The Big Fish and a Big Building: A Historic Pittsburgh Building’s Obituary

By David S. Rotenstein

Introduction

In the summer of 2021, crews began demolishing a historic building in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s Strip District. The building was a monumental, windowless, concrete block onto which a later owner—a fish wholesaler and retailer—had installed a large illuminated fish. The building and its fish were popular and well-loved visual landmarks in turn-of-the-twenty-first-century Pittsburgh.

Situated adjacent to downtown Pittsburgh, the Strip District once was the industrial city’s bustling rail (and later truck) terminal market for fruits and vegetables. The Strip District’s built environment reflected its specialized commercial and industrial character. Completed in 1930, the Federal Cold Storage Company building functioned as a warehouse for incoming produce. After 80 years in service, new owners converted the building to new uses. In 2014 it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing building in the Strip District Historic District. New owners in 2020 secured the necessary regulatory approvals and permits to build a mixed-use development at the site. Unlike an earlier proposal that involved rehabilitating the building, the new project called for demolishing the massive seven-story, concrete structure.

The fraught processes that play out when historic properties like the Federal Cold Storage Company building are slated for demolition highlight the sometimes confusing and contradictory nature of federal, state, and local historic preservation, environmental, land use, and planning laws. The Federal Cold Storage Company building is an ideal case study illustrating many problems with historic preservation planning, and this article offers some solutions to prevent future losses to important places.

The Federal Cold Storage Company Building

Plans for a new seven-story, concrete, cold storage building were unveiled in early 1930. “City Ice & Fuel with headquarters in Cleveland will within the next year construct a $2,500,000 food storage plant in Pittsburgh,” reported the Pittsburgh Press newspaper.[1] The new building would be the capstone to an ambitious modernization and expansion project involving the Pennsylvania Railroad’s produce terminal yards.[2]

Newspaper coverage of new plant plans being filed. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 12, 1930.

Plans for the new facility included creating a subsidiary to the Cleveland company, which by 1929 had grown to own and operate more than one hundred facilities in twenty-one states and Canada.[3] The expansion into Pittsburgh in 1929 crowned a merger and acquisitions spree that the Cleveland firm began in 1922.[4]

The Federal Cold Storage Company was incorporated as a subsidiary of the City Ice and Fuel Company. The Federal Cold Storage Company got its Pennsylvania charter in 1931. Capitalized at $200,000, its charter subscribers included attorneys A.W. McCandless, George F. Hall, and William J. Lappe.  

Newspaper coverage of Federal Cold Storage Company building construction. The Pittsburgh Press, August 19, 1930.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the company hired the Chicago-based Blume-Sinek Company to build the $2.5 million Strip District ice plant and storage facility. Promoters touted the new project as the third-largest cold storage plant in the United States.[5] In a little over a month, construction was well underway. Pittsburgh newspapers reported on a workforce of 500 using new poured concrete construction methods to rapidly raise the city’s “mammoth new refrigerator.”[6]

The building went into service in early 1931. As a central repository for food entering the Pittsburgh market, the Federal Cold Storage Company building was an integral component in the city and region’s supply chain. Labor troubles flared in the spring of 1945 when cold storage warehouse workers in the city staged a strike over the use of non-union workers for loading and unloading trucks. That labor action imperiled the wartime supply chain; one local newspaper published a banner headline, declaring, “Strike Ties Up Food.” The Federal Cold Storage Company facility was one of four plants where several million pounds of food were stranded.[7]

Federal Cold Storage Company building. Pittsburgh City Photographer, April 14, 1955, University of Pittsburgh Archives, City Photographer Collection.

The labor troubles continued into the fall of 1945. They continued to make headlines and were reported on in congressional hearings the following year. Paul Lomeo, a non-unionized McKeesport market owner, made headlines of his own when he tried to retrieve his accumulated produce from the Federal Cold Storage Company building. Unsuccessful, he took the matter to court and endured violent retaliation by organized crime enforcers working on behalf of the Teamsters.[8]

As a key site in the nation and region’s food supply chain, the Federal Cold Storage building played an important role in the events. The strikes and their disruptions to military and civilian food suppliers were part of a complex and historically significant network where legal economic enterprises were inextricably connected to Pittsburgh’s informal vice economies: gambling, extortion, and corruption.  

