“Sharpen your pencil,” Cliff Sutton told Pittsburgh Press reporter Pete Bishop at the Jenkins Arcade in 1982.
It was early November. Sutton and the arcade’s 214 other tenants had received eviction notices just days before — and the Collectors Cabinet shopkeeper had something to say.
“As an individual and native Pittsburgher, I’m very chagrined to see the arcade going because of its historical significance to the community,” Sutton said. “Great effort is being taken to restore other, less historical buildings while what should be the jewel of Renaissance II is being thrown to the wrecking ball.”
“Renaissance II,” a phrase Mayor Richard Caliguiri concocted in 1977, refers to the period in the late 1970s and early 1980s that saw a revitalization of Downtown. New skyscrapers popped up, the city built the T and repaved Grant Street. The era saw the construction — and demolition — that produced many hallmarks of today’s Downtown.
And the Jenkins Arcade — a 70-year-old, seven-story building where Pittsburghers could get their wisdom teeth removed at Dr. William Hall’s oral surgery practice or buy a campaign button from Parker Button Co. — was a casualty of this redevelopment.
In a letter to the editor published in the Post-Gazette on Nov. 12, 1982, Timothy Ward Murphy remembered his days spent at the arcade — getting his first pair of glasses as an “apprehensive boy of seven” and spending time with his father wandering around the arcade during his college years. For Murphy, the arcade’s destruction was when Renaissance II “lost its innocence.”
“[The arcade’s] high ornate ceiling, multiplicity of shops, marble walls and inviting warmth will be replaced by another stark, unimaginative edifice devoid of character.”
A week before Murphy’s letter appeared in the Post-Gazette, the Hillman Co. and the First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Pittsburgh announced plans to build a skyscraper in place of the Jenkins Arcade and the neighboring Jenkins and Empire buildings. The resulting 36-story building is known today as Fifth Avenue Place, and Murphy’s letter wasn’t the only negative publicity the skyscraper plans received in the pages of Pittsburgh’s newspapers.
“The Jenkins Arcade went under the wreckers’ fiat yesterday, soon to make way for another glistening pile of concrete and glass,” Pittsburgh Press columnist Phil Musick wrote on Nov. 2, 1983, a few days after the building was permanently closed. “Some of the town’s roots went with it.”
In Pittsburgh Press photos taken after the demolition, captions say the former arcade site looked like a war zone. “Resembling a scene out of war-torn Beirut is the destruction wrought by demolition men as they raze the Jenkins Arcade, Downtown, to make way for an addition to the city’s skyline.”
Even the people writing captions at the Pittsburgh Press seemed distraught about losing the arcade. And in Musick’s writing, it’s easy to understand why.
Some real charm lived in the Jenkins Arcade. On the floors of the shiniest marble and under a canopy of ceilings trimmed with gilded filigree, the town conducted a sizable bit of its business.
“It’s like a little city all its own,” a dentist once observed.
So it was for 72 years, as much as anyplace Pittsburgh’s commercial pulse, squatting there in dignity and splendor on Stanwix between Liberty and Penn, home to 215 tenants and ceaseless bustle. A workable if not geometric marriage of the Arcade and the Jenkins and Empire buildings.
Some shopkeepers, while still disappointed, understood the reasoning behind the demolition. “It’s a valuable piece of property to have an antiquated building with bad plumbing and bad electricity,” shoe store owner Bill Nofsinger noted in a Nov. 5, 1982 Pittsburgh Press article.
Part of the success of the arcade was due to the relative affordability of the store fronts compared to a suburban mall, for example. That affordability resulted in an abundance of local shops — just six chains filled the 215 spots in the building, according to a Nov. 21, 1984 article in the Post-Gazette.
But many of these local businesses failed after Jenkins closed. Post-Gazette reporter Barry Paris found that 40 percent of the shopkeepers closed permanently or failed to relocate.
Even leading up to its closure, the arcade brought 17,000 daily visitors. Some shopkeepers attributed its success to its accessibility. A Downtown worker could book appointments or shop in the arcade during lunch or after work. Dr. Owen Cantor, a dentist active in trying to save the building, summed up the feeling many shopkeepers and shoppers seemed to have when it was inevitable that the Hillman and First Federal plans would go through.
“They’re murdering a live building,” he said.