Beaux Arts

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When We Were Young: The Highland Building

Where many cities dispose of their old, unused buildings in order to make way for new apartment complexes or sleek, modern condos, Pittsburgh is a city that’s conscious of its history. While paving the way for new housing options, builders often try to repurpose these historic buildings and maintain as much of their original charm as possible (just look at the Ace Hotel’s virtually untouched YMCA gymnasium or the Distrikt Hotel’s quirk-filled former Salvation Army digs). And one we are particularly happy to see that it didn’t share the same fate as its former block mate (now demolished, seen below) is East Liberty’s Highland Building now home to the Walnut on Highland.

Construction for The Highland Building began in 1909, when esteemed, in-demand architect Daniel Hudson Burnham was commissioned by Henry Clay Frick, then Pittsburgh’s largest individual property owner, to build the city’s first modern office building. The building would later become Burnham’s second-to-last project of his 16 in Pittsburgh. While Frick already owned the William Penn Hotel and his stately Frick Building downtown (among many others), he purchased a few lots for a bargain in the under-developed East Liberty area in order to convince investors to notice the area’s potential.  While under construction, rumors swirled that it was going to be home to a department store (so even then Pittburghers were gossips) but Frick insisted it was to be built as office space.

When the building was completed in 1910, it featured an impressive 13 floors, a granite base and a recognizable terra cotta exterior. It also boasted a 44-foot-tall electric roof sign erected by the Allegheny County Light Company. Respected business owners, doctors, barbers and dressmakers immediately moved in and took up shop.  But the luster of the new property didn’t last long and the building’s prosperity began to decline. While Pittsburgh residents were at first charmed and impressed by the building’s grandeur, tenants almost immediately began moving out or skipping out on rent payments, and the building changed hands a number of times over the following years.  The building was never fully occupied.

When East Liberty’s business district declined (thanks for nothing malls) and crime rose in the 1960s, it seemed as though the building may never reach the potential that Frick had intended for it. Eventually, all of the tenants moved out entirely, and the Highland Building stood vacant for 20 years. The city bought the beloved-but-unlucky structure in 2004, and shortly after, the Young Preservationists Association named it one of Pittsburgh’s top three best preservation opportunities in the city.

While many developers began to take notice of the Highland Building around that time, putting in and withdrawing bids, brainstorming plans for a boutique hotel or dozens of other modern redevelopment ideas, it wasn’t until Walnut Capital announced its own plans to transform the Highland Building into residential units that an idea stuck.

Walnut on Highland's historic exterior, east liberty

Under Walnut Capital’s watch, the building’s terra cotta exterior has been painstakingly restored, remnants of the long since destroyed marble walls and terrazzo tile floors were salvaged and the offices will be transformed into beautiful units with some of the best views in town. And finally, with the Highland Building’s new life as Walnut on Highland, one of Pittsburgh’s iconic yet under-appreciated buildings is getting the heyday it always deserved.


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