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finish lines: Bill Callahan

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Oxford Boulevard resident Bill Callahan is the former chair of Mt. Lebanon’s Historic Preservation Board. A historic preservationist with the Pennsylvania Historical & Museums Commission, Callahan was an integral part of the team that secured a National Historic Register designation for more than 4,000 Mt. Lebanon buildings. /Photo: Martha Rial

How did you become interested in historic preservation?

I came to historic preservation from an economic development perspective. My first career was in retail management in a small Midwestern city during the dramatic 1980’s economic downturn. Several of us tried to think about what we could do collectively to keep from going belly-up and realized our historic central business district could, if properly managed, help create a destination shopping experience. In large part that worked and still does—I still have friends working in that same downtown historic district.

I moved to Chicago after receiving my MA in history and gained a greater appreciation of the power of architecture and the built environment to inspire not only historical and cultural awareness but economic opportunity. My history degree (and, I’m told, the fact that I was a Cubs fan) helped me get a job with the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office where the nexus of the economic and cultural values of historic buildings, really came home for me.

What is the difference between something that is historic and something that is just old?

There are actually many ways to define “historic,” but the one I like best—and frankly the one that is most important—is when a community collectively understands that a place has meaning and value. The fact that much of Mt. Lebanon is listed in the National Register of Historic Places is indisputable proof that our town is historic, not just old.

Is it OK to update historic properties or to tear them down?

It’s absolutely OK to update historic properties. The key is to have a design ethic that is sensitive to the character of the property and surrounding streetscape. That can be done and—contrary to popular perception—doesn’t need to be prohibitively expensive. Sometimes a historic property does need to come down, and in a place like Mt. Lebanon, it is especially important that any new infill design is sensitive to the character of the neighborhood. 

Historic properties are too often removed without adequately investigating the economic opportunity they provide as well as their cultural value to the entire community. We need to find better ways to integrate the value of historic places when considering the cost of maintaining them.

Tell us about something historic that has been lost that you wish could have been preserved?

About 20 or 25 years ago a large agribusiness demolished an historic district made up of a truly magnificent collection of warehouses in downtown Omaha smack on the Missouri River.  It was a sort of stereotypical situation: the corporation threatened to move out of town if they didn’t get what they wanted, so the whole district came down. It was, of course, a big preservation-oriented fight. But there was an economic and cultural argument too, based on what kind of downtown Omahans wanted.  Several of the warehouses either had been rehabilitated for new use or had adaptive reuses planned when they were demolished. Anyway, the corporation built its new international headquarters—a starkly suburban design–on the site. And the punchline? Last year, they moved their headquarters to Chicago and laid off 1,500 people.

What are your favorite historic spots in Western Pennsylvania?

Picking just a couple is tough. There are some obvious choices: Falling Water deserves every bit of its hype. The Presque Isle Lighthouse in Erie is really cool in a lovely setting. For sheer awesomeness, it’s hard to beat the Carrie Furnace site in Homestead. Downtown Bradford, McKean County is amazing. The Route 6, Lincoln Highway and National Road Heritage corridors that run through my region offer a lot  along their miles. But here’s how lucky I am—,I get to spend every day in my two favorite historic places. My office is in the amazing Ft. Pitt Museum at Point State Park. Point State Park, which is a National Historic Landmark because of its association with the French and Indian War and is also part of the Pittsburgh Renaissance National Register Historic District. And—I get to live in Mt. Lebanon. I’ve long had an interest in how automobile culture has shaped the way our nation looks and works, and there is no better place to understand that than Mt. Lebanon, one of the earliest automobile suburbs in the state. I urge you to take a look at the Mt. Lebanon National Register Historic District Nomination [2] on the municipal website for the whole story.

How can we preserve Mt. Lebanon’s historic character?

Nothing happens by accident: if we don’t choose a path a path will be chosen for us. If we want to maintain our historic character, our livability, our economic future, we must continue to better understand our historic character, the best ways to maintain that character and how to promote and invest in it in ways that make sense. That means hard work, planning and the courage to follow through on what the community and real data tell us are the best path for Mt. Lebanon’s historic character. From all I’ve seen the past 10+ years, I think that’s an achievable goal.