Photo: Rob Howard
After years of living in New York City, I thought of real estate developers as greedy megalomaniacs who mowed down entire city blocks and erected architectural atrocities with low ceilings and cheap kitchens in order to maximize their profit per square foot. It was not a line of work to which I had ever aspired.
I was: (A) a writer by default, after my first career, as a dancer, didn't go according to plan; and (B) a design consultant, dispensing advice to corporations on brand strategy and product development—this had started out as a day job, to support my writing, but turned into something I actually liked doing. I was not looking to leave either of these occupations. Nor, to be honest, was I in search of some new job that would take up what little time and brain space I hadn't already allotted to A and B.
Nevertheless, I bought a building in Pittsburgh, my hometown. I wasn't planning on buying a building. I just wanted an apartment. After 30 years in New York and abroad, I was looking for a place where I wouldn't have to work overtime to meet an overhead that had turned into a heavy monthly burden, and it seemed like moving back to Pittsburgh might be a good idea, based on the easy access to both culture and nature, the fact that real estate there is tremendously undervalued, and the prospect of a life less frenetic and trendy than the one I was living out of a loft in lower Manhattan.
In the course of my search for an apartment in Pittsburgh, preferably a raw space that I could design to my own specifications, I came across a vacant nine-story architectural landmark, which, as it happened, offered everything I was looking for: a large, uninterrupted space, high ceilings, abundant natural light, character, charm, an ideal location. Built in 1889 and '90 as the German National Bank, with a massive facade entirely handcarved by Italian stonemasons, it had gone down in the guidebooks as an outstanding example of the style dubbed Richardsonian Romanesque, after H.H. Richardson, the famous architect who had designed the county courthouse a few blocks away. When the bank left the premises, sometime in the 1930s, the name was changed to the Granite Building, and over the years a succession of office tenants proceeded to subdivide the capacious interiors until the original grandeur was gone. What I found—coffee-stained wall-to-wall carpeting and a maze of makeshift cubicles—might have deterred some, if not most, people. But I was too busy seeing what wasn't there: a continuous expanse of dining and living areas, a kitchen overlooking the steeple of the church across the street, a master bedroom with a big bay window. I would wake up to the sounds of the carillon playing hymns on Sundays. I would grow rosebushes in little pots on the balconies.
But first I would have to buy the whole building, and that would leave me with six more floors than I could use, to say nothing of the payments on the financing. I kept looking. Surely there was someplace else to live that I could love as much.