Locals smacking lips over Wholey's fish

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At least 300 Pittsburghers want Wholey's smiling fish sign to be relocated to the nearby Heinz History Center, but museum president and CEO Andy Masich opposes that idea, saying it would look, well, like a fish out of water.

Mayor Bill Peduto, county Executive Rich Fitzgerald and fishmonger Jim Wholey held a news conference and "smiling fish party" Saturday to announce the results of a monthlong contest to choose a new home for the iconic sign, now on a building at 15th and Smallman streets that Wholey's no longer uses.

The history center, with 301 votes, was the top choice, followed by Mount Washington (260 votes); McKees Rocks, which was the company's first home (188 votes); on or near one of the rivers (131 votes); finding a way to keep the sign at its current location (59 votes); and the Bigelow Boulevard retaining wall (40 votes).

Mr. Peduto said preserving the sign is a way to celebrate the city's heritage as it eyes new development in the Strip and other neighborhoods. "It makes us smile when we see it," said Mr. Peduto, wearing the same Wholey winter hat he wore during President Barack Obama's visit to the area Wednesday.

Mr. Masich, who did not attend the event at Wholey's bustling Penn Avenue store, later said he's honored that "people think of the history center first" when it comes to preserving neighborhood treasures.

"But in this case, I don't think it's the best idea," he said.

Mr. Masich said putting the sign on the history center, blocks from where Wholey's operates its store, would confuse visitors to the neighborhood. And he said the history center, which has a Heinz ketchup bottle on its roof, already has plans to put a mural showcasing Pittsburgh history on a nine-story building it owns next door.

The large illuminated fish sign went up in 1989 on Wholey's cold-storage building, which it hasn't used since about 2007. The new owner, Sampson Morris Group of Monroeville, plans to convert the building, described as a giant icebox, into 144 lofts.

Saying people might be drawn to the "Big Fish Lofts," Mr. Masich suggested the developer consider incorporating the sign into its plans. An architect working with the developer previously said the fish must go.

Mr. Wholey said he'd like to continue talking with Mr. Masich about moving the fish to the history center. If that doesn't pan out, he said, he'll explore the other choices on the list.

Don Orkoskey, president of Neighbors in the Strip, said locating the sign at the history center "makes total sense to me." Hazelwood resident Larry Cullens, who attended the party with his wife, Charlene, said he'd like to see Wholey and Heinz, two names symbolizing Pittsburgh's special flavors, together atop the museum.

But if the Strip doesn't want the sign, other folks do. Taris Vrcek, executive director of McKees Rocks Community Development Corp., said he'd like to bring the sign back to Wholey's 1912 birthplace and use it to showcase efforts to build on the borough's past.

In an email, Mr. Peduto said, "The first choice of the people is Heinz History Center." If that doesn't work out and another city site cannot be secured by March, he said, the fish may go "down river -- back to the original home of Wholey's in McKees Rocks."

Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.

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