With the recent opening of the new Schoolhouse detective building in East Liberty, a vacant and long-neglected building in the neighborhood has not only been put to new use – with a design store, Beauty Shoppe co-working spaces, and The Bureau coffee housed inside – but also beautifully restored. We talked to Brian Faherty, founder and CEO of Schoolhouse, to learn more about his vision behind the project, the restoration process, and what he hopes to bring to the community.
But before we dive into our conversation, read Schoolhouse’s summary of the project for some background on how this all came to be:
“Over the last three years, Brian Faherty has been on a journey to bring a building back from the edge of destruction and transform it into a stunning representation of mid-century architecture in Pittsburgh. Brian is the founder of Portland, Ore.- based lighting and homewares manufacturer Schoolhouse, and he has been recognized for his ability to find, restore, and reimagine unique historical spaces. He first saw The Detective Building while on a business trip in 2015 and was struck by its unique, 1970s-era New Formalist architecture. (New Formalism was an architectural movement that proliferated in the 1960s and 70s, and is the style to which buildings like the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts, Central Plaza Hotel, and New Delhi American Embassy belong.) Boarded up, water stained, and cast aside in a transitional neighborhood, the building was the victim of years of neglect. But inside, Brian found stories that spoke to him: artifacts of municipal life, wood paneling in the boardroom, and dust-covered tanker desks strewn with criminal mugshots from the building’s previous occupants, detectives with the City of Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Investigations. Finding this diamond-in-the-rough kicked off a multi-year, multi-million dollar process to preserve the building and pioneer a path for reviving New Formalist architecture at large.”
Why was East Liberty an appealing neighborhood for Schoolhouse?
East Liberty is a really special neighborhood. The sense of history and cultural diversity is just wonderful. As with many post-industrial cities in the country, my hometown of Portland included, some of that history is remembered fondly today and some of it isn’t. One lesson you learn if you look at that history is that removing the old to pave way for the new doesn’t solve all your problems. We can’t escape the difficult parts of history. What we can do, however, is take an abandoned building and breathe new life into it – and hopefully, provide fresh activity and add to the community spirit. That sense of potential and renewed optimism is what drew us to East Liberty.
Was it a difficult decision to renovate and preserve the building rather than building something new?
Preserving the history and the spirit of the space was the goal all along. Sometimes the choice of renovating what’s existing over new construction is more of a cold, calculated business decision that comes out of a careful cost-benefit analysis. For us, choosing to renovate wasn’t about saving money—in fact, we probably could have built a new building for cheaper than we spent renovating the existing one. But new construction was never really on the table for us because the building was what drew us to Pittsburgh in the first place. Plus, restoring a building is just so much more fun than building a new one. Every room, every window, every artifact left behind by the previous occupants comes with its own stories.
All that being said, whenever you renovate a building, you have to understand that things often take longer and are more expensive than you originally think. The decision between renovation and new construction was an easy one, but the decision to commit to a project at all wasn’t a decision we took lightly.
How does Schoolhouse look forward to interacting with the East Liberty community?
We’d really like to make a space for the community where design is put front and center. The goal with the project was to create a space that’s comfortable and yet aspirational, whether you’re grabbing a cappuccino at The Bureau or taking a conference call in Beauty Shoppe or shopping for a new dining room chandelier in Schoolhouse.
We’d also plan to hold design-oriented events and pop-ups that involve other members of the community. At our Portland store, we consistently host events that range from book launches to design panels to concerts, and we’d like to explore some of that in the Detective Building as well. We’re still figuring out exactly what that looks like, so stay tuned.
How did your partnership with the Beauty Shoppe come about?
We are always very careful with whom we partner on projects like this. Knowing Beauty Shoppe was the standard bearer in Pittsburgh’s coworking space industry made the partnership seem really natural. Once I met with Matthew from Beauty Shoppe, we pretty quickly bonded over this vision for a totally distinctive office space designed in the Schoolhouse fashion that could take advantage of the ample space in the Detective Building. Since we had meticulously designed the space and we had the ability to fill it with beautiful lighting and furniture, they just needed to bring their expertise. They’ve been great partners throughout the process, and we’re happy to work with them.
I always feel like the buildings are trying to tell me what they want to become. My main goal is to do the smallest amount to the building as possible to reach this goal.
What’s been the most interesting or revealing part of this renovation process so far?
I always feel like the buildings are trying to tell me what they want to become. My main goal is to do the smallest amount to the building as possible to reach this goal. But even taking a minimalist approach, the restoration process always holds surprises and obstacles that you have to handle as you go along. Some products or construction materials used in the original might not be available today, so you have to find a way to replace them that stays true to the spirit of the building. In the end, the most interesting thing is seeing where the building wanted to go after it sent us down this road. From this side of the project, I can safely say the final result is better than I ever thought possible.
Stop by the new Schoolhouse building soon and see the renovation for yourself!
> Learn more and see more pictures in our previous post on the opening.
All images courtesy of Schoolhouse.