Tube City Almanac

August 05, 2009

Muted 50th Birthday for 'Old' City Hall

Category: History || By

An interesting anniversary went almost entirely unremarked in May --- the 50th anniversary of the dedication of McKeesport City Hall.

It's also variously known as the "Municipal Building" or maybe as "that ugly thing down on Lysle Boulevard."

But the building wasn't considered ugly when it was completed in March 1959 at a cost of $491,000.

In fact, the Post-Gazette called the building "an attractive but utilitarian three-level structure."

. . .

With its glass and aluminum curtain walls, glazed bricks and V-shaped entrance way, the building is a small but interesting artifact from the late 1950s-early '60s style of construction that's often called "space-age" or "Googie" architecture.

The most extreme examples of "Googie" would include the TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport in New York City or the Space Needle in Seattle.

More prosaic examples would include the motels on the Wildwood strip in New Jersey ... or 201 Lysle Blvd.

. . .

When it opened, the Municipal Building had some literal flash of its own, in the form of a lighted neon "Welcome to McKeesport" sign that greeted drivers approaching Downtown from the Jerome Avenue Bridge.

Visitors entered the building by crossing a goldfish pond (complete with bullrushes) and once inside were confronted with a zig-zag stairway that seemed to float in the lobby. Like McKeesport High (discussed in Tuesday's Almanac), the Municipal Building was the work of Celli-Flynn, the architecture firm then based on Shaw Avenue in the city.

"Mayor Andrew J. Jakomas took newsmen on a tour of the 66 rooms in the new building at Market Street and Lysle Boulevard, and, like most new tenants, he was proud of the city government's new quarters," the Post-Gazette noted.

. . .

Funded by a half-million-dollar bond issue, it was the first city hall McKeesport could call its own. From 1909 until 1959, city offices were located on the sixth and seventh floors of the People's Union Bank Building. Before that, municipal offices were in the National Bank of McKeesport Building --- ironically, the building currently used as city hall.

Pennsylvania Gov. David Lawrence, who attended the May 1, 1959 dedication, called the structure "a symbol of the city's rebirth." Lawrence, former mayor of Pittsburgh, also praised the city's plans to redevelop the Downtown business district, noting that the most difficult obstacle to overcome would be the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's 23 grade crossings.

It took another 10 years before B&O trains were rerouted around Downtown via Port Vue and Liberty.

. . .

On a more practical level, the building allowed the central police and fire stations to exit their 1893 building on Market Street in the First Ward. Similar in appearance to Duquesne's present city hall, that structure was demolished --- along with much of the surrounding neighborhood --- to make way for a new electric-resistance weld mill at U.S. Steel's National Works.

Like many 1950s and '60s structures of similar design, the glass walls and flat roof of the Municipal Building proved prone to leaks. And like similar buildings from the 1950s and '60s, the compact structure --- hard against Lysle Boulevard and Fourth Avenue --- is difficult to update.

. . .

When municipal offices moved to the National Bank Building in 2006, city officials discussed building a new public-safety building and demolishing the old structure.

Luckily for fans (there are a few) of the quirky building, officials decided to replace the roof, remodel the upstairs office suites, and recruited new tenants --- the Twin Rivers Council of Governments and the Regional Business Alliance.

Those two leases are expected to net the city more than $100,000 over the next five years.

Still, some people think of the building as a misfit. But consider how many of us love nostalgia and "doo-wop" music: In many ways, the Mon Valley has never quite gotten out of the 1950s.

In that case, the "old" McKeesport Municipal Building is actually the perfect symbol for the entire region.

So, a happy belated birthday to it! It's no Space Needle, but I think it's fun to look at.

Your Comments are Welcome!

I spent virtually all of my school years in buildings that came out of that same mold. My junior high school (before they became “middle schools”) looked like four of those buildings mashed together. Even the old library was that way. The county tore that old building down and replaced it with a brown brick glob that came out of the bunker school of architecture, with almost no windows. Now they want to tear that building down and relocate a new library in the middle of the business district. That proposal has raised the ire of the surrounding neighborhoods who want to keep it right where it is, thank-you very much.
ebtnut - August 07, 2009

There was a sense of optimism and ambition in these ’50s structures. They took serious engineered materials like steel and plastic and tried to form them into fun shapes.

It seems like after JFK’s assassination, government buildings became much more severe —- that concrete “brutalism” style.

Then, since the “Reagan revolution,” public buildings have been built to be as cheap looking and un-stylish as possible, because, of course, government is a bad thing, so government-owned structures should be ugly, right?

But taxpayers have to use these buildings; they should feel like they’ve gotten something in return for their money.

I really wish the pendulum would swing back a little toward the kinds of buildings that were completed in the ’30s through the early ’60s. I miss the old FDR-era post offices and courthouses …
Webmaster - August 07, 2009

What is it with all these new building that are a plain box with a “swoop”. You know, an arch somewhere, like above the entrance or on the roof. Digressing a little, the swoop can be seen in about every corporate logo. I can’t stand bandwagons….
thee dude - August 11, 2009

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