Pittsburghers love a good rivalry and some say the Skinny Building in Downtown is the skinniest building in the world. At 5 feet 2 inches wide, it may be thinner than the Sam Kee Building in Vancouver, which is 4 feet, 11 inches at its base and 6 feet wide on its second floor.
In the decade that began with 2000, the Skinny Building’s 24 large windows became a great space for visual exhibitions devoted to burlesque queens, the Pittsburgh Steelers and sportscaster Myron Cope. Located just beyond Market Square at 241 Forbes Ave., it is the home of a clothing vendor. The skinny structure snuggles up to its stouter neighbor, the John M. Roberts & Son building. The facades of both structures will soon undergo historic restoration. Both buildings are directly across the street from the $400 million Tower at PNC Plaza skyscraper that is under construction.
Earlier this month, Post-Gazette business writer Mark Belko reported that the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority plans to pay $1.3 million for the Skinny Building and its neighbor, the John M. Roberts & Son building, former home of a respected jeweler.
The Skinny Building was built around 1901. Albert Kovacik, a local architect who helped stage a series of public art exhibitions there, said it once held a lunch counter with an aisle and a row of stools along Forbes Ave. The space was so narrow that food was prepared on the second floor, where some of the stainless steel counters remain. To see a picture of the lunch counter, check out The Skinny Building’s Facebook page.
A check of Pittsburgh’s old maps shows that Andrew W. Mellon, a member of the famous banking family, owned the Skinny Building as of 1914. From 1921 to 1932, he served as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.
While its architect is unknown, the Skinny Building is made of wood, brick and marble. Pittsburgh architect George Rowland designed its neighbor, the John M. Roberts & Son building, a monumental, five-story structure that has a Beaux-Arts facade and dates to 1925.
Buildings in the two blocks of Wood St. that stretch from Fifth Ave. to Fourth Ave. are part of the newly expanded Fourth Ave. National Register District. The Skinny Building and the John M. Roberts building are “contributing structures” in that district.
One recent restoration uncovered the beauty of the Italian Sons and Daughters of America building, located at Wood St. and Forbes Ave. Ugly orange aluminum cladding was removed, revealing glorious stone work, carved eagles and narrow original windows. Across from the ISDA Building are three cast-iron buildings from the 1880s that were once owned by Henry Clay Frick. Those facades are being restored. A facelift is under way at the Fifth Wood Building, which houses Kashi Jewelers and was designed in 1922 by George Swan.
To see how the Skinny Building has changed, visit the PG’s Pittsburgh Then and Now page.