The exterior of the Celebration Hall of Larimer site (the former gym and auditorium of the Larimer School)
In community development, the focus is typically on fixing the essential things like crime, housing, main streets, or infrastructure. A topic like joy rarely enters the discussion.
But a new development in Larimer is seeking to change that.
By prioritizing community joy and connection, the folks behind the Celebration Hall of Larimer are out to change the narrative—and quality of life—in one of Pittsburgh’s long-overlooked communities.
Step one: The renovation of the Larimer School
The story starts with the Larimer School, a historic neighborhood landmark that sat vacant on Larimer Avenue for more than 40 years. Community members, led by Larimer activist Ora Lee Carroll and the Larimer Consensus Group (LCG), had long advocated for the reuse of the building, but the scale of that task made it nearly impossible until the $30 million Larimer/East Liberty Choice Neighborhoods grant was awarded in 2014.
The grant funded a four-phase development project that includes the construction of a new 3-acre park at Station Street and Larimer Avenue in East Liberty, the Cornerstone Village Apartments, and Cornerstone 3 Apartments (49 majority affordable apartments built along Larimer Avenue). The final phase was the transformation of the school into 35 affordable apartment units completed by McCormack Baron Salazar.
But with all of the phases complete, there was still the question of what to do with the school’s empty gymnasium and auditorium.
A place to convene the community
“We asked the community what they wanted to see, and they said they wanted an activity center where people could come together,” said Donna Jackson, executive director of LCG. “When the Homewood Coliseum closed, there was no place in the area to have an event. So, we said, let’s bring people back to Larimer to enjoy themselves.”
That’s when Jackson got connected to Joe Bute, co-founder of the food development nonprofit Food21. Since late 2019, they have been working with LCG and others on re-purposing the Larimer School’s gym and auditorium into a community event center and meeting space, complete with a full-service catering kitchen and a separate demonstration kitchen.
“The pieces really began to come together,” Bute explained. “The way the building is laid out, we saw that one side of the space could serve as a formal event center with a full-scale commercial catering kitchen attached to it. And then, on the other side, which was the old gymnasium, we could have a demonstration kitchen and a community engagement center. The idea is that guests can use the entire building for an event, or you can have two things happening at the same time.”
Flourishing Communities, a community organization dedicated to improving health and well-being in Larimer, has signed on to manage programming of the demonstration kitchen and community engagement center, which will be their primary venue for nutrition education, food preparation, food delivery, and more to those in need in the community. The programming will not only be for adults but will also include youth interested in the field of culinary arts.
On the other side of the space, ELDI spin-off and economic justice nonprofit Catapult Greater Pittsburgh will manage the catering kitchen, which will offer a unique opportunity to Black-owned caterers and event businesses who often find themselves shut out of existing event venues. Graduates of Catapult’s Culinary program—a food incubator for minority entrepreneurs—will be added to an “approved vendor list” for the Celebration Hall that guests will choose from when they rent the space.
“We asked the community what they wanted to see, and they said they wanted an activity center where people could come together,” said Donna Jackson, executive director of LCG.
“We want to make sure that when people have events at the Celebration Hall, whichever caterer they choose, the food will be delicious,” said Catapult Executive Director Tammy Thompson. “At the same time, we are removing the main barriers for up-and-coming caterers. They don’t have vans yet. They don’t have a staff yet, so by them just being on that list, they can walk into the Celebration Hall, bring one or two crew members to help them, and do the job. That’s what we are all about—giving people intentional creative opportunities to grow their exposure and opportunities—and that’s what I think is going to happen here.”
In the meantime, architectural designs have already been completed by Moss Architects and a brand identity for the space was developed by Taiece Brooks of Brooks Branding.
“One of the main goals of the project is to create a fresh atmosphere for the community that is warm, happy, and inviting, without being overly formal or stuffy,” said Darren Lloyd, associate principal and vice president at Moss Architects.
The design scheme abstractly borrows many of these elements and introduces them into the spaces via paint colors, acoustic wall panels, and other accents.
Brooks also recognized the importance of communicating a sense of lightness and joy through the logo and brand design, incorporating playful elements, recognizable shapes, and a vibrant color palette. She also worked to ensure that the branding resonates with the surrounding community.
“I conceived a visual identity that embodies the same versatility as the Larimer community itself,” Brooks said. “The design exudes a sense of freshness and modernity while also evoking a touch of familiarity and nostalgia, mirroring the transformation of the Larimer School building.”
Ensuring neighborhood needs are met
The Celebration Hall aims to accommodate a wide range of events and functions, from wedding receptions and seminars to movie nights, free community lunches, indoor markets, and beyond.
Important to everyone involved is that the space is representative and serves the needs of the Larimer community.
“It’s really important that we’re making sure that this is a community asset,” said Thompson. “It can’t just be about generating revenue for us or the caterers. It’s got to be something that’s benefitting the long-term residents of Larimer as well.”
As the Larimer neighborhood sees a steady uptick in investment and support since the Choice Neighborhoods project—including a recent Community Benefits Agreement that pledges investments in jobs, homeownership, and public infrastructure—Bute and his partners see the Celebration Hall as a catalyst for future growth and development.
“In the grand scheme of things, it’s almost like, why are we talking about celebrations when all of these other hard things are happening in the community? And that gets to the root of how I believe people think about people in poverty—that they don’t deserve to celebrate,” said Thompson. “But it’s the exact opposite. People need a space that represents hope. To me, the Celebration Hall is a representation of going beyond survival mode. Now we’re talking about people thriving, and when people are thriving, that’s something to celebrate.”