Tube City Almanac

June 09, 2014

In McKeesport, More History Bites the Dust

Category: Commentary/Editorial || By

Opinions expressed in editorials and commentaries are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Tube City Community Media Inc. or its directors. Responsible replies are welcomed.

Matt Bauman has been writing a history of McKeesport's old water treatment plant, a historic landmark that in the early 1900s eliminated the danger of typhoid fever as well as water so bad that it rotted through plumbing.

Now, he says, he might as well stop. McKeesport's passion for demolishing its history is about to claim another victim.

According to a Pat Cloonan story in the Daily News, the unusual round building under the 15th Avenue Bridge --- which in 1982 was designated a local historic landmark by Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation --- will be torn down this week by its current owner, the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County.

Technically, the building about to be demolished was a "water softening plant." The other treatment buildings have already been torn down.

Bauman, a Liberty Borough native and a teacher in the McKeesport Area School District, was hoping to nominate the 1908 building to the National Register of Historic Places. "It has everything they're looking for in terms of significance," he says.

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In a draft version of his 27-page report, Bauman, a Penn State graduate* who's working on a master's degree at Duquesne University, writes that the structure has "both architectural and engineering significance at the local level with close ties to the history and development of the city of McKeesport."

His report (you can download it here) calls it "an excellent example of both green design and reaction to environmental concerns at a historical level." Factors that, Bauman notes, would have made it an excellent candidate for national landmark status.

Instead, the building's remains will be headed to landfills.

McKeesport has an absolute passion for tearing down historic buildings and putting in their place ... well, usually empty lots. At least, according to Cloonan's story, the Municipal Authority is going to build something in its place --- a storage shed.

You might wonder why they don't rehabilitate the old roundhouse, and use it as a storage shed. But there seems to be little to no interest in McKeesport in historic preservation.*

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Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that historic preservation in McKeesport has been given a bad name by the McKeesport Preservation Society --- a group which was formed in the 1990s, supposedly to save and reuse old buildings, but which has mostly (it seems to me) been engaged in filing lawsuits.

A few years ago, it went to court to block an attempt by the city's Redevelopment Authority, the McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center and the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation to form a task force to save the old Penn-McKee Hotel. The Young Preservationists of Pittsburgh were also on board, until the McKeesport Preservation Society's litigation brought the whole thing grinding to a halt. You can read the whole sordid story here.

If I sound bitter about that, it's because I am. I was the one --- at the request of then-mayor Jim Brewster --- who put together that coalition. The experience left a very bad taste in my mouth.

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These days, the founder of the Preservation Society, Mary Ann Huk, claims to own the Penn-McKee --- but she sure doesn't seem to be doing much with it. When I've tried to speak to her about it, she's told me, "Go talk to my attorney!" (That's a friendly, cooperative approach, if you ask me.)

So, there the Penn-McKee sits, open to the elements and vandals. It's been set on fire twice. It's an eyesore that's becoming a nuisance and, if allowed to further decay, it will have to be torn down, at taxpayer expense.

Now, Huk is part of a newly created group called "Tube City Renaissance," which says it will engage in ... neighborhood preservation! Well, I guess I wish her and the group a lot of luck. Based on recent history, I'm not hopeful.

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But Ms Huk is not the villain in this story. I'm not sure there is a villain. There just doesn't seem to be a hero, either. The last one who seemed to take an interest in this subject was the late Joe Bendel more than a decade ago.

If there was some political will in McKeesport to champion the reuse of historic structures, something could happen. There doesn't seem to be any will. I've spoken to McKeesport City Council about this on three separate occasions. I wasn't quite told to go away, but I've gotten the message.

Without political backing, there is only so much that volunteers and concerned citizens --- people like Bauman --- can do.

While nearby communities like Braddock and Homestead rehab old commercial structures to put them back to use (and, in many cases, back on the tax rolls), McKeesport lets them sit vacant until they must be torn down.

The charm of revitalized Pittsburgh neighborhoods such as East Liberty and Lawrenceville is in their history. There is no charm in a new pre-fabricated steel storage building that will start to rust in a couple of years. No one is going to drive out of their way to visit a shopping center that looks like every other shopping center.

They might --- as in Braddock --- drive out of their way to see a historic building re-invented as a brewpub or a small-business incubator or an antiques mall or any of a dozen other spaces.

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The success that Pittsburgh is having attracting new stores and residents to East Liberty, Lawrenceville and Market Square could be duplicated in McKeesport, if anyone in authority was interested. So: What does it take to get them interested? I'm pretty much out of ideas.

It's kind of funny: McKeesport is often accused of being stuck in the past, remembering its "glory days" after World War II.

I mean, every restaurant in McKeesport seems to have pictures of the city back in the '40s and '50s. There are oldies dances practically every weekend. Stories about local history are by far the most popular articles on Tube City Online.

With all of that, you would think that we really cared about our local history. It's a little bit ironic, then, that the remaining elements of McKeesport's past keep being bulldozed into oblivion.

Correction, Not Perfection: This story was edited after publication to correct Bauman's identification and a quote.

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Opinions expressed in commentaries are those of individual authors, and are not necessarily those of Tube City Community Media Inc., its volunteers or directors.

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