Architecture students get hands-on preservation experience with an historic Friendship mansion. | Architecture | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Architecture students get hands-on preservation experience with an historic Friendship mansion.

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We have Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, Preservation Pittsburgh and the Young Preservationists Association; we also have neighborhood-specific groups throughout the city, in places such as Schenley Farms and the Mexican War streets. Don't these provide enough local preservationists already?

Actually, the answer is a clear no. A new, hands-on course in historic preservation in the architectural studies program at the University of Pittsburgh is training a new generation of preservationists and showing the continuing need for them in Pittsburgh. (The course complements a popular history- and theory-of-preservation course taught by Angelique Bamberg, who is also a regular CP contributor.) The students' July 31 presentation of an historic-structure report on the Lynch mansion, now the Waldorf School, in Friendship, demonstrated their developing skills.

When Pitt's architectural studies program held a symposium on historic-preservation education in 2007, director Drew Armstrong concluded that the program should add to its curriculum. He invited Jeff Slack, a preservationist with Pfaffmann + Associates architects, who has been in the field for about 20 years, to teach. "If you could design a course," Armstrong asked, "what would you create?"

Slack imagined more than the expected lectures and reading, instead aiming to teach in a way "that mirrored the work and experience of a real-world historic-preservation consultant." He wanted students to work with an actual client with project meetings, unanticipated problems and practical implications for the results. Accordingly, rather than conduct scattered investigations of different structures, the students would focus on one building for the entire semester, to allow particular depth to their investigations.

The Waldorf School proved an ideal candidate. Built in 1867 for dry-goods merchant Henry Lynch, the three-story, mansard-roofed structure is a splendid and surprisingly unmolested example of Second Empire architecture. The property also includes outbuildings and additions, notably a 1913 chapel by architect Carlton Strong.

Because the house was used for decades as the Ursuline Academy, a Catholic school, it remained unaltered. Now the Waldorf School, it is a teaching institution (for young children) that emphasizes hands-on creativity, work in the visual arts and environmental sensitivity -- all values harmonious with historic preservation. Working with the Waldorf School has been "a fantastic partnership," says Slack.

The first half of the semester emphasized research. Slack says he had students do work that would often be assigned to graduate students. He got good results from relatively inexperienced undergraduates by breaking down tasks into smaller assignments and supervising them carefully.

"We looked at deeds, census information and city planning files. We used resources at [Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation] and the History Center," explains Gray Patton, a student in the course.

The semester's second half emphasized examining the building itself, assessing the origin and condition of its many features and determining whether they match the archival record. "The ultimate source of information is the building itself. What does it confirm or disprove?" Slack asks.

Many of its features, such as moldings, windows, interior pocket shutters and fireplaces, remain intact. Free access to the building has allowed students to research details with great specificity. "We have door hinges that were patented in 1872," says student Denise Duryea, citing a long list of information on materials and manufacturers.

The final presentation, given by Slack's students, summarized these features and the documentation used to research them, while providing specific recommendations for future preservation efforts. "We want to make sure what we're doing is relevant to the Waldorf School," Slack explains.

The final goal is a National Register of Historic Places nomination for this structure -- a document that will essentially summarize their research thus far. But Slack also looks forward to subsequent classes focusing on different buildings. He says of Pittsburgh, "You couldn't assemble a better environment for historic preservation."

Meanwhile, students, whether they stay in town or go elsewhere, will be prepared for subsequent preservation enterprises. Says Duryea, "Now we know how to research and how to establish what needs to be done in order to restore a property."

What's past is prologue: The former Lynch Mansion now houses the Waldorf School.
  • What's past is prologue: The former Lynch Mansion now houses the Waldorf School.

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