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People’s Building Full of Reminders of City’s Past

Original features have been spared wrecking balls or scrappers

By Emily Pidgeon
The Tube City Almanac
September 02, 2020
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

This massive door in the former bank vault at the People’s Building weighs an estimated 15 tons, says owner Jonathan Stark. (Emily Pidgeon photo for Tube City Almanac)

Jane Jacobs, the writer and journalist who in the 1960s helped popularize the idea of preserving city architecture, once said, “New ideas often need old buildings.”

The Peoples Union Bank Building, with its high vaulted ceilings and old fashioned charm, has been a fixture in McKeesport’s skyline since 1906. Owner Jonathan Stark has ideas, and bringing commerce back to this old building is an important duty he holds dear to his heart.

Purchased by Stark in the late summer of 2019, the People’s Building has had a bit of a facelift and cleanup as well as some more serious construction in the past year. That included repairs to a section of the brick veneer that had pulled away from the exterior, with the potential to cause damage to cars and people below.

Stark was able to repair the damage before any major issues occurred and restored the brick without a hiccup.

Faint impressions were worn into the tiles of the main lobby by generations of McKeesporters who stood at each of these 32 teller windows. The bank was built in 1906 and closed in the 1990s. (Emily Pidgeon photo for Tube City Almanac)

Visible immediately as you cross the bridge onto Lysle Boulevard from West Fifth Avenue and centered in the heart of Downtown McKeesport, walking inside the People’s Building is like taking a step back in time.

Throughout the building are many echoes of the past.

In the main lobby on the first floor, there are marble-tiled floors, large windows and 32 teller stations that run from the front to the back. In front of many of those teller stations are two perfect indentations in the marble floors, made by the feet of thousands of bank customers over the years.

(Emily Pidgeon photo for Tube City Almanac)

Stepping into the vault, complete with its original, ornate and incredibly heavy (15 tons) steel-pinned door, is nothing short of extraordinary.

The vault “was actually upstairs in 1907,” Stark says. “In almost all the pictures we have, it was located in the lobby.”

The building was expanded toward Lysle Boulevard in the 1950s and the vault was moved downstairs at that time, Stark says.

The vault’s massive door is “100 percent complete except for one small piece of trim,” he says, pointing out a two-inch gap on one edge. A nightclub owner approached the previous owner of the building requesting to buy the vault door, and even came so far as to inspect it to plan how to remove it from the building.

“The previous owner told him, ‘Fine, I’ll sell it to you for fifteen grand, but you have to figure out how to get it out of here,’” Stark says. “They even brought a rigger out here to look at it. The guy walked downstairs, looked at it, and said ‘Yeah, I don’t think so’ and walked back upstairs.”

Vintage machinery from Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse Electric Corp. survives in the elevator equipment room. (Emily Pidgeon photo for Tube City Almanac)

As with the nearby Executive Building, which Stark purchased earlier this year, he hopes to rent the upper floors to businesses. The main passenger elevator is back in operation and most of the upstairs offices — which once housed dentists, doctors, attorneys and other professional services — need very little work.

They offer beautiful views of McKeesport, the marina, the Palisades, the nearby bridges and Lysle Boulevard.

Stark suggests the old bank lobby would be an “awesome” venue for a restaurant.

“You could turn the old teller stations into a really cool bar,” he says. “If someone doesn’t do that, they are missing an opportunity.”

(Emily Pidgeon photo for Tube City Almanac)

The vault isn’t the only nostalgic piece of hardware still on view. The People’s Building is still fitted with a brass mail chute that stretches from the top floor of the building to the lobby. Stark says it’s an original piece of the building.

Also intact are many, many safes throughout the building. Some are still locked, while others hold documents dating back to the 1940s. Many of the safe-deposit boxes in the vault are locked as well. 

Stark admits he’s curious if anything of interest was left behind when the bank closed in the 1990s. “Is there anything in any of these?” he says. “Makes your mind wonder.”

There are many sets of keys, but no one is exactly sure to what. “Upstairs there’s an old maintenance room, that’s where we found most of the keys, but none of them are labeled,” he says.

One particular receipt, found in a safety deposit box inside the vault, is from a mortgage payment made on a home on Pacific Avenue in Lower 10th Ward.

Like the building, it’s a reminder of a time before computer technology, Stark says. The receipt shows the owner’s name and address, but there’s no account number.

“You won’t find one because back then, they knew who you were,” he says.

Emily Pidgeon is a freelance writer from McKeesport. She may be reached at emily.pidgeon87@gmail.com.

Originally published September 02, 2020.

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