Historic Preservation’s Regulatory Mix

Since 1966, Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act has been the federal tool by which government agencies and parties receiving federal funds, permits, and licenses are required to identify historic properties, evaluate the effects of their undertakings on historic properties, and resolve the effects if they are found to be adverse. Many states have adopted “Little 106 laws” that model the federal law to protect historic places.[9]

The Federal Cold Storage Company building went through at least one Section 106 consultation in 2016 under the earlier redevelopment proposal that would have used funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That proposal subsequently was withdrawn. A new redevelopment proposal introduced in 2019 didn’t require federal involvement that would have triggered Section 106, but it did activate review provisions under Pennsylvania’s weaker History Act—the state’s “Little 106 law.”[10] To comply, the new owners hired a consultant to “mitigate” the adverse effects as compensation for demolishing the historic building. The mitigation included documenting the building in a written report and in digital photographs.

Federal Cold Storage Company building, illuminated fish detail, September 2019. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

Unlike its federal counterpart, the Pennsylvania law doesn’t have regulatory requirements for stakeholder consultation and transparency. Under Section 106, project proponents are required early in their projects to engage in consultation: “The process of seeking, discussing, and considering the views of other participants, and, where feasible, seeking agreement with them regarding matters arising in the section 106 process.”[11] In federally funded or regulated projects, these consulting parties work with the project proponents to identify historic properties and develop strategies for resolving adverse effects to properties potentially threatened by federally funded or regulated projects.

Very little consultation took place when the decision was made to document the Federal Cold Storage Company building. Though local historic preservation organizations had been contacted as consulting parties under the earlier proposals that would have required compliance with Section 106, the successful proposal didn’t require the same consultation levels. None of the local historic preservation organizations nor the city’s historic preservation planner were at the table when the developers and the state historic preservation office (SHPO) finalized the historic property’s mitigation plan.[12] The process foreclosed on stakeholders’ opportunities to influence the mitigation and provided no oversight or professional review beyond the SHPO for the final product. As a result, the final report ended up parked in a digital file vault accessible only through a portal in the SHPO’s website known as PA-SHARE.

What is Mitigation?

Mitigation is a contested word and process in historic preservation. It first appears in federal regulations implementing Section 106 as one of three potential outcomes when federal undertakings are found to adversely affect properties listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places: avoidance, minimization, and mitigation.[13] The word has become shorthand for any treatment of historic buildings and sites endangered by significant changes to them or demolition. In the world of regulatory compliance historic preservation (frequently known as cultural resource management), mitigation “became a sort of code for salvage.”[14]

In archaeology, mitigation frequently meant excavation. Documentation according to standards developed for the Historic American Building Survey (HABS), Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), and the Historic American Landscape Survey (HALS) became standard mitigation practices after 1966 for buildings, engineering structures, and cultural landscapes. In recent years, there have been shifts underway to create more public engagement in mitigation to create products that benefit the communities where projects destroy important historic places. These include funding museum exhibits, placemaking initiatives, and even heritage festivals.

Old ways die hard in historic preservation, despite the calls for more meaningful consultation and mitigation. Oftentimes, the Section 106 consultation process is truncated by programmatic agreements tailored to the needs of individual agencies and their private sector licensees (e.g., telecommunications companies licensed by the Federal Communications Commission or pipeline companies regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission); other times it is restricted by longtime practice to include only the state historic preservation officers and tribal authorities. This excludes large groups of potential stakeholders, including community members and academic historians. Frequently, the only parties involved in developing mitigation strategies for individual projects are the agencies sponsoring the project (and their regulated parties), consultants, and the state historic preservation office (SHPO).[15]

A Fish Tale of a Mitigation Story

In January 2021 Pittsburgh-based consultant Angelique Bamberg completed a report meant to mitigate the impacts to the Federal Cold Storage Company building. The thirteen-page document includes a “Brief History of the Strip District”; a section on “Grocery Shopping and Storage in the Early Twentieth Century”; a section titled, “The Federal Cold Storage Building”; a section about “Robert Wholey and Company”; a summary of real estate transactions; and a bibliography.[16] Very little of the history outlined above—the Federal Cold Storage Company’s corporate history and the role that the building played in Pittsburgh and national labor history—can be found in the 2021 report. Conspicuously missing are the report’s reason for being produced (i.e., regulatory obligation being fulfilled) and the client sponsoring the work. The only hint that the report was intended to mitigate something is a line entry in the PHMC PA-SHARE database: “Mitigation Report Narrative Wholey Cold Storage.”[17]

Federal Cold Storage Company building mitigation document. PA-SHARE database.

