The long-vacant Masonic Hall on Pittsburgh's North Side is unused to visitors, and it certainly wasn't prepared to host the dozens who stopped by for a news conference Monday morning. Chips of paint, plaster, and drywall littered the rickety floor, and the expansive, crumbling chambers were as chilly as the air outside.
But the future appears bright for the 116-year-old building, after Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced a $17 million project to revitalize all of the buildings on that block of North Avenue — including the Masonic Hall's next-door neighbor, the historic Garden Theater.
The Urban Redevelopment Authority project will play out over the next several years, said Ravenstahl, with those two flagship buildings receiving attention first.
"This corner has always been a problem area, and announcing this exciting development isn't just eliminating a problem — it's creating a destination," said Ravenstahl.
North Side residents echoed the mayor's excitement.
"We've always had the effort and the caring to get it moving, but now we finally have the political will and the money it's going to take to get it moving in the right direction, which is fantastic," said Mark Deptola of Palo Alto Street.
The Garden Theater will maintain its facade, but little else. Lead developer Wayne Zukin said the auditorium proper is falling in on itself, and must be gutted. Zukin said a large restaurant will take its place, with office space upstairs and a large patio in the backyard.
Zukin said the two other large buildings on the "Garden Block" will be among the first to undergo redevelopment.
"The Bradberry Building … was built as sixteen apartments. We're going to keep it as sixteen apartments. There's no reason to reinvent that," said Zukin. "The old Masonic Hall, we're going to have a restaurant on the first floor, and apartments up top."
He said there could be eight to twelve loft apartments in the Masonic Hall.
After the three larger buildings are reborn, Zukin said developers will begin to find corporate lessees for the seven smaller structures on the other half of the block.
Mayor Ravenstahl said the Nakama restaurant may be open within a year, but other efforts will take several years to reach fruition.
Central North Side Neighborhood Council President Chris D'Addario said he's grateful developers decided to preserve the facades of the garden and other buildings.
"It's hard to save the past," said D'Addario. "It takes effort, and it takes an awful lot of time, but in the end, it creates better communities."