In Pittsburgh, Schoolhouse Electric Reimagines an Abandoned Midcentury Modern Building
The Detective Building, which hosts a Schoolhouse Electric store, co-working space, and coffee shop, will help fund improvements to the fast-developing East Liberty neighborhood.
In 2015, Brian Faherty was in Pittsburgh searching for a new East Coast “outpost” for Schoolhouse Electric—the Portland, Oregon–based lighting and homewares manufacturing company he owns—when he stumbled upon a shuttered, bronze-paneled building in the East Liberty neighborhood. It was called the Detective Building, named for its last tenants, the City of Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Investigations. Faherty saw in the Detective Building potential that many could not: an opportunity to preserve an overlooked piece of New Formalist architecture while creating a community-oriented space in a neighborhood with a complicated past.
The Detective Building’s renovation had to negotiate the structure’s association with East Liberty’s recent history. The building stood as a stark reminder of the 1960s urban renewal initiatives that dramatically reshaped the area. Even before the ’60s, banks’ redlining practices had suffocated the once racially-diverse neighborhood by cutting off homeowner’s credit, lowering building stock quality, and concentrating poverty. Then came the construction of four-lane super blocks, acres of demolitions, and the addition of high-rise towers that, together, drained the life out of the once-bustling shopping district that surrounds the Detective Building. East Liberty remains a majority African American community with a median household income $15,000 less than the citywide average.
But new development has defined the area in recent years. Since the early 2000s, the city has aimed to reverse those disproved urban renewal strategies. These plans have included turning the four-lane main drag into a two-way street, reconnecting the street grid, and filling in the neighborhood’s vacancies. With new market-rate and affordable housing slated for East Liberty, the cost of living and population density is expected to increase. It was in this context that Faherty came across the Detective Building.
The Detective Building
Faherty, a former real estate agent who has renovated many historic properties in Portland, is betting that reinvigorating the 1972 building with Schoolhouse’s new storefront, a coffee shop, and a co-working space will play a key role in a wave of investment aimed at strengthening the local economy and supporting local makers in East Liberty. He’s not making that bet alone: Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), an organization that provides funding to rehabilitate commercial properties and encourage job-creation, assisted in securing some $2.3 million in financing for the project.
The project’s success is also meant to be shared with the wider neighborhood. Tom Link, director of the URA’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, tells Metropolis that the Detective Building sits within a Transit Revitalization Investment District. This means that “new taxes generated from the project, which lays within a half mile radius of a transit stop, will be reinvested in district infrastructure bridging the physical gap between East Liberty’s business district and its adjacent residential neighborhoods,” he says. The Detective Building is also part of a wider plan that includes the development of affordable housing on a 3-acre vacant site next door.
Many of the area’s midcentury buildings are not surviving the neighborhood’s new wave of development. Rebecca Davidson-Wagner, president of Pittsburgh Urban Initiatives at the URA, says that the Detective Building was “not necessarily slated for demolition, but no one had really come forward with a plan for the building. Brian is a creative guy and saw something much more interesting that what other people were seeing.”
The Detective Building was indeed in a sorry state—empty for over twenty years—when Faherty first found it. Designed by architects Larson & Ludwig in 1970 for the American Automobile Association (AAA), the building is located in the heart of the East Liberty business district but is still encircled by parking lots and the four-lane road constructed during urban renewal efforts.
Acknowledging the building’s association with ’60s urban renewal, Faherty says he wants to write a new chapter in the structure’s history. “I could have easily torn this down and built something for less,” he says, “but I felt it was important to preserve, despite the troubled past. It wasn’t like people thought of the place fondly, so we tried to change the narrative. That’s happening in Pittsburgh in general—the city is reimagining itself.”
By October 2018, the building was reopened, brighter than ever before. Layers of reflective film were peeled away from the floor-to-ceiling glazing to reveal bright clusters of hand-crafted glass fixtures that now illuminate the ground floor. Schoolhouse worked with Pittsburgh’s mossArchitects, taking a minimalist approach to the renovation by utilizing existing materials, maximizing natural light, and activating the accompanying streetscape.
“From a design point of view,” says company founder Andrew Moss, the building “is grid-like in the facade and plan and we wanted to respect the rigidity and formal structure of the building.” A new plaza around the Detective Building’s entrance maintains that rigidity while opening the building up to visitors. Accented by trees, benches, and some of the original precast concrete planters found on site, the plaza turns what once was a drive-through window into a small public space. Moss calls the new public space, like the new coffee shop, “a valuable asset to the community.”
The interior renovation also emphasizes Faherty’s fascination with the original building and his desire to change as little as possible, highlighting its original materials and textures. The original quirky tile still lines the elevator core and the co-working spaces are furnished by the police department’s steel-tank desks, with drawers that were apparently still filled with mugshots when Schoolhouse moved in.
In fact, these efforts of reclamation and reuse are part of the Schoolhouse’s ethos. The company’s line of products and designs, Faherty explains, “stand the test of time and are not disposable.” Their products are “simple, clean, and go with the architecture.” Faherty feels that this new retail outpost, Schoolhouse’s first in over ten years and their largest undertaking, is an important step forward in the sustained revival of East Liberty: “For me, this was a great opportunity to put something there that is going to last for a long time. Even though I own the building, I feel like a tenant because after I’m gone the building will go on and iterate, but at least I can leave it in a lot better shape than when I found it.”
Faherty’s optimism recalls the progressive midcentury spirit of the city, now honed for a new chapter of its development and evolution. Most importantly, the project has been a hit among East Liberty residents, Link says: “When Schoolhouse opened, they were all beaming about the positive support from the community—it all seemed positive.”
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