March 11, 2022
Preservationists Are Investigating the Historical Significance of SOM’s Westinghouse Research Center
The Westinghouse of the postwar era was a diverse electrics and manufacturing company with substantial operations in everything from nuclear energy and consumer appliances to x-rays and jet engines. And in the 1960s, the company became aggressively interested in contemporary design. Architect and industrial designer Eliot Noyes served as a design consultant (he also designed the now-vacant Westinghouse Tele-Computer Center down the road) and its former headquarters in downtown Pittsburgh were designed by Harrison & Abramovitz. They also drew upon other less-known local talents such as Peter Muller-Munk.
The earliest buildings on the site, designed in 1956 by Voorhees, Walker, Foley & Smith, were timid in form but innovative in their highly modular arrangement, suitable for reconfiguration as time demanded.
The form of the campus shifted substantially in 1962 with the addition of two SOM structures. Nicholas Adams, emeritus professor in the history of architecture at Vassar College, and author of Skidmore Owings & Merrill: SOM since 1936, observed in an email that the buildings were emblematic of the firm’s work: “In many ways these are among SOM’s most Miesian buildings, effectively creating single-story interior space that can easily be subdivided.” He continued, “One can really see the language that SOM developed being plucked at here. The building recalls earlier SOM buildings like the CBS Research Laboratory, Chapel House at Colgate University, the Kiewit Computer Laboratory at Dartmouth College—these were simple pavilions with peripheral I-beams.”
The buildings surround a reflecting pool and a tidy modern plaza. The one auteur’s touch is evident in the complex’s circular parking lots, a Field Theory-inspired Netsch idea that has prompted comparisons of the site to a locomotive from above. A 1973 administration building—the most noteworthy on the campus—is often attributed to Netsch but was actually designed by James DeStefano. The building resembles SOM’s Weyerhauser and American Can buildings with its ribbed alternation of volumes and solids and protruding black anodized aluminum spandrels and black ribbon windows.
Adrian Smith, cofounder of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture and architect of the Burj Khalifa and Jin Mao Towers, who also was a designer on the 1973 structure, says, “The administration building was Jim’s project and was highly innovative for the time as it was one of the first projects to use silicone glazing joints, aluminum gaskets, and bottom seals to achieve a mullion-less expression.” The building also employs a structural steel truss system to span a road, thus knitting together the oldest buildings and the main plaza. It won a Distinguished Building Award from the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1974 and an Award of Excellence from the American Institute of Steel Construction. It also achieved the high modern imprimatur with an Ezra Stoller photoshoot and certainly has never been captured more effectively.
The campus has been in various forms of limbo since Westinghouse shed all its divisions save for Nuclear Energy in 1997, yet a deed for the ownership transfer was somehow not recorded until 2001. The subsequent owner incurred a large fine and prison time for the illegal disposal of asbestos. In 2019, it was purchased by real estate company NAI Pittsburgh. The proposal for Amazon use emerged earlier last year (the inspiration seeming to be the site’s mention in Pittsburgh’s proposal for Amazon’s second headquarters.) A conditional-use application by Hillwood Development was approved in December by the Churchill Borough Planning Commission.
The process occurred in the face of substantial local opposition to the proposal, with hostile testimonies at Churchill Borough proceedings. The borough hired community planning firm Pashek + MTR to run a series of visioning workshops, but possibilities for adaptive mixed-use reuse were not taken up.
The question of just how useful or useless these buildings are is unclear. In a 2019 Pittsburgh Business Times article the owners asserted that two of the SOM buildings had been fully mitigated for asbestos and approved for occupancy. The complex has been tenanted to some extent for most of the last two decades—including the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Siemens. Most recently, several structures have been used in film productions. The Churchill Crossings film site presents an attractive campus, and even advertises available “office space”, featuring a photo of the 1973 Administration Building.
NAI contracted Langan Engineering and Environmental Services, Inc. to survey the site for hazardous materials within the buildings and on site grounds. Langan civil engineer Scott Rowland testified before the borough council saying that the buildings were not suitable for reuse. No one doubts that there are issues of mold, asbestos, and other hazards to address. Their question is whether these should be a terminal disease for the complex. Cathy Bordner, a Churchill resident, observed, “I do know that Westinghouse was a leader in the industry and that they wouldn’t build a building that wouldn’t last a hundred years.” Murray Bilby, another resident, pointed to the recent removal of windows from the original buildings as a self-fulfilling prophecy: “They removed the windows and then said it’s a derelict building.”
A research campus is obviously not a town square, but the campus did offer tangible benefits to the community beyond tax revenue. Westinghouse hosted community events and opened its grounds for use at regular points. There was a public guide to trails across the property. A personal friend and area resident recalled attending science classes there in childhood. Dr. Joan Gottlieb, whose husband worked in the Westinghouse Optical Physics division for 35 years paid many visits to the campus and lived within walking distance of the site (she even hired the landscaper for the grounds for her own garden.) She says, “It was just a model of attention to the community as well as providing the latest research space for professionals. That’s the Westinghouse I knew and I’m very sad to see it go. The buildings aren’t that old and they’re such a model of architectural and historical interest.”
There’s little doubt that the current campus occupies its plot in a way that is less obtrusive than the proposed four-and-a-half-story warehouse and its considerably expanded space for truck parking will (farewell to Netsch parking circles) but it’s unclear what can be done. However, the campus is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, and Robert W. Ball, Architectural Historian at Cultural Resource Analysts, Inc. completed a Historic Resource Survey Form in November 2020. A land-use appeal has been filed on behalf of several residents and other stages of approval still await. It’s been determined that there’s federal level permitting via the US Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh Division pertaining to this site, and therefore a Section 106 historic review process will take place.
Preservationists are sensitive to questions of cost and hazard mitigation. Reilly explained via email, “We value the holistic importance of this site—the Westinghouse legacy, the SOM modernist architecture, its landscaped setting, its reflection of the transformative period in the region. Preservation Pittsburgh cannot take a full position yet in terms of the extent of preservation we’d advocate for, because more information is needed as to the condition of the structures and the landscaped site overall and their actual potential for reuse—gaining clarity and getting answers to these questions is a process that we’re eager to participate in.”
It’s a misfortune in an era in which corporate campuses have found successful revival in many locations: The Bell Labs complex in Holmdel, NJ, Union Carbide’s former campus in Danbury, CT, and even a midcentury dinosaur of unquestionably lesser architectural pedigree, Allegheny Center in Pittsburgh.
According to Adams, “SOM’s Westinghouse buildings are a remarkable link to a corporate past. The teams that developed these buildings managed a remarkable integration between the buildings, the landscape, and to the earlier structure on site.” He parsed SOM’s “genius” for cultivating younger architects and pointed to James de Stefano as a talent overlooked in most SOM accounts. “To lose this complex would cause significant damage to Pittsburgh’s industrial architectural history.”
Would you like to comment on this article? Send your thoughts to: [email protected]
At One Small Design Firm, Sharing is the Best Business Tool
Grain Design Studio leverages its involvement in collectives to share resources and help it succeed as an ethical, sustainable company.
Hacker Architects Brings a Brutalist Public Library into the 21st Century
In Salem, Oregon, designers and residents came together to save the Salem Public Library, a concrete and glass structure designed by George Rockrise and Donald Richardson in 1970.
The Pandemic’s Work-from-home Lessons
In the third and final part of “Work from Home Changes Both,” designer and educator Scott Klinker unpacks how the pandemic has changed where we work and the tools we use.