When architect Ken Kulak first heard that he would be designing renovation plans for one of the oldest and most prized historic buildings in Washington, Pa., he didn't shy away from the challenge.
"I was never intimidated," said the principle architect with CM Services in Peters. "I'm rubbing my hands together, thinking 'I cant wait.' "
His anticipation was rewarded two years ago when he got his first glimpse of the former YWCA on West Maiden Street, a grand Elizabethan Revival building built in the late 1920s, with grouped lancet windows and a steeply pitched slate roof.
Also marked by high gables, square paneling, friezes and ceilings decorated in strapwork -- flattened strips cut in elaborate patterns -- Elizabethan architecture is evident at England's Highclere Castle, where the popular PBS British period drama "Downton Abbey" is filmed.
The structure is the only one of its type in Washington and served as the local YWCA headquarters from 1929 to 2002, when its doors closed and little else was done with the building.
In January 2012, Tri-County Patriots for Independent Living, a local nonprofit that serves community residents with cognitive, sensory and/or physical disabilities, purchased the building from Arthur Development, based in Avella, for $325,000.
Tri-County Patriots decided to renovate it for a new community center and office headquarters and hired Mr. Kulak's company to help complete a major overhaul of the three-story, 27,000-square-foot structure, parts of which were badly damaged from a leaky roof and general neglect.
The agency was recently informed that it received a $1.5 million state grant to use toward the estimated reconstruction cost of $8 million. It hopes to move into the building within two years.
Tri-County CEO Kathleen Kleinmann said the agency chose the site after failing to drum up support for a new building at its current location on East Beau Street, about three blocks from the YWCA building.
"We had done some strategic planning and felt our place was too small for the services we wanted to provide for the community," said Ms. Kleinmann, who said membership in Tri-County recently has risen by 50 people to 325 members. "Although people would like to help us, they weren't willing to go to bat with a new structure in Washington."
Rather, she said, community supporters urged the agency to look to some of the older, abandoned structures in the city. When the former YWCA was suggested, Ms. Kleinmann said the response was overwhelmingly positive.
"That building has been boarded up looking like a grand monstrosity," she said of the structure, which was to have been razed and made into a parking lot. "Everybody in Washington wished that someone would do something with that building."
The agency began patching the roof to prevent further water damage.
"Once we got in and started looking at the bones of the structure, we saw it had good bones," Mr. Kulak recalled. "Overall, it wasn't bad at all."
Tri-County applied to have the building included on the National Register of Historic Places in Pennsylvania, which would make the agency eligible to receive up to $1 million in federal tax credits, depending on how much the project maintains the historical integrity of the structure.
The agency also began taking plaster casts of carved woodwork, strapwork on the ceilings and other architectural features that have been damaged beyond repair and will likely need to be replaced with period construction techniques.
"Much of it we can salvage," said Mr. Kulak, who managed to save several massive oak entry doors that can be used in the new facility. "The leaks were really concentrated in two areas. The historically significant areas will be maintained."
State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, noted that $1.5 million state grant has a benefit beyond the actual funds.
"The grant is tremendous news for the people of Washington and a sign that top state officials are convinced of the value of the project," said Mr. Solobay, who noted that the money will be awarded to Tri-County through the state Redevelopment Capital Assistance Program.
Ms. Kleinmann said the grant will give the project significant momentum as fundraising continues and will convince potential contributors that the project has statewide support.
"This is a significant step and it's very big news for the people of Washington," she said.
Last year, the agency received an $80,000 grant from Washington County Redevelopment Authority for asbestos removal, which is expected to begin within several months.
Ms. Kleinmann said the agency also hopes to raise funds through the county's Local Share Account, which provides funding for projects from gaming fees generated by The Meadows Racetrack & Casino. In addition, the agency is planning to kick off a sustaining membership drive similar to the support programs used by public television for fundraising.
A large auditorium that served as a central focal point of the building when it was a YWCA will remain as a community room, Ms. Kleinmann said, with offices upstairs. The building also will have an elevator and exercise and training facilities and will be fully accessible to those with disabilities.
"It was never built for those with disabilities," Mr. Kulak said. "It was a wellness center for people with capabilities and who comes to rescue it?"
An adjoining parking lot recently purchased by the agency will be used for an addition to the building, and a rooftop space surrounded by iron rails is to be converted into a glass-enclosed common area and conservatory.
The agency wants to preserve not just the historical significance of the building, but the memories of the thousands of residents who came to the "Y" for teen dances, swimming and other activities during the 70-plus years it was in operation, Ms. Kleinmann said.
It is seeking photos, keepsakes and mementos from the YWCA to include in a display in the community room, and the agency also wants to draw in volunteers who are interested in the building.
"We're looking for people who used to be on the board of directors or were part of the organization who could come back and help us save it," Ms. Kleinmann said.
To donate to the Tri-County project or to contact the group: www.tripil.com or 724-223-5115 or toll free at 1-877-889-0965.
Janice Crompton: email@example.com or 412-263-1159.