Castle built by George Westinghouse in Wilmerding could become boutique hotel


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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 non-profit corporation that has owned and maintained the building since 2006, when it purchased 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 who 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.

The building is cold, but it 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 its 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 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, though, Ms. Homitz said. It's challenging, maintaining a 50,000-square-foot building with more than 50 rooms, and they've 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 with its surroundings in a room that also featured a picture of 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.

It's a transformation that could cost north of $10 million, and 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.

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Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/ First Published March 6, 2013 9:15 PM


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