If you’ve ever been on the Boulevard of the Allies, heading west into the city and approaching Duquesne University, you’ve passed by the old Paramount Film Exchange building. I’ve personally zoomed past this building at 60 mph (OK, probably faster) countless times without ever knowing about it until discovering it recently.
It’s hard to believe in today’s digital age, where business is done electronically and massive amounts of data are sent back and forth to places near and far, but there was once a time where movie theater owner had to travel downtown to screen the movies they would subsequently rent. One such place is the Paramount Film Exchange, located at 1725 Boulevard of the Allies. It was sandwiched between two other film exchanges, one by Warner Brothers and one for 20th Century Fox, which led to this stretch being called Film Row in its day.
There were screening rooms and storage vaults for the celluloid films. The vaults were necessary from a safety standpoint, as the nascent material of celluloid film was highly flammable due to the presence of the camphor. Laws were passed requiring film exchange buildings to be fireproof , so film exchange companies over-built sturdy buildings with foot-thick, brick-walled vaults to store the celluloid film. Films were projected in screening rooms so theater operators could watch the films before they showed them in their theaters.
Although I never knew about this place until just recently, I actually ate dinner one time at a re-purposed film repository similar to this in Chicago. The restaurant, since closed, was called Opera and you actually could eat in little alcoves that once housed the old returned films. Much like the Paramount Film Exchange, it was a tank of a building.
The Paramount Film Exchange was in operation from 1926 until the late 70’s/early 80’s when VHS swept through the industry and started to render the need for storing celluloid moot. It sat relatively unused, with UPMC owning it for a period of time, until young preservationist Drew Levinson made a short film in 2008 to champion its status for historical preservation. The issue had a positive resolution in 2010 when the Historical Commission of Pittsburgh granted it Landmark status as the last remaining building of the once famed Film Row. City Council then approved the designation in an 8-1 vote.
The artistic flourishes that exist on this building, from the bas reliefs to the intricate cornices in the picture shown above, just are not done anymore on buildings. Things are sleeker, more cookie-cutter, put up with a speed that does not lend itself to the artistry of working in marble or cut stone.
In 2014, the space was re-opened as a home for burgeoning startups by a group of investors called Pittsburgh Film Exchange, Inc. (PFEX). There is 6,400 square feet of office space on two floors and an 1,800 square foot artistic studio space. When I stopped down to grab a picture for the article, there are six companies featured on the glass door to the entrance off of the Miltenberger Street side of the building, with a dozen plus more listed on the directory inside. It is hoped that the re-purposed Paramount Film Exchange building will jumpstart investment in the Uptown neighborhood of Pittsburgh.