Bamberg’s research relied mostly on prior historic preservation documents, websites, and digitized city directories and maps. She did one interview with a member of the family that bought the business after Federal Cold Storage sold the property. There is no evidence that the consultant interviewed or consulted historic preservation stakeholders or other individuals with primary knowledge about the building’s history prior to its 1980 acquisition by the Wholey company.

The consultant did not cite any historic newspaper, magazine, or trade journal coverage documenting the building’s history or the people who owned it, worked there, and did business inside its thick walls. In fact, despite copious information available in government databases and digital newspaper archives, the consultant was unable to connect the Pittsburgh building to its counterparts and corporate kin in other cities: “Deeds of transfer of the Federal Cold Storage Warehouse on Penn Avenue describe Federal Cold Storage as a Pennsylvania company based in Pittsburgh. It is not clear whether there is a relationship among these Federal Cold Storage warehouses or if the same name is a coincidence.”[18]

An individual can read about the large illuminated fish (installed in 1989) but nothing about the attachment Pittsburgh residents have to the unanticipated visual landmark.[19] “One of the most recognizable buildings in the Strip District—the one with the giant smiling fish on one side—is up for sale after plans to convert it into a 144-unit apartment complex fizzled,” wrote one Pittsburgh reporter in 2018.[20] The photographer who worked with Bamberg to document the building included multiple photos showing the large fish, including one at twilight with the lights illuminated.

Mitigation photograph showing illuminated fish at twilight. Note the watermarks embedded in the image. Photographic documentation typically involves producing photos intended to create an archival architectural record and most federal and state documentation standards prohibit submitting and accepting photographs with marks like these.

There is a lot of history missing from Bamberg’s report, including the central role the building played in the 1945 labor actions that stalled food deliveries to the military and civilian wholesalers and retailers. Readers will not learn about the critically acclaimed mural installation by artist Scott Fertig (who died in 2008 from cancer at age 41) that appears on a Penn Avenue façade. The murals depict a ’57 Chevy owned by one of the artist’s friends. “[Fertig’s] most prominent public artwork is the Times Project Wholey Warehouse Mural of a 1957 Chevy at 16th Street and Penn Avenue in the Strip District,” wrote the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in his obituary.[21]

Scott Fertig murals, November 2021. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

Matthew Craig, executive director of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh, was at the table during the 2016 Section 106 consultations about potential impacts to the Federal Cold Storage Company building. His organization is one of the city’s several default consulting parties in National Historic Preservation Act compliance cases. In those discussions, Craig raised the possibility of preserving or conserving the Fertig murals. Once Section 106 disappeared from the redevelopment and planning mix, Craig and his organization were completely shut out of the process and played no role in the mitigation that ultimately occurred. Planning Department spokesperson Audrey Wells wrote in a November email, “we’ve also discussed this with our Zoning Administrator and Department Director, and neither of them remembers any discussion around preserving/conserving Mr. Fertig’s murals.”[22] The preservationist said in a recent conversation that he was heartsick about the art’s impending loss.[23]

Craig’s organization is one of three citywide groups involved in historic preservation designation, education, and commemoration. Each plays a role in Section 106 consultations and local planning actions, including local landmark designations and redevelopment projects. Email queries about involvement in the Federal Cold Storage Company building project to the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation and Preservation Pittsburgh yielded replies that neither organization had been consulted about the building’s mitigation.[24] Pittsburgh’s Historic Preservation Planner, Sarah Quinn, in emails and a brief telephone conversation, confirmed that historic preservation consultations and mitigation for the Federal Cold Storage Company building were not part of her workload. Quinn is staff of the Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission and advises the Pittsburgh Planning Commission, the city board responsible for reviewing and approving the property’s redevelopment plans.[25] In a subsequent email, Quinn described her role as it relates to the Pittsburgh Planning Commission: “All I do is brief them on historic nominations and answer questions on the nominations. I don’t do anything with projects. There is a staff of about five people that handles that.”[26]

