Tube City Almanac

September 01, 2009

Eyesore Hotel Was Work of Celebrated Architect

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A building long regarded as one of Downtown's leading eyesores was the product of one of Pittsburgh's most celebrated architects.

The Penn-McKee Hotel --- largely vacant since 1985 and slated for demolition at taxpayer expense --- was designed by Benno Janssen, better known as the architect of Pittsburgh's Mellon Institute, William Penn Hotel and Washington Crossing Bridge, and Ligonier's Rolling Rock Farms.

That Janssen's firm designed the Penn-McKee was all but forgotten until this reporter stumbled across a Daily News clipping from 1925 in the archives of the McKeesport Heritage Center.

. . .

A visit to Carnegie Mellon University's architecture archives, which holds Janssen's original drawings and blueprints, confirmed that the Penn-McKee was the work of the 1922 partnership between Missouri-born, Paris-trained Janssen and William York Cocken.

Together, Janssen and Cocken were commissioned in 1925 by McKeesport's Community Hotel Corp. to design what the Daily News called "a community giant ... a peaceful shrine of domesticity combined with the gay and restful recreational delights of a social center."

Born in St. Louis, Janssen studied architecture at the University of Kansas, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in France. In 1905, he returned to the United States to work for a Pittsburgh architect, setting up his own firm a year later.

. . .

His most famous work might be Mellon Institute, the monolithic research laboratory on Forbes Avenue in Oakland. Constructed during the depths of the Great Depression, that building's design was inspired by classic Greek architecture. Its four sides are lined with 62 four-story columns, each hewn from a single piece of stone.

Other buildings designed by Janssen include the Longue Vue Club in Verona, the Keystone Athletic Club (now part of Point Park University) and several homes for prominent Pittsburghers, including department store mogul Edgar Kaufmann.

Upon Janssen's death in 1964, Pittsburgh historian Jamie Van Trump --- one of the founders of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation --- called Janssen an artist "of considerable talent if not of genius" and "the most facile and talented of Pittsburgh's eclectic architects" of the early 20th century.

. . .

Unmentioned in Van Trump's review of Janssen's works was McKeesport's Penn-McKee, possibly because of its modest scale, possibly because its distance from Pittsburgh's more fashionable neighborhoods left it "out of sight, out of mind."

But the Penn-McKee --- though fading in the 1960s --- remained a point of pride for McKeesporters, who boasted of the prominent guests that had visited, including former President Harry Truman.

Famously, in April 1947, freshmen congressmen John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon debated the Taft-Hartley Act in the Penn-McKee ballroom, in the first-known public appearance together by the future political rivals.

. . .

McKeesport also gave generously to fund the Penn-McKee's construction. It was built by the Community Hotel Corp., which was chartered in 1924 with the help of the McKeesport Chamber of Commerce.

The corporation sold 5,000 shares of stock at $100 each to local residents and business owners to raise money for the hotel's construction.

. . .

Major contributors to the hotel's construction included banker R.F. Dulany, real-estate developer Gilbert F. Myer, and furniture-store owner R.E. Stone.

Stone's firm supplied furniture and carpets for the hotel's 99 rooms, while Helmstadter's Department Store supplied dishes, glassware and bedding, and K.J. Stickrath plumbing installed the boiler, kitchen and laundry equipment.

The general contractors were McKeesport's Blair & Mack Co., while the name "Penn-McKee" was chosen in a contest. More than 1,500 people entered.

Although many people suggested "Penn-McKee," the winner was the first one to submit the name. Callie M. Frye of Grant Street won the grand prize of $25.

. . .

"The Penn-McKee means that McKeesport will leap from a backward community ... and take its place with other progressive cities whose attractiveness has never failed to be enhanced by the erection of a modern hotel," editorialized the Daily News on March 20, 1926 under the headline "Penn-McKee Hotel Will Be Credit to City and Owners."

"Only geological changes of the years can destroy it," the newspaper said. "The destructive force of fire cannot make any in-roads, for it is fire-proof throughout."

But more destructive than geology were changing times and a series of changing owners.

. . .

By the 1970s, guests found the hotel's rooms too small and too old fashioned, and the Penn-McKee's distance from the Pennsylvania Turnpike or other major highways left it hard pressed for business.

Community College of Allegheny County rented many of the rooms, then vacated the hotel when South Campus in West Mifflin was completed.

The money-losing Community Hotel Corp. sold the Penn-McKee to former city councilman Michael Newman, who had been embroiled in several scandals, including a federal wiretapping investigation.

. . .

At one time, Newman planned to turn the Penn-McKee into part of an outdoor shopping plaza by demolishing the neighboring Famous Department Store, which he also owned.

That proposal went up in smoke in 1976, along with the Famous, in the multi-million dollar fire that devastated the city's business district.

The once-grand Penn-McKee became a flophouse patronized by alcoholics, the elderly and prostitutes, whose activities led to a raid by city and county police in the fall of 1980.

. . .

In 1981, Newman sold the hotel to the non-profit Winter's Haven Inc., which envisioned turning the Penn-McKee into an assisted living facility. Unable to afford renovations and unwilling to seek public help, Winter's Haven closed the doors in 1985.

Storefronts used by AMVETS Post 8 and former state Rep. Emil Mrkonic remained occupied for a few more years, until a series of deliberately set fires forced the complete closure of the building.

The Penn-McKee is currently owned by a defunct corporation called See Bee Inc., which purchased the property in 1987. The firm's registered address is a Pittsburgh law office, but tax bills are sent to Edward L. Kemp Co. of 10th Ward.

