URA buys Pittsburgh's 'skinny building' and its plumper neighbor

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It's a splendid splinter of a building, perhaps the only one Downtown with its own Facebook page, and it soon will be in the hands of a new owner.

The city's Urban Redevelopment Authority is poised to pay a hefty price -- $1.3 million -- to acquire the Skinny Building at 241 Forbes Ave. as well as its stouter neighbor, the John M. Roberts & Son building at 429-431 Wood St., with plans to restore the facades of both.

URA board members are expected to vote on the acquisition from Garland Real Properties Inc. at a meeting Thursday.

The Skinny Building, a mere 5 feet 2 inches wide and 80 feet long, is considered by some enthusiasts to be the world's thinnest building. Dating back to the early 1900s, it at one time was home to a lunch counter whose customers sat on stools with their backs to Forbes. More recently, the windows on its two upper floors were a showcase for provocative art.

A decade ago, architect Albert Kovacik and a colleague, Pat Clark, tried to get the building listed as the world's skinniest over Vancouver's Sam Kee Building, which claimed the honor with a base of 4 feet, 11 inches and a 6-foot-wide second floor.

Mr. Kovacik said Tuesday he was never able to find a category in the Guinness Book of World Records or Ripley's Believe It or Not for the world's thinnest building. But he's still thinks the Vancouver building is downright plump compared to the Skinny Building. "It's clearly not as skinny as the Skinny Building," he said.

Both the Skinny and Roberts buildings sit in the heart of the Fifth and Forbes retail corridor across the street from the $400 million Tower at PNC Plaza skyscraper under construction and a block from refurbished Market Square, with its vibrant restaurant scene.

Yarone Zober, URA board chairman and chief of staff to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, said the intent in buying the structures is to refurbish the facades of both and to convert the upper floors of the Roberts building into residential or other uses, perhaps in partnership with another developer.

"It's an important step in our continuing transformation of Downtown Pittsburgh," he said. "Clearly there's a lot of activity going on in the corridor. We've done a lot of work to make that corridor a real attraction."

The Roberts Building is home to a 7-Eleven convenience store, while the Skinny Building houses Fello-Cire Apparel, which sells caps, hats, shirts, long johns, watches, jewelry, sunglasses and other items. Mr. Zober said both retailers have leases and would remain in place.

Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, said both facades are in need of work. He described the Skinny Building as a "remarkable architectural vestige. It certainly should be saved and utilized." Inside, the roof leaks and there's no heat, Mr. Kovacik said.

As part of the acquisition, the URA intends to issue a request for proposals for a public art project for the Skinny Building. For a time during the last decade, Mr. Kovacik and Mr. Clark used the windows in the Skinny Building as an arts venue, including a salute to burlesque queens.

"I'm really glad it's going to be preserved. It's an amazing venue. It's like an inside out art venue. It's the only art gallery in town where you don't have to go inside. Just stand outside and look up," Mr. Kovacik said.

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Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com First Published March 12, 2013 5:00 PM


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