Shoehorned into an impossibly tight lot at the corner of Forbes Avenue and Wood Street is one of Pittsburgh’s weirdest urban sights.
The Skinny Building, a vacant storefront that PNC Bank is buying for $1.3 million, along with the larger Roberts Building behind it, from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, is 80 feet long but only 5 feet 2 inches wide. making it arguably the narrowest trade in the world. building. (A store in Vancouver, British Columbia disputes the claim with a footprint just 4 feet, 11 inches deep, but the second story of that building is domed 6 feet.)
In any case, the Skinny Building’s bizarre proportions are only part of its historical significance. Shortly after it opened in 1926, its top two floors housed the Lincoln Restaurant, whose cramped tables for two were the only place downtown where black patrons were allowed to sit for dinner. The building’s original owner, Louis Hendel, was an early civil rights pioneer and a leader of the city’s Jewish community.
“Pittsburgh’s iconic Skinny Building holds an important place in our city’s architectural history and in our city’s Black history. It’s a story worth protecting and remembering,” said Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey.
Gainey joined the URA board in 2014, a year after the city agency purchased the Skinny and Roberts buildings to spare them from possible future demolition. In conjunction with the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, the URA spent nearly half a million dollars to renovate the exteriors of both buildings as part of a larger neighborhood beautification effort.
Last year, PNC quietly made offers to acquire each of the buildings on the block of Wood Street facing its new headquarters. When news of the Skinny Building’s impending sale broke, it raised concerns about the fate of the strange structure. The URA received more public comments on the sale of the Skinny Building – nearly 60 – than on any other agenda item in more than a year.
Gainey and the URA board therefore imposed conditions on the sale. PNC, which declined to comment on the sale as it is still not finalized, has pledged to work with the local preservation group to maintain the facades and ensure that any proposed interior modifications meet the approval of the PHLF and URA. The bank plans to convert the Roberts Building into flexible office space and will use the top two floors of the Skinny Building solely to display artwork in the windows, a purpose for which they have been used in the past.
“What is essentially an impractical building was once practical in our city’s history, and we celebrated it as such,” said PHLF spokesman Karamagi Rujumba. “It is truly an asset that PNC wants to acquire, renovate and utilize while celebrating the history of what makes it a distinctive piece of architecture.”
The Skinny Building was originally the solution to a problem for Hendel, a Central European Jewish immigrant who first settled in Buffalo, New York, before moving to Pittsburgh at the turn of the century.
A grocer in the bustling Diamond Market, now Market Square, Hendel lived in the Hill District, then a melting pot of immigrant and black families. His success led to him being chosen as president of the Oher Chodosh or New Light Synagogue on Roberts Street. At the end of his four-year term in 1916, the congregation presented Hendel with a silver cup of love and congratulated him on eliminating half of his debt.
Two years later, Hendel bought the toothpick-shaped lot along Forbes, then still called Diamond Street, from Andrew Mellon. It was the remaining fragment of a standard plot that had been almost entirely consumed by a street-widening project. Hendel had a large fruit stand on the property, as well as a lunch counter and a cigar stand. His business attracted enough customers that shoppers and pedestrians sometimes spilled onto the road.
City officials took Hendel to court to stop him from obstructing the sidewalk. The legal battle lasted until 1926, when Hendel found a way around the rules against selling on sidewalks: he asked an architect to design a three-story brick and steel structure to replace his stand. fruit, and she got the town’s approval.
Hendel’s bet enraged rival businessman John Donahoe, who had opened a large grocery store next door (decorative Ds can still be seen on its terracotta facade). The day after Hendel obtained planning permission, Donahoe, president of a group calling itself the Diamond Street Sidewalks Association, ran a big ad in The Pittsburgh Press attacking Hendel. “Is this man superior to the law? its title screamed.
