The Hendel Building
Also Known As Pittsburgh's "Skinny Building"
The Hendel Building, commonly known in downtown Pittsburgh as the Skinny Building, located along Forbes Avenue at Wood Street, is another of our city's unusual and unique attractions. At only 5'2" (1.57 meters) wide it is one of the narrowest commercial buildings in the world. Although it is not acknowledged as such, many people contend that the Hendel Building is the "skinniest" commercial structure on the globe.
The story of the Skinny Building begins in 1903, the City of Pittsburgh confiscated thirty feet of throughway from several property owners to widen Diamond Way into what is now Forbes Avenue. Given that the standard parcel size was thirty-six feet wide, there wasn't much left to build on, so most property owners sold off the remaining six-foot wide fragments to the city to widen the sidewalks.
In 1907, Andrew Mellon purchased a six-foot wide parcel of land at the corner of Forbes Avenue and Wood Street. He hoped the city would widen the street further and offer him a profit on his investment. The city was not interested, and in 1918 Mellon sold the parcel to fruit merchant Louis Hendel.
For reasons that were never completely understood, Hendel eventually built the very narrow, three-story building on the parcel in 1926. Some speculate that he erected the structure partly out of spite for neighboring business owners who complained about him obstructing the sidewalk with his street-side open-air fruit market.
Due to the building's impractical dimensions, 80' long by 5'2" wide, the second and third floors, accessed via a narrow spiral staircase, have not seen much use, but the ground floor has housed a number of different businesses over the years. Aside from Hendel's fruit store, the first tenants were a cigar store at ground level and the Lincoln Restaurant on the second and third floors.
The restaurant closed in 1931, and from then on the upper floors did not see much use. The ground floor, however, has seen a number of different tennants over the years. The most successful of these was Raywell's Diner, a lunch counter that operated from 1938 to 1979.
Patrons sat on stools with their backs to the street, facing a narrow counter with about eighteen inches of space behind it for the employees. It was too narrow for the two waitresses to pass each other and the small grill was installed in the corner. Despite these challenges, the business thrived for forty years.
Brookline's Ollie Jedlick remembers the allure of Raywell's at lunch time:
"The griddle was behind the window facing Wood Street. About 9:30 or 10:00 the whole griddle was covered with onions and peppers cut up and being sauteed for the burgers. The ventilation fans would channel the aroma out to the street so that there wasn't an empty chair at the counter by 10:15. Soon folks would be standing on the sidewalk waiting for a seat to come open. This went on until about 2:00."
Several other vendors occupied the ground floor in the twenty years that passed until the new millenium when, in 2000, during a move to spur development along the Fifth-Forbes corridor, Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy threatened to seize the property, using eminent domain, and hand it over to developers. That plan was eventually abandoned.
In 2001, community activists turned the upstairs windows into an outward-facing art gallery displaying "images of, variously, graffiti art, vintage strippers, Pittsburgh Steeler greats and the late sportscaster Myron Cope. The Hendel Building was listed in 2013 as a contributing property in the Fourth Avenue Historic District, expanded to include Forbes Avenue.
That same year, the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority bought the building, along with the neighboring Roberts Jewelers building, for $1.3 million. The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation used leftover money from a state grant to renovate the exteriors of both buildings. As of 2015, a clothing vendor occupies the ground floor.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Pittsburgh's "Skinny Building" is arguably the narrowest in the world. This fact, however, has never been officially acknowledged because, in Vancouver, British Columbia, there is a structure called as the Sam Key Building that is currently listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the shallowest commercial building.
It is true that the Key Building is only 4'11" at ground level, but overhangs and bay windows on the upper floors reach out as far as six feet. The Hendel, or Skinny Building in downtown Pittsburgh never exceeds 5'2" wide from top to bottom.
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