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Wilmerding Grads Impressed With School’s Look

All-class gathering from Westinghouse Memorial High enjoy tour of school, Westinghouse Castle

By Bonnijean Cooney Adams
The Tube City Almanac
July 27, 2023
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News, North Versailles Twp. News, Wilmerding News

Stephanie Spingola looks over items in the costume studio, including a Westinghouse sewing machine. She is a member of the Class of 1963 and taught art for fourth through sixth graders after high school students from Wilmerding moved to East Allegheny. Below: The main entrance to Westinghouse Arts Academy reflects the building’s historic past as a school, and includes access to the auditorium, home of many student performances. (Bonnijean Cooney Adams photos for Tube City Almanac)

For some, it had been a long time since they last set foot inside the main building that now houses many of the programs at Westinghouse Arts Academy in Wilmerding.

As a prelude to activities for the second all-class gathering (1937-1969) of Westinghouse Memorial High School, more than 30 former students met on the school steps the morning of July 22 before breaking into smaller groups to tour that building and the neighboring Westinghouse Castle.

Ray Adams, a Westinghouse Memorial graduate who came back to teach at his alma mater, was part of a committee that decided to hold the first all-class event in 2022, then again this year.

Adams taught social studies, photography, and videography there and at East Allegheny Junior-Senior High School before he retired in 1995. He also was the advisor for the Class of 1969, so said he agreed to be on the committee when asked.

Initially, the group planned an event for those who graduated in 1960-69, he said.

“As the word got out, people contacted us and asked, ‘What about other classes?’ “Adams said, “so we included all the classes.”

He noted although no one is still around from the inaugural class, there were some who have attended both years from the Class of 1955.

With the success of the first event, planners  discussed input for a second one, and Adams said he learned people were interested in taking a tour of their former high school.

Many had heard of its journey to become Westinghouse Arts Academy, he said, and were eager to see the results first hand.

He said he called the school to see if one could be arranged, and was connected with Director of Engagement Nadine Dunn, who facilitated the tour.

Some of those touring the former Westinghouse Memorial High School and Castle in Wilmerding, which now, in part, house Westinghouse Arts Academy, are reflected in the mirrors of the spacious dance studios. (Bonnijean Cooney Adams photos for Tube City Almanac)

The charter for Westinghouse Arts Academy was approved by East Allegheny School Board in 2017, and the building was acquired the same year.

The academy offers classes for grades 9-12 in dance, film, digital arts, literary arts, studio arts, music and theater, with a culinary arts program in the works – in addition to academic classes.

Director of Admissions Susan Maskarinec, who led one of the tour groups, explained in response to a question that WAA currently draws students from 42 school districts.

As they started the tour in the auditorium, she said the theater hosts many school productions, dance, and music performances, where students can showcase what they’ve learned in classes.

As members of her tour group went through the building, they were heard discussing what some classrooms used to be – “That was my algebra classroom” -- for example, while asking questions about their new uses.

One woman shared her approval of the transformation of the former library to a theatre arts room.

Others were heard saying, “Awesome, this is amazing,” as they walked from one section to the next.

Known as the Castle for its architectural style, this side of the former Westinghouse Air Brake Co. office building, which once marked the entrance to the Westinghouse Library, now provides easy access for students and visitors, including those on the tour. (Bonnijean Cooney Adams photos for Tube City Almanac)

Changes to the high school are just part of what’s happened to the area, which includes the adjacent building known as the Westinghouse Castle, based on its architectural style and elegance.

Built in 1890 by George Westinghouse, the Castle once housed the former Westinghouse Air Brake general offices. A fire damaged the structure in 1896, but it was rebuilt that year and expanded in 1927.

In recent years, the building became vacant and deteriorated, including water damage and vandalism.

After a number of plans by various sources to stabilize and revitalize the Castle, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Westinghouse Castle LP purchased the building.

Their accomplishments in modernizing some areas while retaining its historic style and character were evident as some of the groups transitioned to the Castle to continue the tour.

WAA students now travel between buildings for classes and lunch, with plans to develop physical connections between the school building and Castle through landscaping and walkways.

Dunn said one of the goals now is to provide the area with an overall campus feel.

Several tour members recalled days with no cafeteria, and students had to catch a regular bus that traveled through Wilmerding to nearby communities to go home each day for lunch – then back again to school.

“I was very interested in seeing it after so many years,” Janet Varacalli said. “It’s amazing. I’m very impressed with what they’ve done to the old halls and rooms.”

Above: Renovations and upgrades have been completed in some areas, continue in others at the former high school and Castle. Former Westinghouse Memorial students were pleased to see that their team's name remained on the gymnasium floor. Below: The studio arts display rotates with student projects. (Bonnijean Cooney Adams photos for Tube City Almanac)

Another entity joined efforts not only to convert areas of the Castle for school use, but to develop the Westinghouse Arts Center for community use.

Turtle Creek Valley Arts was founded in 2021, with a mission to provide “arts and culture programming and community development assets to the Turtle Creek Valley,” according to literature provided during the tour.

With its home base in the Castle, TCV Arts has agreed to sublet much of the building to Westinghouse Arts Academy for its expanding programs, while retaining use of the building during non-school hours and days for community arts-based educational services. Other possible plans include an event center for weddings and other gatherings, according to the literature.

“This is a really good use of the Castle,” Maskarinec said.

She pointed out areas there containing classrooms, offices, and other facilities that still retain classic Westinghouse elements — such as the Westinghouse logo on the doorknobs.

TCV Arts and Westinghouse Arts Academy have partnered and set goals to expand current programming for academic space via the Westinghouse Castle renovation project, and renovation and construction of new theatre spaces.

Stephanie Spingola said she graduated in 1963 and came back to teach art. She was impressed at the new facilities, even pausing to examine some of the vintage sewing machines in the costume-making department.

A seamstress in the group said she was surprised to see one by Westinghouse, not knowing the company once produced sewing machines among their household items such as washers and dryers.

Adams said people continued to comment on the tour as events for the class gathering continued later in the day with an informal picnic.

“People said they were so pleased to see the school again,” Adams said, “and they thanked me for arranging it. They also were excited to hear about all the programs in the theater, and wanted to know how to find out when they are coming so they can attend.”

Additional information about Westinghouse Arts Academy can be found at www.westinghousearts.org.

Bonnijean Cooney Adams is a freelance contributor. She can be reached at adamsclick@aol.com.

Originally published July 27, 2023.

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