Construction continued nonetheless, and soon the shallow storefront was open for business. A canopy over its entrance proudly proclaimed it the Hendel Building. The namesake owner used part of the ground floor for the sale of produce and rented the corner space in Wood Street to a jewelery merchant. This no doubt annoyed the owners of the four-story Roberts Building against which Hendel’s structure was stuck, which was then the brand new showroom and offices of the Roberts & Son family’s jewelry business, which had been operating in the city for nearly a century.
Hendel was clearly not a man who feared confrontation. In 1928, the year he invited black restaurant manager Clarence Jefferson to open the Lincoln as the only unseparated sit-down dining establishment downtown, his Hendel theater companies were building the first movie theater in Pittsburgh where black patrons would not be restricted to the balcony. seats.
The Pittsburgh Courier, the city’s black newspaper, hailed Hendel as a “prominent friend” in a November 10, 1928, article about Lincoln’s Restaurant and its new Roosevelt Theater on Center Avenue in the Hill. The story approvingly quoted Hendel saying, “The Jew would be treated like the Negro if he had not had the money to make him independent as a race.”
Neither the Lincoln nor any other Hendel-backed downtown restaurant lasted long, likely victims of the Great Depression. In 1930, Hendel and his wife, Sadie, moved to Miami Beach, where he briefly ran a hotel, then returned to grocery shopping.
The following year, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted dismissively that the vacant upper floors of the Hendel Building had once housed an “Italian restaurant” that “drew a clientele consisting mostly of the curious.” No mention was made of his service to black diners. The ground floor of the building was eventually turned into a steakhouse called Raywell’s, and when the owners of this establishment advertised in 1950 seeking to hire counters, they specified only two qualifications: experienced and white.
Hendel’s sons took over his Pittsburgh production ventures, while his younger brother and business partner, Harry, focused on running the Roosevelt and other local theaters he and Louis owned. Harry then bought the Pythian Temple – designed by Pittsburgh’s first black architect, Louis Bellinger – on Center Avenue in the Hill and turned it into the New Granada Theater. Its upstairs ballroom was relaunched as the New Savoy, booking top performers of the Big Band era, including Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway.
Harry made enemies like Louis had. According to a June 6, 1931, Courier report, government censors interrupted the premiere of a Roosevelt film, “The Exile,” which controversially showed an interracial kissing scene. Some rivals tried to ruin his reputation by distributing fraudulent leaflets falsely claiming that the Roosevelt had decided to reverse his policy and restrict black guests to the balcony.
But Harry, born and raised in a Buffalo ghetto, was not to be deterred. In 1939, he renovated and opened offices on the upper three floors of the New Granada Theater to a neighborhood program for underprivileged youth. By 1942, the Hill City program was serving 2,600 young people and Hendel was its public champion for the two decades it existed, encouraging friends and acquaintances to see it for themselves and bring their checkbooks.
The Courier adored Harry Hendel as he had for his older brother. “Harry Hendel loves niggers, not because they are niggers, but because he can realize their worth and intelligence,” a 1934 profile concluded.
The Hendel brothers are buried in Beth Shalom Cemetery in Shaler. Many of their old theaters, including the Roosevelt, are gone, as is their old synagogue on Roberts Street. But New Granada is now the centerpiece of a major development project in the Hill District. And now, the future of Skinny Building is assured.
Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish Program and Archives at the Heinz History Center, says the lives of Louis and Harry Hendel are worth exploring. Their experiences provide insight into how immigrant entrepreneurs carved out a place for themselves in a new society and how they and other minorities saw themselves, he says. Lidji hopes the story of the Skinny Building will be further explored and shared.
“People who fall in love with Pittsburgh fall in love with it because around every corner there seems to be an almost incomprehensible oddity, like the Skinny Building,” Lidji says. “The fact that it’s downtown and you can walk past it a million times before you know its meaning, that’s the spirit of Pittsburgh to me.”
Mark Houser is the author of “MultiStories: 55 Ancient Skyscrapers and the Business Tycoons Who Built Them”.