Man with a plan
By Jerry Vondas
Sunday, March 19, 2006
Wilmerding has its own version of a medieval Scottish castle, a majestic five-story edifice that overlooks the Westinghouse Valley community that George Westinghouse established for his Air Brake Corp.
The Castle, as it is known, was designed in 1886 by Frederick Osterling to house the executive offices of the Westinghouse Air Brake Corp.
The Castle, with 55,000 square feet of office and dining areas and 57 rooms, is constructed of Indiana limestone. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, along with the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks designation of historic Allegheny County Buildings.
For over a century, the Castle served as the headquarters of a corporation that fabricated railroad and industrial pneumatic devices, including the air brakes that were invented and patented by Westinghouse.
The interior has the original marble floors and corridors, brass fixtures and oak woodwork throughout. Several of the conference rooms are paneled and have marble and carved-stone walk-in fireplaces. The textured ceiling of the executive dining room is painted with symbolic works of art.
The hand-carved oak doors of the executive dining room, which stand 12 feet high, are done in a linen-fold design, carved to resemble the convolutions of a folded napkin. And the four-face clock tower — which was added to the main building when the Castle was rebuilt in 1897 following a disastrous fire — chimes on the half-hour.
But to the residents of Wilmerding, a small borough nestled in the Westinghouse Valley in the eastern environs of Allegheny County, the Castle is more than a historic landmark. It is a reminder of WABCO, a company that Westinghouse relocated in Wilmerding in 1989, and that, along with its successor, Wabtec, has been the borough’s primary employer.
Westinghouse, a man known for his benevolent management style, plotted and then established Wilmerding as one of the nation’s first planned communities. He built substantial homes for his workers, who at first emigrated primarily from Wales and Ireland, and then from southern and eastern Europe. He also built a school to educate their youngsters, provided for their health care and established a pension plan.
In his company, unlike others, female engineers were accorded the same benefits and respect as their male counterparts.
Samuel Gompers, considered by many as one of the great labor leaders in American history, noted that if all employers treated their employees like Westinghouse did, there would be no need for labor unions.
Wabtec, the spin-off of WABCO, still provides employment for more than 1,000 residents of the borough.
It is this impetus of having a viable industrial entity still operating in an area where many of the steel mills and factories have been shuttered that motivated a group of six individuals — John Cagetta, John Nalevanko, Joseph L. Castagnola, Barbara R. Hiquet, James H. McConomy and Geraldine Homitz — working closely with borough officials to form a nonprofit group called Wilmerding Renewed Inc., to revitalize what they understand is an industrial area with a promising future.
“We have been told,” said Castagnola, a businessman, “that Wabtec has enough orders to take them into the next decade. And that they intend to add additional employees in the coming months in order to produce the components for new subway cars being built for the Port Authority that services New York and New Jersey.”
WRI is using the Castle, which continues to have such a positive impact in the community, as the cornerstone of its revitalization project — a project that will include, in addition to the continuation of the George Westinghouse Museum and its collection of prized memorabilia detailing the career of Westinghouse and his WABCO, the addition of ample office and meeting areas that can be used as a gathering place for community educational and social purposes.
The nonprofit APICS E&R Foundation, which owns the Castle, is selling the Castle when its 20-year lease is up this year.
Currently the WRI, as part of its 10-year revitalization plan, has signed an agreement to purchase the castle for $750,000. It will be refurbished and used as a first-class office building.
“It would be unthinkable to go ahead with plans to revitalize the borough and have an empty Castle,” Castagnola said. “We hope to raise the money from public and private sources and grants.”
Although James “Bert” McConomy, an attorney with offices in Downtown Pittsburgh, left Wilmerding when he was 14, he continues to think of the borough as his home.
“As kids, my brother and I sold newspapers at the gate of the WABCO plant,” McConomy said. “We sold newspapers for 4 cents. Everyone gave us a nickel, and we got to keep a penny. And as kids we used to watch the limousines as they made it up the driveway to the Castle. It was awesome.”
McConomy envisions as part of the revitalization plan — which includes the upgrading of the borough’s historical district along with replica lampposts identical to those in Lennox, Mass., where Westinghouse had a home — the acquisition of the former George Westinghouse Memorial High School building for use as an entertainment and repertory theater complex.
“The school auditorium seats 600,” McConomy said. “And in addition, we’ve been told that we can upgrade the gymnasium, classrooms, meeting rooms and library facilities at a minimal cost.”
During his lifetime, Westinghouse established 60 companies, including the Westinghouse Electric Corp., which he lost during the business panic of 1907. He also acquired nearly 400 patents.
Geraldine Homitz, a former mayor of Wilmerding, recalled t
“It was a sense of pride to work for Mr. Westinghouse’s company,” she said. “The women employees who worked in the general and executive offices wore white gloves and hats and the men suits and ties. It was an elegant sight to see them leaving the Castle at the end of the work day.
“Mr. Westinghouse also provided a pension for the widows, gave his employees a half day off on Saturday and every family received a ham for the holidays.”
Shortly before his death in 1914, Westinghouse — who, as Union Navy veteran of the Civil War is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va., along with his wife, Marguerite — told a friend:
“If someday, they say of me that in my work I have contributed something to the welfare and happiness of my fellow men, I shall be satisfied.”
Jerry Vondas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (412) 320-7823.
This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review © Pittsburgh Tribune Review