. . .

According to court records, thousands of dollars in unpaid school, city and county property taxes are owed by See Bee on the Penn-McKee.

In June 2008, White Oak evangelist Jim Armstrong told the Almanac that his ministry, Voice of the Bride, had purchased the hotel. But no deed transfer was ever recorded, according to county officials, and the liens remain unsatisfied.

In the meantime, the elements have taken their toll on the Penn-McKee, which has numerous broken or open windows. Part of a decorative brick wall has collapsed into Haber Alley, behind the building.

. . .

Declaring the Penn-McKee a health and safety hazard, officials last year condemned the property for at least the second time and put it onto the city's demolition list.

Mayor Jim Brewster has estimated that demolishing the hotel will cost in excess of $150,000.

. . .

Full Disclosure: The author is a member of the board of directors of McKeesport Heritage Center, which is exploring the possibility of trying to preserve commercial buildings in the city for re-use. Articles at do not reflect the views of McKeesport Heritage Center, its directors, staff or volunteers.

Your Comments are Welcome!

I had always hoped that the City would repurpose the building for municipal services instead of their current location. Seems like the ball room where the Kennedy Nixon debate was held would have made for a decent Council Chambers. Very interetsing information about the Penn McKee. I always wanated to know more about that important building.
John M. - September 01, 2009

I try to remain impartial, but I could make an argument in favor of the present city hall, especially if the addition is built.

McKeesport National Bank is one of only four (I think) buildings in McKeesport that are on the National Register of Historic Places. That alone makes it worth civic use.

On a more practical level, the bank was ready for occupancy when the city took over. The Penn-McKee needs $100,000 just to stop the decay.
Webmaster - September 01, 2009

Great story about the Penn McKee – and exceptionally well researched. The bigger issue there is the restoration of Our Fair City, something I may know something about as a noted researcher myself.

It seems there is mounting anticipation for the opening of the bike link between the South Side of Pittsburgh and Our Fair City. Lots of bikers in Pittsburgh these days, just ask your local bike shop owner, and a Sunday spin into McKeesport is an idea that has caught fire among a certain population. As proof I would point to steadily increasing bicycle traffic in the vicinity of the Hot Metal Bridge, which sometimes gets very crowded with folks on bikes.

Shop owners I’ve talked to in West Newton and West Mifflin (otherwise known as East Bitty Burg) say this summer has been very, very good for sales, although no one seems to know exacatly why. Rumor has it that President Obama plans to buy a Cannondale at a Squirrel Hill shop when he’s in Pittsburgh later this month, giving the whole biking thing another boost.

But never mind Obama. What’s key is the pent up interest in what promises to be a very pleasant ride – in distance and scenery – between Pittsburgh and Our Fair City. This finding surprised this researcher and part-time scientist. I thought I was the only one waiting patiently for the link to open.

Will Our Fair City take advantage of this stream of new visitors? Will the traffic translate into a boost in local commerce? Will overall obesity rates for Americans begin to fall?

Stay tuned. As they say, more news at 11.
Prof. Bag O'Wind - September 01, 2009

Good information. The only thing I have to add is that I hope the eventual destruction of the building does not get stalled (yet again) by some starry-eyed hopeful or misplaced sense of nostalgia.

It’s an eyesore. It needs to be torn down already.
John - September 01, 2009

In the early to late 1970’s I drove taxi cabs in McKeesport. Pickups at Balsamos and the Penn-McKee Hotel kept us in business. The Penn-McKee fares were a lot of fun. Most fares were out of state business men and guess where they wanted to go? If you guessed Brick Alley (another great McKeesport hot spot and a story in itself) you win. Not only did we drop them off at the alley, a lot of times we sat and waited for them, and also gave them some pointers if it was there first time.
Bart Caudill - September 02, 2009

I’m with the Professor. As I’ve said before in this space, when I come back to McKeesport to visit, I am always struck by the natural beauty of the Mon Valley. It is something that cannot be outsourced for lower wages to China. Every effort should be made to make McKeesport a nice place to visit. If that first wave is on the bike trail, then do everything to make a good first impression. People biking in from Pittsburgh and beyond may come back again…and again…and may even stay.
Dan - September 02, 2009

$150,000 price tag for demolition.

I would hope that the city is citing the owner on a daily basis for an unsafe / dangerous structure posing a threat to the health, safety and welfare of its citizens.
terry - September 02, 2009

Terry: Who’s the owner? A defunct corporation?

Or the guy who says he owns it, but doesn’t have a deed?
Webmaster - September 02, 2009

There’s always an owner. If they struck oil there, someone would say it belongs to them. Their status is listed “active” according to the Deptartment of State. In any event, enforcement should have been initiated
many years ago.

Date: 9/3/2009 Business Entity Filing History
(Select the link above to view the Business Entity’s Filing History)


Business Name History


Name Name Type
SEE BEE, INC. Current Name


Business Corporation – Domestic – Information

Entity Number: 878876
Status: Active

Entity Creation Date: 7/25/1985

PGH PA 15222-0
Mailing Address: No Address
terry - September 03, 2009

I spoke to Mr. Armstrong, who IS the owner of the Penn McKee and he is actively seeking grants and help from the city to refurb the structure. I support restoring it.

Councilman Shelly - September 03, 2009

I support restoration of this once magnificant landmark. And I should know, I once lived there; was married there; and worked there.
Stacy - September 03, 2009

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