The upcoming sale of the historic Downtown Skinny Building has sparked renewed interest in its Jewish ties.
Located at 241 Forbes Avenue, the Skinny Building was built by Louis Hendel, a Jewish fruit and vegetable merchant, who bought the oddly shaped property – it measures 6 feet by 80 feet – from Andrew Mellon in 1918 for $ 65,000. One of the narrowest commercial buildings in the world, the Skinny Building, also known as the Hendel Building, became the property of the Urban Redevelopment Authority in 2013. Now it is set to be sold by URA to Home Town Real Estate LLC, a subsidiary of PNC Bank, for $ 1.3 million.
Initially, Hendel used the space for selling fruit outdoors. Following complaints from local traders that his business was cluttering the sidewalk and violating city ordinances, Hendel built the tiny skyscraper in 1926.
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Marc Houser, a resident of Leet Township and director of news and information at Robert Morris University, researched the history of the Skinny Building for a 2019 conference with the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, as well as the an article in 2020 in Pittsburgh Magazine. Houser discovered that after Hendel finished construction on the building, he rented the top two floors to Clarence Jefferson, a restaurateur.
âFrom what I read in the newspapers at the time, this would have been the only restaurant in the entire downtown area where black people could have a sit-down meal,â Houser said.
A 1928 Pittsburgh Courier article confirmed Houser’s statement and described the opening of the restaurant and Hendel’s support for the black community of Pittsburgh: âThrough his friendship with Mr. Jefferson and the desire to help the colored race , [Hendel] rented this property, ignoring the bitter comments from nearby white businessmen, so we could have a decent place to eat in the city center.
The Courier went on to describe Hendel’s efforts to erect the Roosevelt Theater, formerly located at 1862 Center Avenue, and said that Hendel wanted black people to enjoy seeing talent “in a theater as good as any other” without to be subjected to humiliation.
Hendel, quoted in the Courier, explained his goal: âThe Jew would be treated like the Negro if he had not had the money to make him independent as a race.
In turn, the Courier described Hendel as “a Jew, with a sympathetic understanding of the problems of our race”, and praised him as “a distinguished friend of the race”.
Although “Lincoln” – the Jefferson Restaurant in the Hendel Building – closed in 1931, “Raywell’s”, a meal counter, opened in 1938 and served customers until 1979.
Hendel died in 1945 in Miami Beach, but his story helps fill the historic Pittsburgh tapestry, explained Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives.
In addition to Hendel’s business ventures, he served as president of the New Light Congregation – a biographical oddity given that the congregation was Romanian and Hendel “seems to come from elsewhere in Europe,” Lidji said. Even so, Hendel’s various activities reflect a bygone era. “He was one of that generation of Hill District entrepreneurs who launched into all kinds of businesses, always with interesting results,” Lidji added.
Houser agreed that the Skinny Building is an iconic Pittsburgh landmark – some argue that the Skinny Building is the world’s narrowest building – and that Hendel’s story is an integral part of its history.
It is important, said Houser, for people to remember that long before the civil rights movement swept across the country, there was a “Pittsburgher who played a role in recognizing dignity and humanity. black people â.
Gloria Forouzan, a Lawrenceville resident who previously served as an office manager in Mayor William Peduto’s office, said she was concerned that the upcoming sale of the Skinny Building to PNC could ruin this story.
âWhat do we have to say in this city: ‘This is what we did and this is how we helped the city become what it is?’ Â», Forouzan asked.
Pat Clark, a Bloomfield resident, testified publicly at the URA board meeting on September 9 and later told The Chronicle that he too was concerned with preserving the history of the Skinny Building.
âThe bottom line for me is just to make sure that they address and honor the level, the role, that the place has played in black Pittsburgh history, and that they also make sure that there is demonstrable means – in dollars and cents – that this project can show community equity and social return on investment, âsaid Clark.
At the board meeting on September 9URA Project Manager Adelaide Roddy said URA acts with preservation in mind.
The URA acquired the Skinny Building in 2013 in order to prevent the building from being demolished and to spur downtown growth, Roddy said. Now that PNC has been identified as a viable partner, she continued, URA has found an entity “that is not only interested in activating the space, but wishes to preserve the character of the building” .
PNC, headquartered near the adjacent Skinny and Roberts buildings, intends to use the property as flexible office space for its employees.
âWe want the Roberts and Skinny buildings to be preserved in a way that respects both the history of the city and the history of the buildings, while making them fun, safe and productive places for our employees to come to work. Said Alyssa Sinicrope, Vice President President, Real Estate Developer, PNC Realty Services, at the September 9 meeting. PNC is passionate about “continuing to play an important role in the rejuvenation of the city center through urban renewal,” she added.
As part of the upcoming sale, PNC has agreed to work with an approved third party curator, who will provide advice on modifications to the building.
Sam Williamson, president of URA, said the organization’s goal is “to intervene in our economy, to get results for the people of Pittsburgh that the free market alone will not generate.” A small example of this is when the URA stepped in to acquire this building and save it from wrecking in 2013. Another example is what we could do with the $ 1.3 million the PNC will pay for these buildings. .
Proceeds from the upcoming transaction will be directed towards equitable goals aligned with the URA’s mission, according to Williamson.
âThere are all kinds of outcomes we need to act on, from affordable housing to income equality, to occupational segregation, to the wealth gap – urgent needs that the free market alone clearly does not meet. , and is unable to respond, “he said. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be contacted at [email protected]