It’s not just the past decade that has seen massive changes on this prime property

It’s a neighborhood built on brawn.

Long before glittering new office buildings and apartments sprang up on its riverfront, the Strip District teemed with factories and foundries, rail yards and wholesalers.

A steam generation plant pumped heat into a downtown. A riverfront plant cranked out cork for bottles. The world’s largest railroad freight terminal shipped cargo across the country. A few blocks away, a paper warehouse, the largest between New York and Chicago, supplied retail stores and industrial plants. And a five-block fruit auction and sales building helped to feed a region.

One by one they have disappeared. Some structures, like the freight terminal and steam generation plant, were demolished. Others, like the old cork factory, have found new life.

Today, the Strip District is one of the hottest real estate markets in the Pittsburgh region. The old warehouses, factories and ice houses have given way to tony townhouses, high-end apartments and shimmering new office buildings equipped with the latest amenities.

By one count, more than 3,000 offices and 2,000 residential units have been added to the Strip over the last six years.

The produce terminal where vendors once hawked lettuce and watermelon soon will be filled with brewpubs, restaurants, a fine wine and spirits store, and a market as part of a $62.6 million makeover.

By one count, more than 3,000 offices and 2,000 residential units have been added to the Strip over the last six years. The neighborhood has commanded more than $1.1 billion in investment in the last decade, according to a report issued last week by the Jones Lang LaSalle real estate firm. Asking rates for the top office space have soared 49.5% in the last five years — the most of any Pittsburgh submarket, the firm stated.

The rapid pace of change has sparked fears about possible commercial gentrification, particularly as it relates to the Strip’s heart and soul — the groovy stretch of Penn Avenue filled with coffeeshops, fruit stands, restaurants, bars, street vendors, souvenir stores and generations-old ethnic and fish markets, some of which have outlasted the factories and warehouses of yesteryear.

Just how much the Strip — and even parts of Downtown — has changed is captured in a series of then and now photographs put together by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Thanks to the help of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and the Sen. John Heinz History Center, the images and the narratives accompanying them resurrect part of the Strip’s past while chronicling some of the changes that will mold its future.

This image of the Strip Dis­trict is from the 38th floor of the Gulf Tower in May. The Westin Convention Center Hotel and Liberty Center can now be seen on the site of the former Fort Pitt Hotel. The hotel is visible in the photo below. (1966: Al Herrmann/The Pittsburgh Press | 2020: Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

A massive railroad freight terminal

Long before the Strip District morphed into a crowded weekend carnival of sights, smells and shopping, it was a gritty industrial outpost, a home to factories and rail yards, produce wholesalers and foundries.

Some of those embers are still visible in this 1966 photo shot from Downtown.

On the left near the Fort Wayne Railroad Bridge is the Pennsylvania Railroad freight terminal, at one time hyped as the largest such facility in the world. Opened in 1929, the cavernous two-story structure, similar in some ways to its produce terminal cousin downriver, marked the consolidation of 144 freight stations in Western Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Railroad freight terminal, at one time hyped as the largest such facility in the world, opened in 1929. The cavernous two-story structure, similar in some ways to its produce terminal cousin downriver, marked the consolidation of 144 freight stations in Western Pennsylvania.

The wrecking ball came for it in 1975, about a decade after the Pennsylvania Railroad stopped using it. The demolition carved a path for the Crosstown Expressway, visible between the Fort Wayne and 16th Street bridges in the 2020 photo.

The freight house isn’t the only Strip relic visible in the 1966 photo. The gigantic structure hulking over it to the right is part of a steam generation complex that featured two buildings, one eight stories tall, and its own reservoir.

According to the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, the plant built in the early 1900s once was one of two to supply energy to the Golden Triangle. It has since been demolished.

In the foreground, next to the William S. Moorhead Federal Building, in the 1966 photo is the old Fort Pitt Hotel. Considered among the most elegant in the city in its day, the hotel hosted the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryant and Jack Benny. It was most renowned for its Norse Room. Decorated in Rookwood tiles, the room exhibited nine large wall panels that portrayed Longfellow’s poem “The Skeleton in Armor.”

Built in 1905 with an addition erected in 1909, the hotel was demolished in 1967 to make way for what was known as the Penn Park redevelopment. That never came to pass. Settling in its place were the Westin Convention Center Hotel and Liberty Center, seen just beyond the Federal Building in the 2020 photo.

That snapshot shows just how much the far eastern end of Downtown and the western edge of the Strip have changed over the past 50 years.

