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Restaurant work uncovers Arsenal treasures

| Friday, Feb. 22, 2013, 9:05 p.m.
Jeff Catalina (left) and Jason Carr (right) hold old checks found in a space in the old Arsenal Bank building in Lawrenceville that is undergoing remodeling on Friday February 22, 2013. The check date to the 1897-1899 era. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Old checks found in a space in the old Arsenal Bank building in Lawrenceville that is undergoing remodeling on Friday February 22, 2013. The check date to the 1897-1899 era. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

When Jeff Catalina began renovations on his new Lawrenceville restaurant, he hired a professional locksmith to open the six safes original to the building's former home, Arsenal Bank of Pittsburgh.

It took the locksmith two days to open them all, and each was empty. Turns out, the real treasure was tucked away in a long-forgotten box in the attic. Inside the box, found by a construction worker Thursday, were more than 500 handwritten checks dating to the 1890s.

“It was just exciting,” said Catalina, 39, owner of Tender Bar + Kitchen. “We're trying to let the history of the building shine through in this concept. The more history we can bring to the forefront, the better.”

Tender will open in mid-March at 4300 Butler St. as an American cocktail lounge and restaurant with a “Gatsby-esque” vibe, Catalina said.

Tender draws inspiration and its name from the Arsenal Bank building it occupies, which served the Lawrenceville community for decades. According to the neighborhood's historical society, the bank organized in 1872. By 1913, it showed total resources of nearly $1.2 million. It survived the Great Depression and merged into what is now PNC Bank in the 1940s. “It was always a solvent bank,” Lawrenceville historian James Wudarczyk said. “It was a relatively small bank.”

Carol Peterson, architectural and community historian, said the building was built in 1883-4 for $17,000 and was a bank until 1943. It was home to a real estate office from then until 1980, then housed a series of small businesses, including a rug shop and gift store. Botero Development, a firm dedicated to rejuvenation of the Lawrenceville community, bought the building about two years ago, she said.

The rectangular checks vary in color from faded white to blue and show scrawling penmanship noting each transaction's date, amount and recipient name. They are stamped as paid in either blue and red. Most are written for amounts under $10, which would amount to about $250 today. Some are in the hundreds.

Wudarczyk would not speculate on the checks' value.

The find fits perfectly with Catalina's mission to maintain as much history of the space as possible. Marble wainscoting removed from the walls now serves as the 18-seater bar in the eatery's main dining area. Red wallpaper with golden accents reach to the room's ceiling, creating an atmosphere of casual sophistication.

An exposed piece of the wall in a corridor leading to another dining area shows the bank vault's security system, dating to 1932. Catalina intends to cover that with Plexiglass so diners can see it.

The basement, formerly a barber shop, will serve as a third dining room.

Tender's menu offers plates representing cuisine from all regions of America, like fried green tomatoes from Alabama and scrapple from Philadelphia. A team of trained professionals will focus on craft cocktails behind the bar. Catalina, who owns Verde in Garfield, will bring that eatery's soux chef, Neal Heidekat, to lead Tender.

Catalina said he hopes to incorporate the checks into the restaurant's decor, perhaps by displaying them in a large picture frame.

Jason Carr, 31, Tender's general manager, said it's “exciting to be part of rebirth of a piece of history. It's exciting to hark back to a time once forgotten,” he said.

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948.

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