The Art of Creating Space
When Dee Briggs was looking for a building of a certain size and scale where she could create her art, she found it and more in Wilkinsburg. The former firehouse offered light-filled studio space on the ground floor and roomy living quarters upstairs.
“The building was the main draw,” says Briggs, who purchased the fire station from a Wilkinsburg resident who had renovated it and was living there. “It was in beautiful shape.”
The same couldn’t be said for the vacant lots behind the building and neglected frame house beside it. Part of the triangle-shaped area behind the firehouse had served as a car lot years ago and featured concrete and asphalt pads along with “junk” trees and bushes and assorted debris. The house next door showed years of neglect and was soon deserted.
A few years after relocating her business and home to the firehouse, Briggs started to explore acquiring the adjacent properties. She was able to purchase four of the empty lots from a single owner. But the fifth –in the middle of the space – wasn’t owned by the same family. In fact, ownership was murky and records showed years of tax delinquency. Trying to acquire the derelict house also proved problematic.
Briggs turned to Wilkinsburg community leaders and the Vacant Property Recovery Program (VPRP) for help. “The program makes projects like this possible,” says the artist/architect.
After creating a reuse plan and getting the borough’s ok to proceed, Briggs prepared applications to Allegheny County’s VPRP, and put up the required fees and acquisition costs. She plans to remove the vacant house, salvaging building materials as much as possible, and join all of the lots and the firehouse with a comprehensive landscaping plan. Visually appealing fencing, raised beds and new trees, native to southwestern Pennsylvania, will unite the space. Other parts of the property will be used as outdoor work space to create and display sculptures. Permeable paving will be used to grow grass over areas where vehicles will deliver supplies and transport larger pieces.
Briggs uses steel, concrete, aluminum and bronze in her works. She does much of the fabricating herself, inside the fire station. Her sculptures are collected by individuals and businesses and shown in galleries and museums throughout the country.
Removing the abandoned building and landscaping all of the lots will enhance the value of the building where Briggs lives and works. It’s a good bet that the work will also improve the value of other properties in the neighborhood.