The best way to understand how the Paramount Film Exchange (PFEX) avoided the wrecking ball might be to attend its grand opening on Thursday night. The site of StartUptown’s new co-working campus, and the offices and studio of Denmarsh Photography, PFEX is generating economic vitality in Uptown thanks to a Shakespearean-sized cast ranging from community members and film buffs to historic preservationists.
Film has a long local history. In its heyday, Pittsburgh was one of the country’s largest cities, a natural place to feed the burgeoning film industry. When the Paramount was built in 1926, it was squeezed onto “film row” along the Boulevard of the Allies at Miltenberger Street. Viewing theaters called Nickelodeons abounded and people were hungry for moving pictures. At the time there was none of this curated and systematic production and distribution of films; that whole process ‘twas but a twinkle in MGM’s eye. Instead, film exchanges—sort of the Blockbuster Video of their day—bought material from filmmakers everywhere about almost anything: two people having a picnic in the park; a bar mitzvah; a lynching. Nickoleodeons rented films from the exchanges, playing them until audiences tired of the reels and chucked ripe fruit at the screen.
But like a negative left too long in the light, the glory of the first half of the 20th century wore hard on the Paramount building. By the time Rick Schweikert, an entrepreneur and real estate agent, bought it from UPMC, PFEX had fallen into disrepair.
Schweikert was used to converting old buildings into workspace for artists; his first real estate sale was to James Simon of Gist Street fame. But the sheer magnitude of the project’s challenges—a bad roof, terrible electric, abysmal plumbing—meant he’d need help. So he formed an ownership corporation, PFEX, LLC, to purchase the building from UPMC and begin to stabilize it.
It’s at this point that Paramount’s history plays like a film montage: PFEX, LLC collaborates to fund foundational repairs; the corporation works with Uptown Partners and StartUptown to define a vision for the building; the building is recommended for historic designation; Schweikert pours himself into renovating the building, and one day, almost loses a hand in the process. He decides he needs to step back. Then along comes Alexander Denmarsh.
Denmarsh contacted Schweikert to find a new space for his commercial photography business, but told him he was looking for more than just square feet.
“I wanted a building to be more than just a place for my business. I wanted to invest directly in Pittsburgh where my tax dollars would make a difference, and be in a community that was up and coming.”
After a few days of driving around together looking at potential sites, Schweikert took Denmarsh to see the old Paramount Building.
“Pulling up to it I knew I was in love. I knew I’d end up there,” says Denmarsh.
Denmarsh bought the building’s corporation and threw his support behind making the site a bulwark of Uptown revitalization.
Dale McNutt, StartUptown’s founder and executive director, says the PFEX fills an important niche in the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. It will house mid- to top-tier companies, groups with funding and experience that are poised to grow and succeed.
“There’s a cluster of activity in Pittsburgh right now, as these businesses are sticking around the region,” he says. “We need to start building spaces for them.”
More importantly, says McNutt, the Paramount will bring entrepreneurial energy and activity to the neighborhood.
“Having these mid- and top-tier businesses here drives other kinds of activity. It drives accelerated community problem solving, it helps to create other amenities: we’re in a food desert, we can’t change that until we have a tipping point of professionals and other people living and working in Uptown.”
Denmarsh says completing the renovation feels less like an end rather than a beginning.
“The possibilities for the Paramount aren’t just that it’s occupied,” he says. “It’s only the beginning of what’s possible.”
Denmarsh Photography will occupy roughly 1,800 square feet of office and studio space, while StartUptown will offer 6,400 square feet of co-working space over two floors, housing more than 60 new jobs. The renovation totaled about $1.2 million in public and private funding.
The project’s architectural firm was Thoughtful Balance. Though not LEED-certified, the building’s rehabilitation employed green elements such as insulating the existing shell and allowing triple-glazed windows to bring in natural light. Work was completed by Absolute WIN Construction.