As developers invest in historic buildings or build new office towers, Downtown Pittsburgh grows more vibrant.
In the past decade, the city has seen construction of Three PNC Plaza, which includes a Fairmont Hotel, offices, retail and 28 condominiums. Market Square has been revitalized. The Tower at PNC Plaza, a new, 33-story green building, is going up on Wood Street.
This week, a smaller piece of the real estate puzzle fell into place when Post-Gazette business writer Mark Belko reported that investors from Erie plan to acquire The Bank Tower at Wood Street and Fourth Avenue.
One of the city’s first skyscrapers, this 16-story structure opened in 1902 as the People’s Savings Bank. Designed by Boston architects Alden and Harlow, the building was part of Pittsburgh’s Wall Street, anchored by Fourth Avenue, Wood Street and Forbes Avenue.
The Bank Tower abounds with architectural gems. Its exterior is studded with monumental figures carved by John Massey Rhind, who created the sculptures of Andrew Carnegie, Johann Sebastian Bach and William Shakespeare that adorn Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland.
The Bank Tower survived its share of economic downturns plus an effort to make it part of a mall. In 1976, architects and investors joined The Bank Tower with four other historic temples of finance to create The Bank Center. The $10 million arcade, with a main entrance on Wood Street, featured a movie theater, restaurant, cafe and 20 shops. The elegant space included 40-feet-high marble Corinthian columns, a carved marble staircase and a hanging bronze clock.
The mall declared bankruptcy in 1981 and closed in January 1987. One of the investors, Edward M. Ryan, founder of Ryan Homes, was owed $1.8 million. He bought the property at a sheriff’s sale in 1988. In 1990, he donated it to Point Park University, which renovated 23,000 square feet into a library that students still use today.
In 1986, The Bank Tower was spun off from the mall when its new owners obtained a separate mortgage. Today, it is an office tower with first-floor retail. It was a favorite of Margaret Henderson Floyd, an architectural historian and author of “Architecture After Richardson,” a landmark text.
“The success of Alden & Harlow’s great banks lies in their geometrical and textural manipulation, exploiting sudden contrasts of scale,” Floyd wrote. She also praised, “the genius of Rhind who, as a virtuoso architectural sculptor, related his work explicitly to its location on each building.” The building’s powerful exterior, Floyd wrote, “is matched by a geometrical metal staircase that spirals the full height of the interior with elegant marble railings in the lobby that reflect Alden’s ideas of geometrical form in another powerful passage of design.”