Standing in the middle of the rubble of what was once DePaul Institute just off McNeilly Road in Mt. Lebanon, it is clear that neglect can ravage a building nearly as completely as a wrecking ball. Paint peels from the walls; the once polished hardwood floors in the classrooms and the intricately inlaid tile floors in the common areas are covered with shards of glass from windows purposely shattered. Foul graffiti screams from the walls; empty beer cans abound, and there is a pile of what looks like human excrement in the corner.
“How sad that no one ever found a good adaptive reuse for what once was a spectacular property,” I think, as I walk through the soon-to-be demolished red brick complex that until 2002 was home to DePaul, the prominent “oral school for speech- and language-impaired children.” I speculate that the Catholic Diocese and Sisters of Charity who built the residential facility at Mt. Lebanon’s edge in 1911 three years after the school’s founding on the North Side may have wanted to surround the deaf children with beauty—decorative floors, hand-painted friezes, vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows—to appeal to their more dominant sense of sight.
No longer in need of a residential facility, DePaul moved to a central location close to public transit in Shadyside in 2002. For a few short years prior to 2007, the buildings were a residential treatment facility for the Bradley Center. Perhaps at some point in the past 15 years, some of the buildings might have been saved and reinvented. Now, stripped of most anything of value by vandals and in total disrepair, rehab and reuse is a hopeless proposition.
If the chapel, the crown jewel of the buildings, were a separate building, it might still be saved, for it is in relatively good condition in comparison to the rest of the place. Unfortunately, it is on an upper floor of a building that is decaying around it.
“This would have made a great junior college campus,” I say to my colleagues from Mt. Lebanon and Allegheny County who are touring the place as is customary when any historic structure is scheduled for demolition. The developer, who has not finalized his plans, is considering townhomes among other options for the acreage, a pleasant prospect that would add at least some of the formerly tax-exempt property to Mt. Lebanon’s basically fixed tax base. As required, the developer will provide some small mitigation in return for the loss of the historic property— a series of professional photographs along with some samples of the construction materials that be made into a video or serves as a small exhibit for our expanding Mt. Lebanon Historical Society. The nonprofit Construction Junction will go through the buildings before demolition and salvage anything they think could be resold and reused. That is some consolation.
If this school, which has a proud history and loyal alumni, had been located in the heart of Mt. Lebanon where people would have noticed and cherished it, instead of on its borde, perhaps the end of the story would be different. As it is, most people don’t even know the abandoned buildings, once teaming with students filled with hope, exists.
And so it goes—a small and not terribly important piece of history is lost to make way for something modern and useful. Still, if the same thing is happening every day all over America, the cumulative effect on our history is huge.
In 2002, Mt. Lebanon’s historic preservation board had just been founded and the Historical Society of Mount Lebanon was inactive. Today, both are engaged in promoting our historic resources. They recognize the value of economic development but also understand that history can be part of the future.
Perhaps the developer will find a way to incorporate a bit of what was once DePaul Institute into whatever exciting plans he has for the site.