Forbes/Shady corner offered the choice of gas stations on three corners and Rosen’s drug store on the fourth corner with Dora’s small grocery as its neighbor on Shady. Images from the 1920s, found in the Carnegie Library’s historical online image bank, show a single building curving down Shady and turning west on Forbes, with an ornate façade of glazed turquoise and cream tiles. The corner has gone through several transformations. From the windows of Starbucks, we can look across Shady to see a half-block which has become a migratory stop for flights of millennials. How Lee, the always-crowded Chinese restaurant, holds Rosen’s spot on the corner. Dora’s is now the Independent Brewing Company bar and bistro and next door is the newly-opened and always busy Hidden Harbor. The building is owned by John Katz and his brother who are residential builders and managers, doing business at the Brandywine Agency. They purchased the building from the Winston family, who had built it in the early 1900s.
I spoke with John recently, who explained his plans for the building: to restore the exterior to its original beauty, preserving the historical elements, and unifying the buildings with brown spandrel glass. Most of the upper sections of the building were covered by metal sheeting with advertising signage. When these were removed, the original ceramic molding was revealed and found to be in surprisingly good shape, although some parts had been painted over.
“I’m invested in this project because I live here in Squirrel Hill,” Katz said. “I saw the potential to bring back an architectural gem and to give an idea of what these streets might have looked like in its early days.” We walked down Forbes toward town and saw only two other buildings on the street that appear to have solid esthetic bones. One is a large 3-story apartment block with a glazed brick frame featuring charming inset balconies on the 2nd and 3rd floors.
The other building is on the North side of Forbes, and currently serves as a law office, with a clothing store where Sir Loin used to serve as one of the only restaurants in the district, with its stolid meat-and-potatoes menu. There may be other interesting facades under the modern sheathing, but they are hidden from view.
We turned back to the corner to talk with the restoration crew from David Nadoff Construction standing on a scaffold, painstakingly scraping and wiping the overcoats of paint from the molded designs. The elements of blue-green garlands, inset arches and cast rosettes slowly emerged from under the grit and paint.
“We encountered a challenge in putting all of these elements together along Shady Avenue because each of the three commercial structures were at different elevations going up the street.” Katz explained.” We worked with a designer to come up with a plan to adapt to that, and at the same time, to maintain the building’s integrity.”
Now, each of the businesses flow smoothly together, each unique but unified under a shared roofline and structural details such as the stone-capped marble columns. A new sidewalk establishes a cohesive succession, highlighted by the now-iconic squirrel-shaped bicycle racks, a water fountain with doggie bowl, a leash post, planters, and outside tables.
“We still have a lot to do,” Katz observes, “but mostly in details, such as LED light bars above the windows and an integrated plan for signage. We’re proud of being able to make a contribution to the quality of life here in Squirrel Hill.”