What is significant about the old Health Dept. Building in Oakland?

Located on Forbes Ave, the historic building, with rare examples of Flemish Gothic Revival design elements, has a future that is very much in limbo.

by Andrew Moore
October 10, 2019

The former Croatian Fraternal Union building–located at 3441 Forbes Avenue, in Oakland–is a rare example of Flemish Gothic Revival architecture in Pittsburgh. Built in 1928, with an ornate terra cotta facade, the building’s history and design are symbolic of the neighborhood’s immigrant and labor history. But its fate–whether to be preserved or demolished–remains in limbo.

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In July of last year, the University of Pittsburgh bought the building from Allegheny County for $1.9 million. A few weeks later, the University filed for a demolition permit with the City of Pittsburgh. That notice prompted outcry from local preservation groups. 

By September, Anthony Benvin, of the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation (and with assistance from Preservation Pittsburgh), had filed an application to nominate the CFU as a City historic structure. If a property is approved and receives historic status, new construction or demolition must be approved by the City’s Historic Review Commission. 

But that application was tabled in November after talks between Benvin, Preservation Pittsburgh, and the University progressed “in good faith,” says Preservation Pittsburgh’s Brian Bevan.

“We have a good rapport with the University and have been working with them,” Bevan says. “We’re hopeful that some kind of solution can be reached that preserves the building.” 

Although the University has not announced detailed plans for the site, communications manager Kevin Zwick says, “Our intent is to develop the property to create an Innovation District along Forbes and Fifth avenues.”

The Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) · Mon, Jan 21, 1929 · Page 15, accessed from newspapers.com

Rare and Threatened

The CFU was designed by architect Pierre Liesch, who collaborated with Frederick J Osterling on Downtown’s Union Trust building (also Flemish Gothic Revival). For the building’s facade, Liesch depicted laborers with rope and shovels, as well as vegetative designs referencing Croatia and life along the Adriatic sea. The building was the national headquarters of the Croatian Fraternal Union, a fraternal benefit society founded in 1894.

Pittsburgh was a hub for Croatian immigration, and by 1912 the CFU had more than 30,000 members. But recent demolitions have begun to erode that legacy in the built environment–in 2013, the St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Troy Hill was demolished despite its historic designation.

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Architect Pierre Liesch was born in Luxembourg, and immigrated to the United States in 1890. Architectural historian Justin Greenawalt says this biography is significant in a “city of immigrants.”

“There’s something inherently endearing and special about one American immigrant designing a building for another group of American immigrants,” Greenawalt says.

According to Greenawalt, a board member of Preservation Pittsburgh, the CFU is also tied to the neighborhood’s most iconic building, the Cathedral of Learning–both are gothic revival structures built (or begun) in the 1920s. “So there’s this sort of dialogue going on between that building and the cathedral,” Greenawalt says.

The CFU is also significant as one of the few surviving works of Pierre Liesch, Greenawalt says: “We just don’t have much left, so in that respect it’s important too.” 

In 2018, the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh (YPA) added the CFU to its annual Top Ten Preservation opportunities list, saying, “The loss of this classic building will continue the erosion of our shared heritage and the City’s character.”

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Development Pressure

While activity at 3441 Forbes has stalled, development throughout Oakland is booming. Adjacent to the CFU is a newly completed, 10-story, luxury student apartment building; across the street, an eight-story, 95,000-square-foot office building, part of which is leased to the University of Pittsburgh. 

And earlier this summer, Point Park University completed the demolition of their former Pittsburgh Playhouse–a Greek Revival structure built in 1906–just a few blocks away. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the property is for sale, and Point Park determined “it would have to be leveled to make it viable for buyers.” 

Wanda Wilson, executive director of Oakland Planning and Development Corporation (OPDC), says a lack of community outreach can leave residents feeling like the neighborhood is threatened. 

“It’s certainly the case that there’s a lot of development pressure in the neighborhood right now,” Wilson says. “And I think that there is a sense on the part of developers that there can just be demolition and new construction as a matter of course. I think the opportunity before us is for the neighborhood to actually engage in a planning process around really what are historic assets, and how can they be maintained and even maybe integrated into new development projects.” 

The City of Pittsburgh is currently engaging neighborhood residents and institutions to draft a 10-year plan for Oakland.

Oakland
Getting there
Oakland, Pittsburgh, PA 15213, USA

Andrew Moore is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, and author of Pawpaw: In Search of America's Forgotten Fruit.

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