- Instant car-ma?: Steven Paul visits the former location of the Syria Mosque, in Oakland.
Ah, the dear, departed Syria Mosque. Pretty much all that remains of the beloved concert hall is a parking lot used by UPMC. But great pictures of the building, with its funky neo-Islamic architecture, survive in books and on the Web, to say nothing of scattered colorful terra cotta fragments in some offices around town.
Compelling in a different way is the mental image (not actually photographed) of the building's demise. When sneaky developers dispatched a demolition crew to begin destroying the building one late-August night in 1994, three activists, including current state Sen. Jim Ferlo, attempted to stop the bulldozers. For their efforts, the protesters spent the night in jail, but not without forming a grass-roots preservation organization. The group became Preservation Pittsburgh, and it has operated since then as an all-volunteer enterprise.
Now, though, Preservation Pittsburgh is facing perhaps its biggest change ever with the hiring of community economic-development specialist Steven Paul as a full-time executive director. Even before the addition of paid staff, Preservation Pittsburgh has had important successes over the years. Members were vocal in opposing the ill-fated Fifth and Forbes redevelopment, Downtown, that would have destroyed or disfigured some 62 historic buildings. That project died for many reasons, but early and vociferous protest played an important role. Also, in response to planned construction by PennDOT to expand Route 28, the group lobbied successfully to preserve the historic St. Nicholas Croatian church, and to have the highway go around the structure.
More recently, it helped save three buildings on Market Square that were at risk of demolition, including the old Regal Shoe Company, designed by architects Alden & Harlow. Sympathetic restoration and redevelopment efforts by Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation are now underway, but the campaign began with proposals and a three-year effort from Preservation Pittsburgh to demonstrate the economic feasibility of renewing rather than demolishing the buildings. "When there was a preservation emergency, we were always one of the first to do things," says board member Pat Clark. And yet the Preservation Pittsburgh name has not been at the forefront of these efforts. "One thing the group has not put a lot of energy into is PR and self-promotion," laments Paul. Fortunately, the organization can now address this issue and a number of others more directly. An anonymous donation made possible the hiring of a full-time staff person, and Paul, already a board member, was chosen. The native New Yorker came to Pittsburgh in 1992 to get a degree in sports management at Robert Morris University. After working for several years in a biotech startup and in business consulting, he moved into community and economic development, taking a job as Main Street Manager for the Homestead-area Economic Revitalization Corp. He became increasingly enthusiastic about historic preservation as he saw its use and benefits in neighborhood revitalization. "Preservation is a fundamental value in revitalizing communities," he says. Preservation Pittsburgh's board president, Scott Leib, sees the hire as crucial. "It's an important step for the organization, having a staff member that's dedicated to our mission." Rather than a handful of volunteers who appear irregularly at meetings or historic sites, Paul, as the group's face, will be accessible to community members, and to other organizations, on an ongoing basis. This will be especially important as Preservation Pittsburgh pursues initiatives to preserve Mellon Arena. Leib is quick to emphasize that the organization favors the Penguins getting a new arena. And the group wants to work closely with civic organizations in the Hill to meet their needs and respond to their interests. Says Leib, "What we really want to do is facilitate discussions about what will happen next." That applies to Mellon Arena and to Preservation Pittsburgh itself, as the group refines its mission and expands its horizons. "One of our goals," says Lieb, "is that preservation is looked at as a source for planning in the city, and not as a roadblock."