Design Zone breathes new life into Lawrenceville

When Mark Mentzer moved his painting studio into the heart of Lawrenceville’s dilapidated business district 13 years ago, even his neighbors thought he was crazy. Crime was constant. Lots were vacant. And his circa-1890 two-story building was close to being condemned. During that first year, a business owner from across the street came over one day and shook his head at Mentzer with a mix of shock and admiration: “You’ve got some real guts moving in here.”

But Mentzer -- a Carnegie Mellon professor in the School of Design and one of the first in the 90-plus artists, architects, artisans, and crafters that now populate Lawrenceville’s Design Zone -- saw potential in the area that went beyond its cracked sidewalks and boarded-up windows. “There’s that sense of pride and history in the place,” he says, in an area “with great possibilities.” Now, Mentzer and a slew of other artists and artisans are working actively to bring out those possibilities with the Design Zone, an urban redevelopment and neighborhood branding initiative started with the Lawrenceville Corporation just five years ago.

Landing in Lawrenceville

At one point -- before it was incorporated into Pittsburgh during the 19th century -- Lawrenceville was its own township along the Allegheny River. After the turn of the century, Butler Street became one of the most vibrant business districts in the region. During this time local industry blossomed, and its streets were populated with the buildings that stand there today.

But once the steel mills and factories began closing in the ‘50s and ‘60s, money simply drained out of the area-businesses going with it. When Mentzer moved into the area in the early ‘90s, his friend Joe Kelly had already worked in the neighborhood for eight years. Upon Mentzer’s suggestion, he moved Kelly Custom Furniture into a building that on the same block as Mentzer’s studio, and it was already condemned.

The two friends were planting the seeds of something larger than their own businesses. In 2000, the Lawrenceville Corporation was formed by a merger between two other Lawrenceville groups that shared a common interest. With the help of Mentzer and Kelly now the organization’s executive director their Design Zone concept could finally hit the streets.

The Zone

The Design Zone extends across the ninth and tenth wards of Pittsburgh: the Strip District and Lawrenceville. The group was founded in 2000 with 78 shops, galleries, and studios. Now, close to five years later, that number has jumped to over 90.

The Design Zone “starts a new neighborhood, in essence,” says Pam Devereaux, the Lawrenceville Corporation’s business manager. “[It] crosses traditional neighborhood boundaries -- a new type of place based on what we have to offer.” It’s making waves, too, boosting the economy of Lawrenceville through the efforts of Design Zone members, all working between the 16th Street and 62nd Street bridges along Butler Street. “Artists,” she says, “are often the first pioneers into blighted neighborhoods that have potential for redevelopment.”

There is an intense collection of artisans lining Butler Street today, from antique furniture restoration to interior design services. Individual artists’ studios to custom architectural millwork. Candle makers to cabinetmakers. Metalworkers to muralists. Walking down the street, you can tell which storefronts belong to the Design Zone: more often than not, they’re the ones with fully restored moldings, large bay windows, and brightly colored paint that blast life into an otherwise gray Pittsburgh afternoon. The stately Allegheny Cemetery separates the district’s two ends along Butler, and the road twists over a long, rolling hill on its way from one bridge to the other. In storefronts like Roger Levine’s Who New? for retro furniture, a brightly colored flag hangs from just above its windows: 16:62 DESIGN ZONE.

“The reason we opened this shop in Lawrenceville was because of the Design Zone. It’s a real grassroots area to be in,” says Levine. Before the Zone came into the district, Lawrenceville wasn’t even an option for Levine and Who New? co-owner Jeff Gordon. “There was no reason to come here five years ago. You wouldn’t come here five years ago.”

A colorful program Levine points to are stacked neatly near his entranceway. The guidebooks have become an integral part of the Design Zone effort. Now in its fourth edition of printing, the latest version came off the press only a few months ago. Although the guidebook has been requested by people across the country, it’s already out of date. More businesses have moved in since its printing, and the maps on each page don’t yet include them on the list. The growth is shocking, and it’s only increasing its rate.

