Andy Rubacky was stunned when the tenant of the former G.C. Murphy building in Bellevue renovated the place a couple years ago and tore out the antique wrought-iron banister that surrounded the first-floor stairwell.
"They threw it into a dumpster," he said recently while standing in the old building, shaking his head in disbelief.
While Rubacky was unable to save that piece of the old variety store's past, he's looking forward to saving what's left.
Rubacky, a manager at Affogato cafe a few blocks away on Lincoln Avenue, will help his boss, Sam DiBattista, the building's new owner, convert the structure into a retail center and business incubator. The basement level in the future could house small businesses and artisans selling their wares from rented spaces.
Walking around the dusty third floor of the building on a recent afternoon, Rubacky pointed out the dais, projector equipment and other features that indicate the space was used for board meetings or community gatherings.
"We're hoping [the renovated building] will add some buzz to Bellevue and make it more of a happening place," said Rubacky, 29, a McCandless native and five-year resident of Bellevue. "Bellevue has the infrastructure, it just needs some help."
As in many of Allegheny County's smaller municipalities, residents and merchants of Bellevue have been struggling to remake the borough into a livelier place.
The Lincoln Avenue business district once boasted several clothing stores, two hardware stores, a movie theater, a butcher and other long-gone merchants. During the past several years, the types of stores along the street have evolved, with more restaurants, antique stores and gift shops occupying storefronts. On warm evenings, diners sip coffee and eat dessert at bistro tables lining the sidewalk.
Much of the change has been generated by the community itself, and Bob Gradeck, an analyst for Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Economic Development, said such community efforts are not new in the Pittsburgh region.
"I think a lot of the communities outside the inner-ring suburbs are seeing the need to do something. Each town has to find a niche in the market," Gradeck said. "The ones that have found a niche aren't trying to compete with Wal-Mart."
"Bellevue has some advantages," he added. "They have a good housing market, and the business district has no direct local competition."
DiBattista, who owns Vivo restaurant and Affogato, which is a few blocks from his home, recognized the potential in the G.C Murphy building, which once anchored the town's retail district. He recently bought the building for $250,000 from the estate of Andy Sutton, of Wisconsin, who had inherited it through his family.
The building was built about 1900, and G. C. Murphy leased and occupied it in 1929 until it closed in the mid-1980s. Until last fall, the building had been occupied by D & K Stores, a dollar store. The 26,500-square-foot building has a second and third floor that the shopping public hasn't seen in decades --long before G.C. Murphy closed.
Many old-timers in the borough will recall the basement pet store or the first-floor record section toward the rear with the manager's office above it. Others might remember the first-floor soda fountain or the popcorn machine by the cash register -- a G.C. Murphy Co. trademark. Few, however, can dredge up a memory of the second or third floors.
But for the first time in many years, much of the old building may once again be accessible to the public.
The large plate glass window display spaces on the first floor will be retained and could by next year be filled with cafe patrons browsing books and sipping drinks.
As part of his plan for the building, DiBattista, 47, will move Affogato, currently at 613 Lincoln Ave. -- the former Matous Opticians -- into a portion of the first floor. The G.C. Murphy building, which occupies 517 and 521 Lincoln Ave., will be known as the "517521" building.
A large sign with that number will replace the old red and white G.C. Murphy sign, which will be remounted and hung on one of the first-floor interior walls, Rubacky said.
"We're doing that to bring back the idea of G.C. Murphy in Bellevue," he said.
Metanoia Development, a corporation led by DiBattista and Rubacky, will develop the building. Since the space is zoned for retail use, Metanoia will use the first floor for a "vintage department store, with a mix of the old and new," including furniture, hardware, art and other items, DiBattista said. A small bookstore that occupies the back room of Affogato also will move into the first-floor space.
Affogato co-manager Victoria Green, 22, will own the bookstore. Green, a Washington, D.C., native who moved to Bellevue a year ago, has had some success with her used book store since she opened it a year ago.
"I started it with my personal collection, about 80 books. I've got over 3,000 books now," she said, adding that she'd bought many of the books at yard sales and estate sales.
"We found World War I ration certificates in one of them," Rubacky said.
Indeed, the nine-month process of acquiring the G.C. Murphy building has been a string of discoveries for DiBattista, Rubacky, Green and the other North Boroughs residents who have supported the redevelopment plan and offered to help with it. Rubacky and Green did some research to understand how to effectively use the old building.
They recently distributed a survey that reached 60 Bellevue business owners and 100 business patrons and asked what stores were needed in Bellevue. Among the businesses suggested were a CD shop, a comic book shop and a movie theater, all of which are planned for the G.C. Murphy building, Rubacky said. "Basically, everything we've been talking about since the beginning," he said.
In the second phase of DiBattista's development plan for the building, the comic book shop and CD shop are planned as well as a used clothing store. The third phase will feature a movie theater, possibly on the first floor, DiBattista said.
As potential patrons and renters check out the space in the building, they may get a chance to see some of the more hidden parts of the structure.
The old two-room manager's office, up a small flight of stairs halfway between the first and second floor, is still furnished with its original desks and woodwork. The rooms might once again be used for office space.
The second floor sports an old dressing room, complete with old coat hooks, where the female employees of the variety store once prepared for work. A wide back staircase that shoppers and employees once used to get to the building's upper floors gives access to a large second-floor display room.
The empty room, lined with large windows on three walls, once showcased wares. Long pull cords still hang from dozens of old ceiling light fixtures. The summer sunlight poured into the airless room on a recent Saturday afternoon, making it stiflingly hot.
Rubacky didn't seem to mind. He wore a grin and an intense look as he glanced around the room. "I think the main point of this is to help Bellevue," he said. "It's a small town, but everything's here."