The Skinny Building: an unlikely preservation success story for an unlikely Downtown structure | Community Profile | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Skinny Building: an unlikely preservation success story for an unlikely Downtown structure

The episode is a welcome sign to anyone who wants Pittsburgh to continue to have a unique identity.

Photo by Renee Rosensteel
Narrow is the way: Downtown's Skinny Building, at Forbes and Wood

Historic-preservation battles emerge in the public realm to save old buildings, but every once in a while the fights seem nearly as old as the buildings themselves. The recent announcement by Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation that grant funds will go toward a facade restoration of Downtown's Skinny Building and the adjacent Roberts Jewelers building, at Forbes and Wood, effectively signals a victory in a debate for preservation that dates back 15 years.

In 1999 and 2000, under the administration of Mayor Tom Murphy, a redevelopment plan by Chicago-based developers Urban Retail Properties would have leveled essentially a full city block bounded by Fifth and Forbes avenues, between Wood and Market, with spillovers in various directions. More than 60 old and genuinely historic buildings would have fallen to the wrecking ball, with only a few facades saved. The plan collapsed more from its own dead weight than anything else. When prime tenant Nordstrom pulled out, the entire project stalled.

But a few historic-building all-stars emerged in the Fifth-Forbes debates, none more eccentric than the Skinny Building. Amid Downtown's singular blend of cast iron, Victorian Gothic and neoclassical storefronts of significant architectural pedigree, the Skinny Building earned its appeal because of its width. The 5-foot-2-inch-wide structure was probably built before 1903 (when it appeared on an insurance map), just after the widening of Diamond Alley into Forbes Street. Property owner Hugh McKee found himself with a much narrower piece of land than the one he purchased in 1895. Whether out of irritation or simple persistence, he built the widest structure that the new property lines would allow.

Historical records are uncertain about the use of the upper two floors, accessed by a precarious spiral staircase, but over the years the ground floor has housed successful businesses including a popular lunch counter. The property has changed owners many times; in recent decades it passed through the hands of a few small privately owned real-estate companies. Most recently, it went to the Urban Redevelopment Authority in a $1.3 million package that included the adjacent Roberts building.

As activists in the Fifth-Forbes era, Pat Clark and Al Kovacik became prime figures in advocating for the Skinny Building's reservation. They publicized and re-energized it, using it as a street-facing gallery for images of, variously, graffiti art, vintage strippers and the late sportscaster Myron Cope. Its popularity and notoriety grew. No one has found a building with narrower floors.

Meanwhile, other historic structures seemed to survive and disappear at the behest of banks. PNC helped support the restoration of properties on the south side of Fifth Avenue, but only so it could demolish buildings on the other side of the street. More recently, the Bolan's Candy building at Fifth and Wood, which had been designated by preservationists as one of the most desirable candidates for preservation, fell unceremoniously to the wrecking ball because PNC needed the land for its Tower at PNC Plaza.

So the preservation of the Skinny Building is that much more significant. It is actually possible because of a number of participating parties. PHLF was executing a $4 million state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant to renovate facades on eight Downtown buildings. At the end of the grant, the group had leftover funds. "We went to the city and said, 'Let's do Roberts and the Skinny Building,'" recalls PHLF President Arthur Ziegler.

Of course, that strategy requires having an administration that is particularly sympathetic to historic preservation, which Mayor Bill Peduto clearly is. Development plans involving the Skinny Building and Roberts have not been announced, yet the preservation plan is already in place. That is exactly the reverse of earlier practices. It's a wiser course of action and a welcome sign, not just to preservationists, but to anyone who wants Pittsburgh to continue to have a unique identity. "We want to see preservation work hand-in-hand with development, so we don't have plans to throw away or tear away our past, but [to] develop it and respect it," Peduto has said.

So now Landmarks Design Associates Architects is undertaking the restoration. "It's more like a greenhouse or an enclosed porch than an office building," comments architect Ellis Schmidlapp of the steel-frame structure, whose mostly glass walls are also enclosed with brick and wood.   

The Skinny Building would not be iconic without the efforts of Clark and Kovacik. (Disclosure: Clark is married to CP associate editor Al Hoff.) It would not have available funds without the work of PHLF. It would not have priority of history over real estate without the values of the Peduto administration. Preservation is a battle, not simply of many years, but also of many players.

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By Mars Johnson