Friendship Circle ties Squirrel Hill’s past with a ‘celebration of connections to come’

Friendship Circle ties Squirrel Hill’s past with a ‘celebration of connections to come’

Construction is underway for Friendship Circle, an organization dedicated to helping children and young adults with special needs. (Renderings provided by Bravo Group, Inc.)
Construction is underway for Friendship Circle, an organization dedicated to helping children and young adults with special needs. (Renderings provided by Bravo Group, Inc.)

The transformation of the former Gullifty’s restaurant into a multimillion-dollar home for the Friendship Circle has become an archaeological dig of sorts, revealing a mini-history of Squirrel Hill.

A 1937 edition of The Forward, in Yiddish, was found packed in the concrete. A revealed steel beam displays the name “Levinson Steel,” a locally owned steel company — once one of the most prominent in the country — that went out of business decades ago. An Isaly concession cup, a remnant of the time when the building at 1922 Murray Ave. housed a movie theater, was discovered pressed into a wall.

Old ticket windows and a wall-marking stating “Quiet Please” have been unearthed as well.  

“You see these things and you realize the history of Squirrel Hill,” said Rabbi Mordy Rudolph, who has been running the Friendship Circle with his wife, Rivkee, since its inception in 2006.

It is that history that Friendship Circle wants to share and help create going forward, Rudolph said, making the organization’s new location the perfect spot to continue to foster meaningful and lasting relationships between teens and children with special needs.

Friendship Circle’s plan is to “interact with the neighborhood,” Rudolph said, and to provide a “welcoming environment” to the community at large.

Construction began last week on the $4 million project, which will provide 9,000 square feet of indoor space as well as 2,000 square feet of usable rooftop space. In addition to housing the organization’s offices and ongoing programs, the new building will offer new opportunities for participants to interact with and provide services for its neighbors.

The building will have a pickup window, for example, from which the group could sell homemade challahs, or lemonade in the summer, Rudolph said. A gift-shop area, which could also serve as an art gallery, will also be incorporated into the space.

Friendship Circle has been growing rapidly since its launch, and its needs have surpassed the 1,200 square feet of space it now occupies on Northumberland Street, said Rudolph. There is currently a wait-list of about 30 children with special needs who would like to participate in the organization’s programs.

“Friendship Circle began eight years ago with about a dozen volunteers and a desire to remove barriers for children with special needs,” said Chuck Perlow, a founding board member and co-chair of the capital campaign. “Today, this vibrant program works through nearly 300 active teen volunteers and more than 120 friends who are no longer defined by their disabilities. This unique space will be a celebration of the dramatic connections created and those yet to come.”  

The new space is scheduled to open in August 2015, Rudolph said. The first floor of the building will include a storefront with glass windows along the Murray Avenue front of the venue; a multipurpose space with a performance stage; a teen lounge; and a working kitchen for cooking clubs and other potential programs. The second floor will house work pods to allow youth with special needs to actively participate in the planning processes of the Friendship Circle; a play space for younger children; a parent lounge, and executive office and conference room space for staff.

On the roof, the plans call for a garden and recreational space.

There are more than 60 Friendship Circle organizations around the world, but the space being developed to house the Pittsburgh affiliate is unique in its concept, Rudolph said.

While the affiliate in Detroit has a full-service center it calls Life Town that offers myriad opportunities for special-needs children and volunteers — including a nail salon and a movie theater — that center is “still isolated,” Rudolph noted.

“We have an existing Life Town on Murray Avenue,” he said. “We want to work with the stores that are already here and make them more accessible. That was our thought with putting our building here. We don’t want to isolate our members. That would defeat the purpose of what we’re here for. We want to bring those together who wouldn’t necessarily meet.”

Rudolph sees the expansion of Friendship Circle as being beneficial to all its stakeholders.

“It gives teens a meaningful Jewish opportunity,” he said. “It will enhance Squirrel Hill. And it will benefit those with special needs.”

While some of the programming that will occur in the new facility already has been planned, the leadership of Friendship Circle is purposefully leaving room for the development of new ideas and activities.

“We want to listen to parents, teens, staff and let it evolve,” Rudolph said. “That’s what’s gotten us here.”

Working on the new venue are architects Perfido Weiskopf Wagstaff and Goettel, and construction manager John Paul Busse of F.J. Busse Company.  Stuart Horne, an architect with Seigle Solow Horne and former Friendship Circle board member, is helping to oversee the project. The new venue will be completely ADA compliant, with metered parking behind the building as well as metered on-street parking.  

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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