“The stipulation is just that you design!” Levine laughs. He and Gordon have amassed their shop’s eclectic collection of retro furniture from literally everywhere they visit: They’ve picked up picture frames from Japan, tables from Italy, and still hunt at auctions and garage sales. “It’s a 24/7,” he says as he sits at one of his tables in the middle of the store. The lighting is comfortable, almost as if it were a living room; the furniture around him ranges from ‘50s chic to ‘05 college apartment. “It’s taken a hobby to another level.”

Playing the CMU design card

To begin a venture like this, you have to market it. And the marketing for the Strip and Lawrenceville’s Design Zone began with a business district in Portland, Oregon. From there, it was up to about 14 students at Carnegie Mellon to run with it.

Talking in his studio, Mentzer describes how Joe Kelly took a trip to Oregon one day and returned with a walking map of a Portland business district. The map, Kelly pointed out, was organized around the notion of related businesses: It was clear, it was visual, and a cursory glance gave you a solid notion of how the area could be navigated according to taste. “Joe came up with this idea,” says Mentzer. “Since most of the businesses in this area were related to the building industry, home furnishings, furniture, antiques -- all these things that have to do with design in some way -- wouldn’t it be kind of neat if we created a “zone” where all these businesses were connected?”

And so, soon after the Design Zone was founded, 12 to 14 students from CMU’s design department took on Lawrenceville as a senior design project. The students took in topography, the people, and the individual needs of the area, as well as area history. Their project wasn’t necessarily conducted with the Design Zone in mind, but rather the district as a whole: Mentzer says the goal was to find how “some design intervention in the area [could] put it on the map, and champion what we already have here.” This made their senior project, in effect, problem-solving design for an entire community.

The team drew up six proposals to incorporate the dynamics of the area -- a logo, a letterhead, a sign system, and so on. They developed a system for the local office so that they could produce their printed material in-house; and soon afterwards developed the map brochures that mirrored Kelly’s findings in Portland. And they thought up a visual historic site so that they could communicate the historic aspects of the area. “They [the Lawrenceville Corporation] still use that material in their thinking,” Mentzer says: CMU students made the blueprint, and the project grew from their efforts.

Mentzer Studio

Each studio effort has sought to keep intact what history Butler Street offers. Mentzer and other artists have taken that to heart when moving into their buildings -- to revive rather than reinvent. “I think we have a tendency to want to clean the slate,” Mentzer says, gesturing about his studio. “And we’ve got a very rich slate here. And what of that richness should be preserved, can be preserved?” He’s talked about the various storefronts earlier, and how organizations like the Urban Redevelopment Authority have helped put money into restoring their facades and preserving the buildings. “So you’re going to see new buildings here,” he grins, “but I don’t think you’ll see that sort of strip-mall [mentality].”

Mentzer’s own studio has had a varied past, of which he only knows bits and pieces -- a bar at one point, a photography studio at another. During his first year, when he was clearing out the low-ceilinged basement, an older man approached him on the sidewalk and asked abruptly: “Hey, did you find any dead bodies in there?” Apparently, it was a morgue as well.

So he jacked the floor up, rebuilt the roof, rewired the building, re-plumbed with his father-in-law 12 years ago. The space is clean now, with white walls covered in paintings and drawings that share common themes of color and line qualities. It has allowed him to open up and explore his own style; his finished products, both still life and abstract at once, give a sense of the creativity that has fueled his teaching at CMU for thirty years.

But although Mentzer has taught everyone from international artist Burton Morris to the CMU graduates at Wall to Wall Studios down the street, this space at 5229 Butler Street is where he’s allowed to pursue his own work. And for more than 90 artists, artisans and crafters to date, it’s beginning to do the same.

Designing for tomorrow

Lawrenceville is rebuilding itself, its ways both visible and intangible. Kate Lydon from the Society for Contemporary Craft says that the Blackbird Lofts, for example, “are [some] of the first new buildings built since the 1960s” in the area. Artists are moving in as far away as New York City, and even the UPMC is planning a new Children’s Hospital in the neighborhood. “We are at a point,” Lydon says, “where a lot of great things are happening at the same time.”

On Thursday nights, businesses have their lights on until eight in the evening -- and the glow as you drive down Butler is a tangible reminder of how the area has changed in the past five years. “It’s not like a trend,” though, says Mentzer. “It’s not going to fizzle out. This is long-lasting.”