Lots of people were at the table in the discussions about redeveloping the property held in 2018, 2019, and 2020. Pittsburgh Planning Commission records posted at its website include slides that the developer submitted outlining “Meetings with Community Stakeholders” between 2018 and 2019. The organizations included Strip District neighborhood organizations, the citywide Bike Pittsburgh organization, and various city and county government agencies. No meetings with historic preservation stakeholders appear in the documents. Reporter Rich Lord covered the redevelopment hearings for Pittsburgh Public Source. He did not recall hearing any discussions of the building’s status as a historic property: “Neither my notes nor my reporting include any indications of discussion of its history.”[27]

Pennsylvania Deputy SHPO Andrea MacDonald referred to the stakeholder lists incorporated into the developer’s PowerPoint presentations to the Pittsburgh Planning Commission. She acknowledged in an interview conducted November 4, 2021, that no historic organizations were included in the local stakeholder lists.

Federal Cold Storage Company building, September 2021. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

Bait for Better Mitigation

So how did the Federal Cold Storage Company building go from being a historically significant building worthy of stakeholder consultation and meaningful mitigation under one regulatory review regime to something else subject to different standards and rules? And, why did the final regulatory review yield such a perfunctory, inaccessible, and inaccurate mitigation? Perhaps the most important question in search of an answer is: How can cities prevent these situations and ensure that beloved and important buildings, sites, and spaces are protected and that stakeholders are at the table in redevelopment proceedings?

The Federal Cold Storage Company building case raises important questions in historic preservation and urban planning policies. What happened in the proceedings leading up to the building’s demolition and the site’s redevelopment offers observers an opportunity to consider what might have happened differently to the building and its history. Good, inclusive mitigation is possible in historic preservation. Barbara Frederick, a Pennsylvania SHPO historian, wrote a thoughtful blog post about “meaningful mitigation” for the agency. It detailed the Pennsylvania agency’s new guidance that included taking into account the public benefits of mitigation efforts. Even with its call for creative outcomes, including educational programs, Frederick underscored that mitigation occurs after “a building has been adequately documented.”[28]

In the case of the Federal Cold Storage Company building, its mitigation turned on the building’s history. Adequately documenting that history might have gone a long way towards mitigating its loss by educating people about why it was important locally, regionally, and nationally. For more than 80 years, the building comprised a highly visible part of Pittsburgh’s urban fabric and its thick concrete walls held lots of substantive stories important in the city’s history.

Casting a wider public participation net, as Frederick suggested, is one step. Another is better integration of municipal and county planning agency staff. Many jurisdictions like Pittsburgh have planning and historic preservation staff employed in the same agency. But, as this case illustrates, unless there is a clearly defined regulatory requirement for an agency’s historic preservation planning staff to be involved in a development project, there is no crossover—even when a building that is widely recognized as “historic” in legal, regulatory, and vernacular terms  is involved. Better communications and better collaborations inside planning agencies and with the general public could avoid outcomes like what happened in Pittsburgh.


David Rotenstein is a public historian and folklorist living in Pittsburgh. He frequently writes on historic preservation and gentrification and is working on a social history of numbers gambling in Pittsburgh.

Featured image (at top): Demolition underway at the Federal Cold Storage Company building, November 2021. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.


[1] “City Ice & Fuel Co. Plans Warehouse,” Pittsburgh Press, February 26, 1930.

[2] “Huge Storage Plant Planned for Foodstuff,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 26, 1930.

[3] “City Ice and Fuel Operates 115 Plants,” Pittsburgh Press, August 6, 1929.

[4] “Ice Companies in $2,500,000 Merger Deal,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 2, 1929.

[5] “Permit Asked for $2,500,000 Plant in City,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 12, 1930.

[6] “Concrete Wall Is Poured Here by New Method,” Pittsburgh Press, August 30, 1930.

[7] Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, May 16, 1945.

[8] James John Lomeo, From the Ice to the Fire: A Sicilian Immigrant’s Death Struggle with Pittsburgh Politics, The Teamsters, and Mafia, Kindle edition (2014).

