Amateur historian Robert Ketcham, standing outside Braddock’s Ohringer building, told a crowd of local and state officials, artists and community members about the legacy of Abe Ohringer.
“We would not be here today if not for Abe Ohringer, who passed through Ellis Island in December of 1905 when he was 16 years old with $10 in his pocket,” said Ketcham, a photographer who worked with developer Greg Kander on the revitalization of The Ohringer, which is now an artist’s residence.
The Ohringer was recently added to the National Registry of Historic Places. Those gathered at the Oct. 22 event were there to witness Kander unveil a plaque recognizing the building’s new status as a historic landmark.
Ketcham recounted Abe Ohringer’s early years — the Jewish immigrant left his home in the Austrian Empire before settling in the Rust Belt city, 10 miles upstream from the mouth of the Monongahela. Like many who were new to the country in the early part of the last century, Ohringer’s start was humbling. He swept floors at his brother Leo’s furniture store.
The future entrepreneur met his wife and partner, Helen Stern, before starting his own furniture company. His business was a success, and in 1941, he erected the Ohringer building on the corner of Braddock and 7th avenues to house it.
Among those in attendance were Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald; Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman; and Ken Doyno, president of the architecture firm Rothschild Doyno Collaborative, who all spoke of their involvement with the project and its significance to the community.
The current residents of The Ohringer, all artists, joined the celebration. A guitarist serenaded those in attendance; two visual artists painted portraits that were given away to community members; and a spoken word artist presented a piece between official pronouncements.
For Kander, this was more than a victory lap. He became involved in Braddock several years ago, after being offered some advice from a friend of his then-girlfriend, now fiancée, Anna Hollis: “The next time someone comes to you to get involved in a community, you should do it.”
Remarkably, the Squirrel Hill resident had the opportunity to act on that advice the next day when he learned of the efforts of chef Kevin Sousa’s new restaurant project, Superior Motors, and Braddock’s then-mayor John Fetterman’s efforts to revitalize the borough.
“I’m a Jewish kid from Queens who came here and never had a reason to go to Braddock,” Kander said.
Despite not knowing the borough, Kander was intrigued by the possibility of helping a community the right way — thinking first of the residents and new job opportunities. He decided to get involved.
“It’s not about displacing, it’s about including,” Kander said. “I went in with that knowledge and all I’ve learned about systematic racism the past seven years. I was really a man on a mission to use my privilege to help an underserved community.”
Superior Motors opened with a lot of goodwill and press but has been shuttered since the pandemic forced its closure. Chef and part-owner Sousa recently left the restaurant to start a new business, leaving many in the community feeling betrayed by his departure.
Kander — who views both Superior Motors and The Ohringer as pieces to a puzzle he’s trying to build that will eventually revitalize all of Braddock — sees Sousa’s contributions differently.
“If there was no Kevin Sousa, there would be no Ohringer building, and if we didn’t do the Ohringer building, the trade school that’s being built by a minority contractor wouldn’t have happened, and a hair salon wouldn’t have opened down the block, and Al Boss [an optician] wouldn’t have agreed on his new façade, and the Levitt Building wouldn’t have just gone under agreement. So, he got me there,” Kander said.
Kander partnered with architecture firm Rothschild Doyno Collaborative to redesign the building. He credits the firm with bringing his vision to the next level.
“I would have just put in these rectangle boxes as units,” Kander said. “They designed these elaborate units; each one is different with long windows and great views, so it was a home run on that front.”
The firm’s renovation of the building recently won two awards from the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
“These types of projects mean that anything can happen, especially if you’re willing to work hard and you believe in it and build consensus around it,” architect Robert Tuñón said. “There aren’t many buildings like this, and there aren’t many projects that focus on building community, especially around the arts. For the community, this is a huge accomplishment based on many years of work that went in before any construction started.”
“We see the seeds of growth coming — I do anyway — in Braddock,” the county executive said. “We see it in Rankin, we see it in Swissvale, as you come further down the valley, Hazelwood Green. It’s going to keep spreading out, in my mind. Neighborhoods like this, communities like this, which are still affordable in some ways, are places where people can come, whether it’s a coffee shop or restaurant or tech center. Different businesses, I think, are going to continue to grow here.”
Fetterman, who is currently running to fill the Senate seat to be vacated by Pat Toomey, said the building’s redevelopment is personal.
“I got my start here,” Fetterman said. “I was on the third floor of this building. I always felt a really strong connection to it. The work that Greg has done is astonishing, it really is.”
Thomas E. Lippard, who is married to Abe and Helen Ohringer’s granddaughter Susan, attended the ceremony as a surrogate for the family. He called the redevelopment of the building “extraordinary.”
“It’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “Greg Kander created magic here. They’re reinventing Braddock.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com