Across the parking lot from John F. Slater Funeral Home in Brentwood, a large hospitality room has become a go-to spot in the last several months for South Hills residents looking to host a baby shower, milestone birthday party, anniversary gathering and even a wedding.
The Whitehall House, built to provide families with on-site options for post-funeral luncheons and gatherings, has, to owner John Slater’s surprise, become a popular space for family and community gatherings.
“Mostly, it’s been used for what I’m calling outside events,” said Slater, as he walked through the standalone building, adorned with white pillars and featuring a large room with wooden floors, a fireplace and warming kitchen.
The idea to open a space like The Whitehall House has been on Slater’s mind for many years.
Funerals have changed over the years, sometimes becoming more casual.
Slater recalls a time when a family requested that, instead of a traditional service, they hold a reception with hors d’oeuvres where people gathered around the cremated remains of the deceased to tell stories about his life.
State law prohibits food from being served inside a funeral home. So, they held the visitation and reception at South Hills Country Club.
As he stood there in the room, Slater thought, “You know, this is not a bad idea. People were very comfortable.”
Slater knew of hospitality rooms being built for funeral homes in other parts of the country, specifically in the Midwest. However, there are only a couple in the Pittsburgh region.
The latest renovation project at the John F. Slater Funeral Home provided the opportunity to add such a space. The funeral home, originally owned by Slater’s grandfather and great-uncle, has been located on Brownsville Road since 1937.
Slater’s is located on the site of the former Whitehall Tavern, which was located in then-Baldwin Township back in the early 1800s. A painting of the old building that burned down now frames the front room of the funeral home.
A house later was built on the site. Part of the house still remains, although, the building has been renovated six times, Slater said.
While many Roman Catholic families go to church for the funeral service, many Protestants prefer to have the service at the funeral home, Slater said. To accommodate, chairs are lined up in one, or sometimes two, viewing rooms for a service.
“I always wanted to have a real-life chapel,” Slater said.
After looking at all of the options, Slater decided to build a chapel where the garage was located on the rear of the building.
But, then they needed a garage.
Over the last two decades, Slater purchased three homes located behind the funeral home on Wainwright Avenue and Burdine Street. When the final home sold in 2014, Slater was able to move forward with plans to build a new lone-standing structure in the parking lot that would serve as a hospitality room on the upper level and garage on the lower level. Additional parking also could be added.
“The idea of a chapel was probably the motivation for the whole thing,” he said.
The chapel, which seats 120 people, opened in the last three weeks and is spacious and bright.
“We wanted it to be big, bright and welcoming,” said Andrew Slater, John’s son, a funeral director who has worked with his father since 2008.
So far, the chapel has been received well by families, as has the hospitality room.
With the new additions, families can now have everything at the funeral home.
“It’s anything to simplify the process for them,” Andrew Slater said.
For funeral lunches, families can bring their own food to The Whitehall House or select a caterer, said Kelly Joyce, events coordinator.
About 50 percent of families who come to the funeral home use either the chapel space or the hospitality room.
For the owner, the community’s desire to use the space is most surprising.
“Every now and then, someone would call us and say, ‘Hey, when you get that thing built can I have my grandma’s birthday party there?’” he said. “At first I thought to myself. ‘Nah. We don’t want to do that.’ Then I thought, ‘Why not?’”
Joyce, who also works as the recreation director for Whitehall Borough, said she thinks The Whitehall House meets a need in the area.
“People have wanted to rent a room like this for a long time,” she said, noting that as the recreation director, she frequently fields calls from people wanting to know where they can find a nice room to have an event.
Being located in the parking lot of a funeral home doesn’t seem to bother people, she said.
“When you come and see this room, you completely lose sight of the fact that there’s a funeral home nearby,” she said. “It’s so beautiful and bright.”
Already, the room is booked for all but three Saturdays until the end of the year, Joyce said.
Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.