New Shine For A Second Century At The Union Trust Building

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By: Tim Schooley

When it came to detailing how his company spent $100 million to buy and renovate the Union Trust Building, Jonathan Davis offered a pretty thorough list to the assembled guests at the grand reopening for the downtown landmark.

That $14 million winning bid his Boston-based The Davis Cos. made from a sheriff’s sale in 2014 comes to a rate of $23.53 per square foot for the classic building.

Davis, a Squirrel Hill native, described it as “just a down payment.”

His list started with the inconvenient matter of the building having no internal heating, cooling or electric system, instead operating for years as a Mellon Bank office building by importing such functions from 525 William Penn Place when it too was a Mellon office.

There was the “terra cotta mansard roof … leaking like Swiss cheese,” Davis said.

The stained orange discoloration on the building’s sandstone cladding had to be cleaned, he said.

Then there were the sidewalks and structural steel beams underneath them that needed to be replaced; elevators that needed new machinery and controls; asbestos to be removed;and the oversized columns to deal with in a building with low ceilings that were “drab, old and tired.”

“Literally every element of the building needed work,” Davis said.

So along with all new windows, Davis commissioned 30 original works of art, added a 5,000-square-foot fitness center and a host of tech flourishes, and has plans for a renovated theater and 190-space subsurface parking garage.

The Davis Cos., which owns a real estate portfolio of about 12 million square feet throughout the Eastern U.S., didn’t blink in making such an investment to fully upgrade the distinctive 11-story property.

Built in 1915 by industrialist Henry Clay Frick to serve partly as a retail arcade along with an office address, the Union Trust Building now has a new luster after 100 years amid the soot and industrial smog of steel-era Pittsburgh.

Beyond the money invested, the project took plenty of elbow grease and hard work from a team lead by local Davis Vice President of Development Christopher Lasky, along with Mascaro Construction Co. LP, Elkus Manfredi Architects and a host of others.

It’s that new shine that perhaps stands out the most for a building that always maintained some of its grandeur as a true historic and architectural landmark, despite decades of neglect.

“If you can imagine, there weren’t any revolving doors or doubled sets of doors. So for 100 years, every time the doors opened, all the Pittsburgh smoke and smog would come in and discolor all of this,” said Lasky, noting how the team repointed the first-floor terra cotta as part of the cleaning process. “It’s really brightened the whole place up.”

As the Pittsburgh office of JLL works to lease up the more than 31 percent of the property that’s vacant, Davis acknowledged the emotional reasons for him as a native to invest in what he called “a magnificent example of Flemish Gothic architecture and probably one of the most important pieces of private commercial architecture in the city.”

In a downtown he described as dynamic, Davis also called his company’s renovation of the Union Trust Building “as highly ambitious, daring even, by conventional standards.”

“Beyond that, we saw in the Union Trust Building the opportunity to honor Pittsburgh’s heritage while also being part of propelling it into the future,” he said.

Now that Davis has met the long-neglected needs of the building, it will be interesting to see how the downtown office market responds.

1901: Henry Clay Frick buys from the Catholic Diocese land on Grant Street on which once stood St. Paul’s Cathedral.
1915-16: The Union Arcade is built on the site, commissioned by Frick and designed by Frederick Osterling.
1917: The building opens, featuring 240 shops and galleries based on a design that features four floors of retail.1923: The Union Trust Co., a state-chartered affiliate of Mellon Bank, buys the building, changes its name to the Union Trust Building and renovates it.
1984: A holding company owned by shopping mall developer Edward DeBartolo Sr. buys the building. Soon after, it lands Mellon Bank as the major name office tenant. The building is renamed Two Mellon Bank Center.
2006: Mellon Bank vacates the building. After unsuccessful attempts to find replacement tenants, DeBartolo defaults on the mortgage.
2008: Mika Realty Group buys the building for $24.1 million from an entity affiliated with insurance company Cigna, which assumed ownership of the property after the DeBartolo foreclosure.
2011: U.S. Bank files a second foreclosure against Mika, a move that causes the property to be auctioned off.
2014: The Davis Cos. buys the building through an Allegheny County Sheriff’s sale procedure for $14 million.
2016: Davis reopens the building after a complete renovation that puts the company’s investment at $100 million.