[9] The Section 106 regulatory process is detailed in the rules implementing the law published at 36 CFR Part 800. For a description of “Little 106 laws,” see Julia Miller, A Layperson’s Guide to Historic Preservation Law: A Survey of Federal, State, and Local Laws Governing Historic Preservation (Washington, DC: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2008), 7; Rebecca S. Schoen, “Confronting the Appalachian Breakdown: Historic Preservation Law in Appalachia and the Potential Benefits of Historic Preservation for Rural Communities Student Works,” West Virginia Law Review 110, no. 3 (2008): 1343, 1346.

[10] Pennsylvania History Code, Title 37, Consolidated Statutes.

[11] “Protection of Historic Properties,” 36 CFR §800.16.

[12] Emails with the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, Preservation Pittsburgh, and Young Preservationists Association; telephone conversation with Pittsburgh Historic Preservation Planner Sarah Quinn, October 28, 2021. A Pittsburgh City Planning Department spokesperson confirmed this in an email: “In this most recent appearance, there is nothing listed in our minutes about historic preservation,” Audrey Wells, email to David S. Rotenstein, November 9, 2021.

[13] 36 CFR §800.1.

[14] Thomas F. King, Anthropology in Historic Preservation: Caring for Culture’s Clutter, Studies in Archeology (New York: Academic Press, 1977), 36.

[15] Chris Castaneda, “Natural Gas Pipelines and the National Historic Preservation Act,” The Public Historian 26, no. 1 (2004): 105–21; Thomas F. King, Places That Count: Traditional Cultural Properties in Cultural Resource Management, Heritage Resources Management Series, v. 6 (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2003); Thomas F. King, Our Unprotected Heritage: Whitewashing the Destruction of Our Natural and Cultural Environment (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2009); Thomas F. King, Cultural Resource Laws & Practice, 3rd ed., Heritage Resources Management Series (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2008).

[16] Angelique Bamberg, “A History of The Federal Cold Storage/Wholey’s Warehouse,” Mitigation Report (Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, January 2021).

[17] PA-SHARE, https://share.phmc.pa.gov/pashare/resources/view/5743213?resourceTab=summary, accessed October 28, 2021.

[18] Bamberg, “A History of The Federal Cold Storage/Wholey’s Warehouse,” 6.

[19] Bamberg, “A History of The Federal Cold Storage/Wholey’s Warehouse,” 10.

[20] Mark Belko, “For Sale, Again: That Building in the Strip with the Big Fish Sign on the Side,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 21, 2018, https://www.post-gazette.com/business/development/2018/03/21/For-sale-again-That-building-in-the-Strip-with-the-big-fish-sign-on-the-side/stories/201803210069.

[21] I am indebted to Matthew Craig of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh for telling me about the murals and their history. “57 Chevy Mural by Scott Fertig,” Pittsburgh Murals and Public Art (blog), January 9, 2016, https://pghmurals.blogspot.com/2016/01/57-chevy-mural-by-scott-fertig.html; Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb, “Scott A. Fertig, 41; Arlington Artist,” Washington Post, May 6, 2008, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/05/AR2008050502452.html; Anya Sostek, “Obituary: Scott Alan Fertig / Talented Caricaturist Known for Practical Jokes,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 8, 2008, https://www.post-gazette.com/news/obituaries/2008/05/08/Obituary-Scott-Alan-Fertig-Talented-caricaturist-known-for-practical-jokes/stories/200805080465.

[22] Wells email to Rotenstein, November 9, 2021.

[23] Matthew Craig, personal communication, October 28, 2021.

[24] Melissa McSwigan to David S. Rotenstein, “Re: 1501 Penn/Federal Cold Storage Building,” October 27, 2021; Karamagi Rujumba, “Re: 1501 Penn/Federal Cold Storage Building,” October 28, 2021.

[25] Sarah Quinn, personal communication, October 28, 2021.

[26] Sarah Quinn to David S. Rotenstein, “Re: Your Comments in Article on Federal Cold Storage Building,” November 5, 2021. City planning staff responsible for the redevelopment review did not respond to emailed questions about historic preservation stakeholder involvment in the redevelopment reviews.

[27] Rich Lord, personal communication, September 23, 2021; email, October 27, 2021.

[28] Barbara Frederick, “Section 106 Consultation: 5 Steps to Meaningful Mitigation Outcomes,” Pennsylvania Historic Preservation (blog), December 25, 2013, https://pahistoricpreservation.com/section-106-consultation-meaningful-mitigation-outcomes/.

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