Developer has sights set on Wilmerding 'castle' for new hotel
March 8, 2013 5:00 AM
Westinghouse Castle was built by George Westinghouse in 1890 as a community library and recreation center for employees of his Westinghouse Air Brake Co. After a fire destroyed the interior in 1896, it was rebuilt to serve as the company's offices. The building has been unchanged since the east wing, left, was added in 1927.
By Kaitlynn Riely Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Wilmerding, a town of about 2,000 people, occupies less than half a square mile of land in the Turtle Creek Valley, about 14 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. It has the normal things that a small town has, the shops and restaurants and churches and homes and a park.
It also has a castle.
The Westinghouse Castle, known simply as "The Castle" to locals, is an enormous turreted building made of limestone and sandstone. It was built in the 1890s to serve as the headquarters for industrialist George Westinghouse and his Westinghouse Air Brake Co., and was expanded in 1927 to its current size by Westinghouse's brother.
Although no longer a headquarters for industry, the castle still sits on its hill, functioning intermittently as a museum and as a location for events. Now, a local hospitality group thinks it could be something more.
"We see it becoming something along the lines of a destination boutique hotel/banquet facility/restaurant," said John Graf in a telephone interview Tuesday, a day after his interest in buying the building was discussed at a school board meeting by the East Allegheny School District.
Mr. Graf is familiar with the process of adapting an older building for new use. He is part owner and director of operations for the Priory Hospitality Group, which runs The Priory Hotel, a boutique hotel on Pittsburgh's North Side. The hotel once functioned as a Benedectine monastery and the adjoining ballroom as a Roman Catholic Church.
For the past year, he has been considering a similar restoration for the Westinghouse Castle, but he cautioned that the tentative plan still has a long way to go.
"We're very, very early in this process," he said.
Still, the news that someone is interested in restoring the Westinghouse Castle has energized people involved in the community and in the upkeep of the old building.
"It's an exciting time for Wilmerding and the Westinghouse Valley," said Joe Castagnola of Turtle Creek. He is the secretary and treasurer of Wilmerding Renewed Inc., the nonprofit corporation that has owned and maintained the building since 2006 when it bought the castle for $750,000 from APICS Educational & Research Foundation.
"Everybody in town is excited," said Geraldine Homitz, volunteer operations manager for the castle.
On Tuesday, Ms. Homitz, who was born in Wilmerding and served as its mayor for 12 years, was at the castle. It is currently closed because the cost of heating the building in the winter is too high, but Ms. Homitz opened it briefly to show it off.
The building has retained its grandeur. A marble staircase leads to the second floor, where Westinghouse's office with its curved walls remains intact. Further down the hall, the general manager's conference room and adjoining office are also stuck in a previous era, with wood-paneled walls, enormous fireplaces and Persian rugs.
"The place is kept up," Ms. Homitz said, and much of the reason is because the people of Wilmerding are still grateful to Westinghouse, the man. Ms. Homitz never worked for Westinghouse, the company, but she had family members who did and she ran a beauty shop for decades that benefited from the business brought in by Westinghouse employees.
"We just know that George treated everybody so well, that we wanted to keep this building up for him, as much as we could," she said. "And keep it so people could come and visit it."
It has not been easy, Ms. Homitz said. It's challenging to maintain a 50,000-square-foot building with more than 50 rooms, and it has been plagued by water damage from faulty plumbing.
In the lobby of the castle, Ms. Homitz pointed to a framed motivational poster, a modern touch incongruous in a room that also featured a picture of George Westinghouse in his Civil War uniform. It says "Challenges: Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm."
"We've been through so much with this building. That's our motto," she said, indicating the poster.
She thinks the Westinghouse Castle would make a grand hotel.
The transformation could cost north of $10 million, including purchase of the property and upgrades. The project will depend in part on obtaining the necessary financing, Mr. Graf said. Discussions are moving forward, but he remains reluctant to get people's hopes up.
In Wilmerding, though, hopes are high.
"It's going to give a lift to the whole place, we hope," Ms. Homitz said.