Advertisement

Advertisement

On the riverfront next to the Fort Wayne bridge in the 2020 photo sits the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. It replaced, in part, Pittsburgh National Bank’s five-story office building, visible on the far left next to the river in the 1966 photo.

Some treasures still remain in both photos.

The Pennsylvanian is seen on the right. The long low-slung structures stretching between Liberty and Penn avenues in both are part of the old Buyers Mart complex. They have since been converted into offices by the Buncher Co.

By 2020, the Pennsylvania Railroad terminal and the steam generation plant had given way to surface parking, now targeted for a Buncher-led redevelopment, and the former Seagate Building, part of which is currently occupied by Bombardier Transportation.

And just beyond the 16th Street Bridge sits the produce terminal, framed by new housing in the 2020 photo and by rail yards in the black-and-white one.

In this image circa December 1966, the Golden Tri­an­gle of Downtown Pittsburgh was ex­pected to grow by 50% with de­vel­op­ment of this 148-acre area be­tween 10th Street, top, and 21st Street at near end of dot­ted line. Also visible at the top left, the rounded top of the former Civic Arena that has since been torn down. Just below the white line along the river, the u-shaped Armstrong Cork Factory building can be seen. (Post-Gazette Archives) | The area seen above, in the photo on the right, looks rather different in this aerial view of the Strip District neighborhood in late May 2020. The cork factory building seen in the image above is still there but now houses apartments and offices. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Industry, ice and a history center

By 1977, the Strip already had started to shed some of its industrial past. The Pennsylvania Railroad freight terminal was gone, as was much of the rail yard.

That same year, the Morris Paper Co., at one time believed to be the largest independent paper warehouse and distribution center between New York and Chicago, was acquired by the Hammermill Paper Co., according to the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center.

Built in the early part of the 20th century, the two-story structure, seen on the riverfront in the 1977 photo, has since been demolished.

Prominent in the lower center of the same photo is the Consolidated Storage Co. building. Erected in 1898, the structure originally was owned by the Chautauqua Ice Co., which sold ice it gathered from Chautauqua Lake in New York; Lakeville, Ohio; and Sandy Lake in Mercer, Pa., and shipped by rail to Pittsburgh.

A merger and advances in refrigerated technology prompted Chautauqua to change its name and focus. By 1907, the building was storing merchandise under the name Consolidated Storage. It later sold distilled water.

The red-brick property now goes by another name — the Sen. John Heinz History Center, which provided the information related to the structure’s past.

Today, the stretch of the Strip running from the history center to 21st Street where the old paper warehouse used to be is teeming with new development, fueled by tech and innovation. The 2020 photo shows the dizzying pace of change, from the apartments and townhouses behind the produce terminal to the renovated Armstrong Cork Factory, now residences as well.

On the Downtown side of the 16th Street Bridge is the new District 15 office building, the Pittsburgh headquarters of Facebook. An even larger companion structure is being built on the lot next to it. Both mark the unofficial entrance to a corridor that has been dubbed Robotics Row, given the proliferation of tech and artificial intelligence firms.

Another recent addition to the Strip skyline just beyond Interstate 579 is the Homewood Suites Hotel, which opened in 2015.

The bunker-like New Federal Cold Storage warehouse just behind it is scheduled to be demolished and replaced by a 21-story office tower. And beyond that is the Penn Rose Building, a former butcher supply company and office structure that has been converted into apartments.

Re­frig­er­ated rail cars roll into Pitts­burgh with loads of ap­ples, cel­ery and other fruits and veg­e­ta­bles from pro­duce ar­eas of the coun­try on Dec. 1, 1946. Pro­duce from these cars would be unloaded at the produce terminal building, right. | In the photo on the right, the produce terminal can be seen behind an apart­ment com­plex and park­ing ga­rage un­der con­struc­tion at Wa­ter­front Place in this May 2020 image. (1946: USDA photo | 2020: Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

Trains packed with produce

In this 1946 photo, ribbons of rail cars run into the Strip, carrying with them fruits and vegetables bound for the produce terminal behind them. It was still a heady time for the wholesalers — more than 70 in all — who occupied the terminal’s gritty docks.

Off in the distance, the St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, with its twin towers, offered respite from the chaos of the rail yards.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Today, St. Stanislaus still beckons those looking to refresh their spirits amid the buzz of the Strip. But these days, the noise is being generated by jack hammers and power tools, not the squeal of rail cars.

Those are gone, replaced decades ago by rows of asphalt parking. Where tracks once reigned, homes are now rising. Edge 1909, a 364-unit apartment complex on the Allegheny riverfront, has been completed. A 443-unit second phase is now under construction. It can be seen in the far left of the 2020 photo.

