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City Council OK's Assessment of Penn-McKee Hotel

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
July 10, 2018
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Conflict-of-Interest Note: The writer of this article has a conflict of interest. See editor's note.

(Photo by Nyttend via Wikimedia Commons)

McKeesport will partner with a Pittsburgh-based preservation society to determine whether the city's landmark Penn-McKee Hotel can be saved and reused for other purposes.

At Wednesday's meeting, council by 7-0 vote approved an agreement with the Young Preservationists Association to conduct an environmental assessment of the long-vacant hotel as well as an architectural and feasibility study.

Matthew Craig, executive director of the YPA, said the study will consider historic reuse of the entire block of Fifth Avenue between Strawberry and Mulberry alleys, which includes a former Moose lodge and several pre-Civil War houses.

YPA intends to work closely with city officials and volunteers throughout the process, Craig told council.

"I was very fortunate to be able to witness, through the eyes of the mayor and his team, the vision they have for 'McKeesport Rising,'" Craig said. "When we look at all of the economic drivers in the area --- the people passing through on their bikes, a marina full of boats --- we see there is an opportunity for rebirth."

The hotel is less than a block from the Great Allegheny Passage biking and hiking trail, the McKees Point Marina and the Palisades ballroom.

There have been other proposals over the past 20 years to renovate and re-use the Penn-McKee, but the agreement with YPA is the first to be approved by city council.

"The Penn-McKee has an extremely rich history in McKeesport," Mayor Michael Cherepko said. "We're very excited to partner with the Young Preservationists of Pittsburgh on this project."

An independent non-profit group of McKeesport-area volunteers is being created to help raise donations toward necessary renovations, Cherepko said.

A luxurious hotel when it opened in 1926, the Penn-McKee was commissioned by a group of civic-minded McKeesport business owners and designed by architect Benno Janssen, whose better-known works include Pittsburgh's Mellon Institute, the William Penn Hotel and the Washington Crossing Bridge, along with Ligonier's Rolling Rock Farms.

During the 1930s and '40s, the hotel hosted important industrialists, union meetings and celebrated figures from the world of aviation. President Harry Truman and several Pennsylvania governors visited and a national TV broadcast originated from the hotel.

Undoubtedly the most historic event at the Penn-McKee came in 1947, when two newly elected congressmen, U.S. Rep. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts and U.S. Rep. Richard M. Nixon of California, met at the hotel to debate the Taft-Hartley labor legislation.

Thirteen years later, the two men were debating again as they each ran for the presidency.

During the economic downturn of the late 1970s and early '80s, the Penn-McKee became a residence for low-income senior citizens and finally was closed to guests in 1985. Several storefronts remained active until the final tenant, a beauty parlor, left in 2000.

The vacant hotel was damaged by two deliberately set fires, and more recently by vandals who have broken windows and left graffiti. City officials seized ownership of the hotel after a series of drawn-out legal proceedings.

But Cherepko pointed out that an analysis two years ago by City Engineer Jim Garvin concluded that the building is structurally sound, though its interior walls have been heavily damaged, and many original fixtures are missing.

Following the meeting, Craig said the Young Preservationists expect to begin work as early as Aug. 1, if the contract with the city is signed and returned by then.

An attempt several years ago to place the Penn-McKee onto the National Register of Historic Places was rejected by the National Park Service, reportedly because the interior had been drastically changed and damaged over the years.

Craig said one of YPA's aims would be to restore the public areas of the hotel to their 1926 appearance in hopes of getting the National Park Service to reconsider its decision.

A listing on the National Register of Historic Places would qualify potential investors and developers for substantial tax credits, he said.

Editor's Note: The writer of this article has a conflict of interest. He helped to prepare a document used by city officials to market the Penn-McKee to developers. In addition, he has been asked to sit on the board of the proposed non-profit group that will be raising money toward the hotel's possible renovation. 

Originally published July 10, 2018.

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