You Had To Ask

You Had to Ask.

When was the Paint and Varnish building at the foot of the Duquesne Incline abandoned, and what's the plan for it? -- Dennis Bateman, Corliss

At the turn of the century, William Watson Lawrence was probably Pittsburgh's most respected paint manufacturer. But today he is remembered not for the buildings his paint protected and beautified, but for the building he left behind -- a once-handsome structure whose badly weathered exterior is now perhaps the worst advertisement imaginable for "W. W. Lawrence & Company Paints and Varnishes." There's a lesson for us all in this little irony

Lawrence founded his company in 1884, and enjoyed considerable success: A 19th-century advertisement boasted that in addition to various military contracts, "Last spring by order of the Secretary of the Treasury every Light House on the Atlantic coast was painted with The Lawrence Paints." By the late 1800s, Lawrence was himself a beacon of Pittsburgh business. He expanded his operations into a massive South Side factory, which was completed in 1902. Topped by a white wooden tower containing water tanks for the paint and the building's sprinkler system, the facility boasted six floors and 100,000 feet of floor space. Those floors were some 10 inches thick, supported by oaken columns each more than three feet square. Such heavy construction was necessary to support the massive vats needed to mix and store the paint -- which in those days contained large amounts of lead.

The paint factory closed in 1973, and at first developers were anxious to renovate it. The site, after all, is ideal: Its view of the Point makes it perfect for luxury apartments or offices, while its proximity to the Duquesne Incline makes it a natural site for a restaurant or tourist attraction such as a museum or urban mall. The interior offers exciting possibilities as well. Developers wistfully spoke of the "forest of wood" inside the building. In a 1988 treatise on the factory kept on file by the Heinz Regional History Center, Carnegie Mellon student Natalie Gillespie observed that its interior was dominated by "massive oak pillars and high balconies or mezzanines with circular openings for paint vats" -- gaps that "could be incorporated in the building design for dramatic effect."

So far, however, what's been most dramatic about the building are the failures of those who've tried to renovate it. It's as if once they set foot inside, they contract the lethargy that comes from snacking on too many lead paint chips. Plans to turn the building into luxury condominiums, office space, a history museum, and shopping destination for tourists have all languished, largely because the sheer mass of its wooden floors and beams have made it too costly to renovate .

Nor has there been much progress since Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises acquired the factory along with the Station Square complex in 1994. The company did once tell the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette it hoped to decide what to do with the building "soon" ... but that was in 1995. "We really haven't even addressed it yet," confirms Eve Bursic, Forest City's Station Square general manager. She does say there are no plans to tear it down -- which, given the building's history and appealing facade, would be a terrible loss -- but beyond that, "nothing has been decided."

So for now, at least, the future of the W. W. Lawrence Paint factory looks to be about as exciting as watching paint dry. Or, in this case, fade.

-- Chris Potter

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