Between it and the produce terminal, the Strip District Brownstones, a 46-unit townhouse development, is taking shape.

As for the terminal itself, it has been gutted and stripped and primed for a new life — with restaurants, brewpubs and even a liquor store supplanting the merchants of yesteryear.

An aerial view of the western edge of the Strip District overlooking the Greyhound bus station on April 12, 1977, shows the rail yards have been cleared and industry is shedding its grip a bit. (Bill Levis/Post-Gazette) | Interstate 579 now cuts through the Strip District seen in the May 2020 photo, with new development seen sprouting along Waterfront Place. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

From cork to apartments

The Strip District has been a real estate inferno for the past decade.

And nowhere is that more evident than on the Allegheny riverfront, with warehouses and factories giving way to glimmering new office buildings and pricey residences.

In 1966, the Strip was still very much an industrial powerhouse, By then, it had become the region’s top supplier of fruits and vegetables, with the 1,533-foot-long produce terminal serving as the hub.

The U-shaped Armstrong Cork Factory with its unique smokestack (seen on the riverfront just beyond the white line in the black-and-white photo) was continuing to pump out cork.

By 2020, the factories and warehouses that dotted the riverfront east of the Armstrong Cork Factory had been replaced by 3 Crossings, the $210 million complex that features four office buildings, 300 apartments and a 590-space parking garage.

In 1966, the Strip was still very much an industrial powerhouse, By then, it had become the region’s top supplier of fruits and vegetables, with the 1,533-foot-long produce terminal serving as the hub.

As seen in the bottom left side of the 2020 photo, 3 Crossings is very much representative of the new Strip, housing tech firms such as Apple, Argo AI and Robert Bosch LLC, as well as the Burns White law firm and Rycon Construction.

The Armstrong Cork Factory, which shut down in 1974, is now known as the Cork Factory Lofts, an apartment complex with nearly 300 units.

Beyond it toward Downtown, the rail yards that once fueled the produce terminal now are home to more residences.

A 364-unit apartment complex known as Edge 1909 has opened, and another 443-unit second phase is under construction. Both are visible near the center of the 2020 photo.

Perhaps just as interesting as the changes to the Strip in these two photos is the dramatic transformation of the Downtown skyline.

The 1966 photo shows a very young Civic Arena (now gone) but none of the towering skyscrapers that currently define the skyline. Those include U.S. Steel Tower, One Oxford Centre, PPG Place, Fifth Avenue Place and the Tower at PNC Plaza, all visible in the 2020 photo. On the riverfront, the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, with its sweeping roof, has been added.

One of the few notable buildings discernible in both photos is the distinctive Gulf Tower. Back in 1966, it would have been Downtown’s tallest building.

Work continues on the project around the Strip District produce terminal in May and July, 2020. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

A new year of change

These two photos, taken two months apart, show just how quickly change is taking place in and around the produce terminal.

By the end of July, a new road had been added between the terminal and the 46-unit Strip District Brownstones townhouse development.

Work on the $62.6 million produce terminal rehab itself is nearing its end, with only a couple of months to go, according to Dan McCaffery, CEO of McCaffery Interests, the Chicago developer behind the project.

Work on the $62.6 million terminal rehab itself is nearing its end, with only a couple of months to go, according to Dan McCaffery, CEO of McCaffery Interests, the Chicago developer behind the project.

He estimates that construction is 80% to 85% complete.

McCaffery is turning the old warehouse for fruit and vegetable wholesalers into a hub for tourists and visitors filled with restaurants, brewpubs and a “food-centric” market at its western end.

The terminal’s long dock on Smallman Street has been expanded to accommodate outdoor dining and seating, and passageways have been cut through parts of the structure to allow for access to the Allegheny riverfront.

Mr. McCaffery said he has signed leases for about 30% to 40% of the space, although, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he won’t require anyone to open or move in until next spring.

One tenant hoping to open this fall in the building is a Fine Wine & Good Spirits Premium Collection store operated by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. It will occupy 9,654 square feet of space in the old structure.

Across the street from the produce terminal, McCaffery is redeveloping another old warehouse into office and retail space. That redevelopment, known as 1600 Smallman, is expected to total 140,000 square feet, with three floors of offices, street-level retail and parking.

The building, erected in 1921, was once home to the Standard Underground Cable Co., according to Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation records. The firm made telegraph, telephone and electric light cables.

Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com

Advertisement

Advertisement