A long abandoned social club in Spring Hill, roughly 2 miles north of downtown Pittsburgh, is getting a new lease on life. Nearly 20 years after the Workingmen’s Beneficial Union, or WBU, closed its doors, it will reopen as an event space and brewery this fall.
On a recent morning, owner Bill Brittain pointed out the few remaining jobs he and a crew of friends have to finish before the 15,000-square-foot site can open to the public: building a handicap-accessible ramp, plumbing in a first-floor bathroom and installing doors.
It’s been more than two years since Brittain bought the former German social club for $70,000. He planned to grow trees and flowers to sell at his primary business, Shadyside Nursery, but it didn’t quite end up that way.
“We didn’t intend on doing this project,” he said. “We actually bought this to put greenhouses up. Somebody had proposed doing the brewery and we didn’t realize what an ordeal it would be and then we just started and it was too late.”
For 90 years, the WBU offered a place to bowl, drink beer, buy insurance or hold a wedding. But Brittain said he thinks new insurance regulations in the 1990s forced the organization to sell its holdings. The WBU held one last party—a flyer for the Y2K bash still hangs in a stairwell—and then shut the doors for good.
The building lay fallow, falling apart and attracting squatters and drugs. Brittain estimated he’s invested more than $200,000 in rehabbing the space.
“When we first had gotten it, it looked like a WWII blown-out building, no roof," he said. "We had to tear out all the floors, all the walls. We had to jack the building up, then we put a new foundation in, then we jacked the second floor up to put the first floor in. This is a major undertaking.”
It didn’t help that in the entire history of the structure it had never been legal: the city had no evidence of its existence, no occupancy permit, nothing, said Brittain. A paper road ran through the site, too, which complicated the process of getting permission to begin construction.
Brittain expects to open in September with indoor games such bocce in the event space. Shadyside Nursery built its business on being warm to the community, and having people feel a part of it, said Brittain; providing community space in Spring Hill felt like a natural extension of that.
“Historically [this] was a really community-oriented space so we’re going to try to continue that legacy,” he added.
Eventually Brittain and his girlfriend, Natasha Dean, will be able to get back to building Rescue Street Farms, the urban farm they co-own on the site.
"It's taken a backseat to the renovations," Brittain said with a laugh.
Tenant Spring Hill Brewing hopes to open in October, pending state approval of their permits.