What Chip Desmone likes best about his Lawrenceville office building is its 27-foot ceilings and tall, arched windows.
“It has great daylight, beautiful light,” he says.
Desmone Architects settled into the neighborhood 26 years ago, when the Lawrenceville Development Corporation owned the former Pennsylvania National Bank Building. As partners sold their shares in the property, Desmone purchased it over time, along with the former Pittsburgh Wash House and Public Baths Building at Butler and 35th streets, and a share of the Doughboy Square Apartments.
Expanding the offices provided welcome relief for the firm’s 46 employees, who were packed into the one-story, 7,500-square-foot headquarters “like sardines,” Desmone says.
“When we put an addition on, the Pennsylvania History and Museum Commission was looking for some ‘mitigation’ for what they deemed as our addition being detrimental to the ‘historic fabric’ of Lawrenceville, as they called it. So, we offered (historic designation) up as a solution and they accepted it,” says Desmone, who leads the family-owned firm with his father, Luke.
Giving the bank building and bath house historic designation has no downside, he says. “It reinforces the historic nature of the neighborhood,” which this year was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Preservation Pittsburgh prepared a history of the Pennsylvania National Bank building for its nomination, which was approved by the city’s Historic Review Commission and presented recently to the Planning Commission.
“It’s a really cool space, very much tied into the feeling of Lawrenceville,” says Matthew Falcone, Preservation Pittsburgh’s president. “Every neighborhood has its own entryway, but Lawrenceville has this grand entryway from the Strip, with the bank building and the Doughboy (statue). Smack in the middle is this gorgeous, Beaux-Arts bank building.
Turn-of-the-century banks, such as this one built in 1902, were a driving force behind neighborhood development and cohesiveness, Falcone says. “They were relatively modest in scale. The architecture used was stone, to convey an essence of permanence and security as a way to get people to use the bank and deposit money there.”
When the Great Depression hit, most of them went out of business.
“This one lasted until the early years of the Depression and then went under,” he says. “So for most of the building’s life, it wasn’t a bank.”
The brick and terracotta building, designed by the Beezer Brothers architectural firm, is similar in style to others that are roughly its contemporaries in Pittsburgh — Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, Rodef Shalom Congregation and Penn Station — though this one is not nearly as imposing as those structures, Preservation Pittsburgh notes in its nominating documents.
Twins Louis and Michael Beezer primarily designed houses and churches, including the Church Brew Works building.
Lawrenceville Corporation invested in a large-scale renovation of the Pennsylvania National Bank Building in the 1990s. Falcone hopes to have its historic status approved by City Council early next year.
“It’s more celebratory than anything else,” Falcone says. “It’s an acknowledgment of its historic value, and the building gets some protection. We worked with Chip to time it to when the addition was complete, to draw attention to the old and new.”