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New Life in Old Buildings

Old schools find new uses

When really old buildings are refurbished and set to new purposes rather than being torn down, it’s pretty much always a desirable outcome.

And when the new uses for these old buildings include education, civic affairs, adult learning and recreation, it’s the best outcome for the community.

This happens in Pittsburgh all of the time because of the city’s generous stock of sturdy old warehouses, factories, school buildings and churches that are environmentally remediated, structurally remodeled and—in the trade’s parlance—“repurposed” for novel uses.

However, Regent Square especially has made outstanding use of old institutional structures, providing the educational, civic and lifestyle benefits of today inside walls that were erected a century ago.

The is the crown jewel of repurposed East End structures. Built in the 1920s, the old Wilkins School was an elementary institution for the School District back in the days before the Parkway East cut the borough into two halves, when there was no such thing as kindergarten, and “grade school” meant grades one through eight.

Later, the lovely old building became part of the when U.S. District Judge Gerald Weber forced creation of a single organization that crammed together the 12 communities of Swissvale, Edgewood, Forest Hills, Braddock, Braddock Hills, Chalfant, Churchill, East Pittsburgh, North Braddock, Rankin, Turtle Creek and Wilkins Township.

The Wilkins School itself dissolved in the creation of the mega-district, but the school building remained, perched above South Braddock Avenue along Charleston Avenue.

In 1979, when the original elementary education program ended at the site, a group of community residents organized to protect the place and create an all-purpose community facility, now known as the Wilkins School Community Center.

More than developing a viable educational-recreational program for the East End, these hardy volunteers also had to develop a system for administering the center and maintaining the facilities. WSCC has succeeded for more than 30 years with a goulash of grants, fundraisers, facility rentals and tuition for classes.

Today, WSCC is home to countless classes, including dance, yoga, karate, jewelry making, painting, photography and more. You can rent space and facilities for parties and self-help meetings. In addition, WSCC serves as the Regent Square Civic Association’s meeting place.

About a mile north along South Braddock Avenue, adjacent to the red clay courts at Frick Park, is another rejuvenated beauty now known as the Imagine at 829 Milton Avenue.

With two sides of the property actually touching Frick Park, this facility formerly was the Regent Square School of the Pittsburgh School District. The Pittsburgh-Swissvale boundary is just a few feet away.

Strictly speaking, the building is not actually repurposed because it’s always been a school. But the change from a city public school to a charter school is dramatic, especially in terms of what happens there.

The little kids at ECS have it good. They’re learning biology, art and environmental science by observing and handling Frick Park’s wildlife, flora and naturally occurring geological features just a few feet from the front door of the school house.

Actually, the Imagine ECS system is a double winner in the schoolhouse refurbishment business. Feeling the need to grow, they’ve also this year acquired the former building at 309 South Braddock Ave., still another half-mile north.

For ECS, the Milton Avenue building is styled as the “lower school,” grades K-4. The South Braddock site will be the “upper school,” grades 5-8.

The Park Place upper school is something really special. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1986, the landmark structure was built in 1903 and for eight decades was, literally, “The Park Place School” of the Pittsburgh school system.

Still stunningly beautiful at age 84, Park Place was rejected and sold off as “surplus capacity” for the city system, as educational administrators plowed their money into extensive upgrades at Colfax, Sterrett and Linden schools.

Private money bought the building in 1987 and developers converted it into “Park Place Commons,” an exclusive luxury residential assemblage of suites and apartments.

Now, Park Place has come full-circle, from school house to luxury residence and back to school house again, more than 100 years later, with the ECS acquisition and re-renovation.

To learn more about these wonderful buildings, and the organizations that operate them, see:

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