Tube City Almanac

June 12, 2008

Penn-McKee, Eagles Lodge Face Demolition

Category: News || By

Two historic buildings Downtown have an imminent date with the wrecking ball.

And although one of them has a potential savior, the other one is probably too far gone.

The Penn-McKee Hotel on Fifth Avenue at Strawberry Alley and the former Eagles lodge at Market and Seventh streets are on a list of condemned buildings slated for demolition by the city.

A hearing on all the buildings has been set for 10 a.m. June 24 in city council chambers at the old municipal building, 201 Lysle Blvd.

. . .

City Building Inspector Chris House says that the collapse of two buildings Downtown in the past month --- one on Sixth Avenue, the other on Walnut Street --- offers proof that officials can't wait forever for property owners to rehabilitate dangerous structures.

"It's just a matter of luck that someone hasn't been killed," House says. "Unfortunately, the City of McKeesport is the one who's going to have to take responsibility for someone else's property in order to maintain public welfare."

House says the old Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie 285 is in danger of collapse.

"There's not a structural engineer in the world who would say that building is now salvageable," he says.

A few years ago, House says, the roof on a concrete-block addition at the back of the lodge fell down, but the original structure remained intact.

. . .

That original part of the lodge is a stone mansion that was built in the 1880s as the home of a prominent city doctor, and it was listed two years ago as one of the state's "Top 10 Opportunities" by a historic preservation group.

Since then, parts of the mansion's roof have caved in, and portions of the exterior walls have collapsed.

The driveway of the neighboring building has been closed to traffic for safety reasons.

"It was possible that it could have been salvaged, but the owner didn't maintain it," House says.

. . .

County records list a non-profit group called the Museum Hair Institute as the legal owner of the Eagles lodge, and indicate that the property taxes have not been paid in several years.

Published reports in 2005 said that MHI was going to create a museum of barbering and hairstyling in the lodge. The museum never materialized.

According to the state Corporation Bureau, the principal officer of MHI is Henry Russell Jr. of Shaw Avenue in the city. Russell's phone number is unlisted and he could not be reached for comment.

. . .

The Penn-McKee Hotel has a more confusing provenance. County deed records indicate that tax bills are being sent to the offices of Edward L. Kemp Co. on West Fifth Avenue.

But the building is in the name of a corporation called See Bee Inc., and Jim Armstrong of White Oak says the corporation was donated to him several years ago.

Armstrong, a graphic designer and commercial artist who also heads a Christian music ministry called Voice of the Bride, wants to turn the hotel into a small-business incubator and a center for the performing arts.

The hotel, built in the 1920s, was the site of the first debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. Both men were freshmen congressmen when they traveled to the city in 1947 to discuss the Taft-Hartley Act.

Used as a residential hotel for low-income and transient residents in its final years, the upper floors closed in 1985. Several offices and stores on the first floor remained open for a few more years.

. . .

Armstrong says the Penn-McKee is generally sound. "The building is concrete and steel," he says. "A number of years ago, some bricks fell off in the alley. There was kind of a speakeasy thing built on the roof, and it finally fell down. The rest of the building is completely solid."

House disagrees. He notes that damage caused by an arsonist several years ago is still evident on the outside of the building, and that windows are broken and missing on the upper floors.

"I think it's a foregone conclusion that this thing is going to have to be demolished," House says. "The longer you let it sit and don't maintain it, the worse it's going to get."

Armstrong says his efforts to repair and reopen the Penn-McKee were stymied after he lost his job. Two potential investors also backed out.

He estimates it would cost "a couple of hundred thousand dollars" to start renovating the building, and $1.5 million to restore the entire structure for occupancy.

. . .

The hotel is in a highly visible location, one block from the McKees Point Marina and the Palisades Ballroom, and visible from Lysle Boulevard and the Jerome Avenue Bridge.

The Youghiogheny River hiking-biking trail, which is about to be completed through the city's Downtown, will pass almost underneath the hotel's windows.

Yet Armstrong says he doesn't know if anyone would want to buy the Penn-McKee if he tried to sell it.

"I don't know what kind of a market there is for that," he says, adding that in his opinion, city officials discourage people from investing Downtown: "Part of it is you get taxed to death when they're not doing a whole lot for you but hassling you."

. . .

House says the city isn't "hassling" Armstrong or other property owners, but does want them to take responsibility.

"We're not even sure who the (legal) owner is right now," he says. "There's been a lot of skirting the issue by previous owners. We're having trouble finding any records of sales. And there's been no maintenance or initiative to repair the building."

Any demolition charges will be assessed against the legal owners of the buildings, House says, and the city will use all legal means necessary to recover its costs.

As for the suggestion that selling the Penn-McKee is impossible, he says "there's always a solution" that doesn't involve letting a building rot until it falls down.

"It's really a sad situation that someone would let it deteriorate," House says.

. . .

Armstrong says that anyone interested in investing in the Penn-McKee Hotel's restoration can contact him at (412) 726-8210 or

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