Downtown Pittsburgh's Skinny Building to be restored to its original state

The restoration of the “Skinny Building” may stand as a weighty symbol of a broader strategy to emphasize historic preservation citywide and a new approach to retail Downtown.

In announcing the makeover of what some consider the world’s thinnest building and its bulkier neighbor Thursday, Mayor Bill Peduto said he intends to use historic preservation as a “critical tool” in economic development.

“Where we’re using government funds, where we’re expending taxpayer dollars, we’re expecting developers not to put into the trash heap the history of the city of Pittsburgh but polish it up and save it,” he said.

Mr. Peduto said he sees preservation as a key component of both neighborhood development efforts and large-scale projects like the Strip District’s produce terminal. He said he still regrets the decision to tear down the Civic Arena several years ago.

“I don’t want to lose a large institution like that during my term as mayor but I also don’t want to see neighborhood business districts be demolished so that a drug store with a big parking lot can move in,” he said.

PG graphic: Skinny Building
(Click image for larger version)

At the same time, the mayor outlined a new retail strategy for Downtown, one that draws on regional retailers and restaurateurs rather than national chains. The goal, he said, is to make Downtown “Western Pennsylvania’s living room.”

Mr. Peduto said he sees great potential for such an approach on Wood and Smithfield streets where he said there are smaller storefronts that can be filled quickly.

He made it clear that he prefers local and regional vendors with their own unique niches to cookie-cutter national chains.

“That would be a loss for this city and this region that we weren’t showcasing what we already have here but instead just becoming Anywhere USA,” he said.

Jeremy Waldrup, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, said Mr. Peduto is “spot on” in his vision. He noted that the explosion of restaurants Downtown in the last few years has been driven largely by local and regional restaurateurs.

“I think it’s definitely aligned with Downtown stakeholders and their interests as well. When you look at the national retail market, it certainly looks as if boutiques and smaller stores are definitely where you’re seeing growth,” Mr. Waldrup said.

Likewise, John Valentine, executive director of the Pittsburgh Downtown Community Development Corp., said he supports the mayor’s strategy. It creates more of an “urban village” and helps to separate Downtown from “everybody else,” he said.

If there is an obstacle, it is that many landlords prefer national chains because they see them as more credit worthy, Mr. Valentine said.

“I think it’s an obstacle but I don’t think it’s something that can’t be overcome,” Mr. Waldrup said, adding it’s nice to have landlords like the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation “who are a little more patient and who are willing to take a risk.”

Mr. Peduto outlined his vision as he and the landmarks foundation announced plans to restore to their original luster the so-called Skinny Building at Forbes Avenue and Wood Street and the John M. Roberts & Son building next door as part of a Downtown preservation project funded by a $4 million state grant. The PHLF is overseeing the effort.

The buildings will join the Italian Sons and Daughters Building on the south side of Forbes and Wood, three cast iron buildings at 418 to 422 Wood, several buildings at Wood and Fifth Avenue anchored by Kashi Jewelers, and the Thompson Building in Market Square as those that have been renovated with the help of the state money.

With the construction of the new PNC office high rise and the Gardens at Market Square office and hotel development nearby, the rehabbed buildings will have a chance to become “special places” in Downtown’s revitalization, Mr. Peduto said.

The Skinny Building, all of 5 feet 2 inches wide and 80 feet long, is considered by some enthusiasts to be the world’s thinnest building. It dates to the early 1900s and has been used over the years as a lunch counter, a produce stand, a cookie shop, a jewelry store, and a hair salon. The street-level open-air retail space currently is used by a vendor that sells T-shirts, hats and other items.

As part of the rehab, the three-story building’s exterior, with its tile roof, tin detailing and wooden columns, will be restored along with missing or damaged architectural details. The structure also will be extended its full length to the corner of Wood.

Arthur Ziegler, president of the history and landmarks foundation, said the open-air part of the building will remain in place. “We want to have this open-air Manhattan-style market stay,” he said.

The empty second and third floors of the building are too narrow to be inhabited, Mr. Ziegler said, and may end up being used as display areas or become part of the adjacent Roberts Building, whose vacant upper floors could be turned into offices or apartments.

At the Roberts Building, which houses a 7 Eleven convenience store, PHLF plans to bring back the original marquee. The facade also will be cleaned and pointed and the trim will be painted.

Mr. Ziegler said the work on the two buildings, expected to cost about $550,000, will start within several weeks.

Read about Pittsburgh’s skinniest building in “The Digs”

Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262.

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