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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen. | Show Photo

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Holly Brubach: Coming Home in Style

She’s lived in New York, where she served as a writer and editor for such magazines as Vogue and Atlantic Monthly. And in Paris where she was a staff writer for The New Yorker. And also in Milan, where she helped a promising Internet start-up named YOOX through its formative phase. She’s written three books as well as "Balanchine," a television documentary of the choreographer’s life and work, for WNET.

But when Holly Brubach was ready to make her next move, she knew it was time to come home to Pittsburgh.

And Downtown will be more vital as a result since Brubach is in the process of redeveloping the historic and gorgeous Granite Building on Sixth Avenue where she has just sold her first unit.

The Turnaround
Brubach, a 1971 graduate of Shaler High School, came late to her love affair with her hometown.

“The whole time I was growing up here I never really appreciated Pittsburgh,” she says. “I thought it was an ugly city. My idea of beauty was Paris. Pittsburgh was industrial. It seemed provincial to me. Partly I’ve changed, and partly the world has changed. Industrial is now an aesthetic. People decorate in the industrial style.

“And the Internet has decentralized culture. When I was growing up and you wanted to be in magazine publishing or dance or art, the only place to be was New York. Now, there is no ‘only’ place to be. You can do that work from anywhere.”

A promising dancer forced by injury into premature retirement, Brubach graduated from Duke University before embarking on her cosmopolitan career. Her decision to return was motivated in part by the economics of life in New York City, where she was living in a loft in the trendy Tribeca district.

“Life in Lower Manhattan is very expensive, and I was sitting on my equity," she says. "I felt like I was working overtime to meet my overhead.”

Once here, she found a growing cohort of contemporaries choosing Pittsburgh — for much the same reasons.

“There really are a number of people who see the possibilities here; that population will only grow as cities like New York price these people right out of the market,” she says. “The friends I have in Manhattan are moving to Brooklyn. The friends I have in Brooklyn are moving to Queens. And the people who can’t afford Queens are moving to Hoboken.”

Life in Pittsburgh has afforded her a number of lifestyle opportunities not easily available in New York. She has, for example, rowed on the Allegheny River. An avid golfer, she intends to familiarize herself with the multitude of courses in the region. And she’s become reacquainted with her car — walking everywhere, as she did in Manhattan, is out of the question. But in most regards, her hometown has exceeded her expectations.

“I’ve always been a dance lover. The ballet here is a good company,” she notes. “I love art. The Carnegie and the Warhol between them are very plugged into the art world. There’s a terrific literary community here. I love what the Mattress Factory does. There are some small theater companies I haven’t even begun to explore yet. I love the architecture here.

“Even though it’s a small city, when you meet people who share certain interests, you sort of assume they know everybody else who shares that interest. But they don’t, and I think, ‘Wow, how amazing that all these people here haven’t met each other.’ That’s actually kind of nice. It makes me feel not claustrophobic.”

Falling Hard
But it’s the Granite Building that makes her feel especially upbeat about Pittsburgh. The handsome, nine-story structure, built in 1889 for German National Bank, is an architectural gem that occupies a choice Downtown location; its neighbors include the Duquesne Club, First Presbyterian Church and Trinity Cathedral. The building features ceilings at least 12 feet high, up to 20 windows per floor and many of the original architectural elements, including tile wainscoting, decorative arches and marble fire stairs

“I very much like the notion of historic preservation where instead of mothballing a historic structure and turning it into a museum, you find a viable new use for it,” Brubach says. “I looked at everything that was for sale Downtown. I didn’t see anything I really liked until the Granite Building. I didn’t think I needed a whole building and so kept looking for a condo. Everything I saw made me like the Granite Building even more. So I decided to take the leap and see if there was anybody else out there who would feel the same about it.”

Dollar Bank felt the same way, providing some of the capital that allowed Brubach to purchase the building in December 2005. The floors are so spacious — about 2,700 square feet each along with a mezzanine that measures roughly 2,000 square feet — that Brubach initially envisioned the building for residential purposes only.

Indeed, that’s very much in synch with the rising popularity of Downtown living, accelerated by such upscale properties as The Encore on 7th and 151 First Side. The Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh estimates that 5,000 Downtown housing units are available, with another 500 units expected to come on line. For all that, the immediate response to the Granite Building was underwhelming.

“In other cities where I’ve lived, even people in the high financial bracket tend to be willing to forego some conveniences and pioneer a neighborhood because the space is great. That certainly hasn’t been true here. Many people have adopted a wait-and-see attitude about Downtown living at the high end of the market.”

Now, Brubach has opened up the building to mixed use with possibiliites for both residential and office condos. She may divide the mezzanine into offices, with residential occupants having the option of an office as well. It’s a unique model that could yield results. Brubach sold the first residential unit this month.

“The nice thing about a building this size is you can be really flexible and base your plans on buyers and their needs,” she says.

She won’t have to worry about selling two floors — she’ll relocate there from her current rented space in the Strip District. Brubach is proving the theory that people can live in relatively inexpensive Pittsburgh and work anywhere. She’s consulting and working on several books, even as she contributes columns on books for the New York Times Magazine T supplements. She’s also consulting for her old friends at YOOX, the once fledgling site that has become a hot seller of end-of-season designer merchandise. And she’s on the prowl for Pittsburgh buildings that she and other investors can acquire and transform.

“It’s interesting how much current development here is from out-of-town developers,” she says. “They see the city through a different lens. I have friends in New York who say to me, ‘Your building is great, find one for us.’ So I always have my eyes open for anything out there. There are loads of opportunities here.”
Evan Pattak is a freelance writer whose last feature for Pop City was about Intel. To read it click here.


Captions:

The View from the Granite Building Across Sixth Avenue

Holly Brubach

The Granite Building from the First Presbyterian Church

Brubach at the Granite Building

Detail

All photographs copyright Brian Cohen


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