Welcoming Vandergrift has Plenty of Special Features
By Bob Karlovits, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, November 22, 2010
Many small towns have rich stories, but few tell them as well as Vandergrift.
Part of that tale is in the layout of the historic area of the 115-year-old town. Designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, the creator of New York City’s Central Park and many academic campuses, the streets arch over and around the hillside on which the town is built.
A grand theater, the Casino, sits facing a mall leading down to a train station. It was given that spot intentionally to offer a welcome to anyone arriving in the Westmoreland County town.
The town was built to provide a home for workers at the steel mill of George McMurtry. The mill has had six owners since its first, but still is working, despite the decline of the steel industry.
All of those features make Vandergrift a place where the past is a major part of the present. It makes it worth a visit to see that story.
The Victorian Vandergrift Museum is in a school built in 1911 and, like many features of the town, is a work in progress.
With displays on three floors, it tells the story of the town in a number of ways. On the bottom floor is a room decorated with many pictures of initial work on the town along with map of the plans originated by the Olmsted firm.
If you’re lucky, you might run into Bill Hesketh, treasurer of the museum and historical society. He could tell you about McMurtry, owner of Apollo Iron & Steel, wanting to build a town that would attract workers and entice them to stay.
He would do that by having the famed designers draw up a plan for the ultimate company town. McMurtry thought a cultured worker was a good worker, so included plans for the Casino. He also saw the benefit of religious life, so provided $7,500 to any congregation planning to build a church costing $15,000 or more. He wanted sober workers, so the town was dry until 1936.
If you are lucky, Hesketh will be there to offer you some thoughts. But it will take some luck. He does not schedule tours or times he is there for visits. There are no other guides at the museum either. But simply wandering around the museum will provide a look at what Vandergrift is all about.
Victorian Vandergrift Museum, 184 Sherman Ave. Hours: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays. Details: 724-568-1990.
Now, it’s time to take to the streets. In some ways, the rows of houses are the story of Vandergrift.
The look of the town is somewhat defined by the rows of company homes on streets that are devoid of 90-degree angles.
When the Olmsted designers laid out the plan, Hesketh says, they decided on 50-feet-wide lots, but McMurtry thought that was way too wide. He was selling the lots, and wanted to profit from them.
They became 25-feet-wide, leading to streets of homes generally built tightly together.
Hesketh points out some people eventually bought two homes and built them together to make one bigger residence. Or they bought one and tore it down to create a bigger yard. There are some properties that were sold as 50-feet-wide and are the sites of some nicer homes, for the non-laborer class.
Take a walk around and look at the history of a town as seen in its homes. The look of the town is created by the past and the gentle curves of the Olmsted design, which even creates a non-straight business district.
After touring Vandergrift and getting ready for the finale of this day, it is time for dinner.
There are some likely stops for a meal in town, and these three win local praise. You probably saw them as you wandered around.
The G&G Restaurant (724-567-6139) on Columbia Avenue is largely a breakfast and lunch place, but is open till 9 p.m. for dinner.
A.J.’s Restaurant (724-568-2464) is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays until 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. Fridays.
Offering a more specific dinner outlook is the Steeltown Smokehouse (724-568-4087) on Washington Avenue. The burgers-and-wings emporium is open till 8 p.m. Mondays to Thursday, 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 6 p.m. Sundays.
The best way to do this trip is to pay attention to the shows at the Casino, which can be checked out at www.casinotheater.org, then plan a visit on a day ending with some entertainment.
Make sure to arrive at the Casino with enough time to look around.
The oldest, active theater in Western Pennsylvania had become a unused shell when a group that became Casino Theatre & Restoration Management took it over in 1991, Hesketh says. They brought the site back to life.
Trumpet star Maynard Ferguson (1928-2006) performed there along with the Vogues and the Clarks. The renovated theater has been the home of stage presentations. Some of the restoration meant changes from the original, Hesketh says, but some of that provided aspects that seemed to be needed.
“This place just called for boxes,” he says, pointing to box seats on each side of the stage.
Roam around the Casino. The balcony casts a good and attractive view of the stage. The lobby, slightly smaller than what it once was, offers an attractive entrance.
McMurtry thought the Casino would be a significant part of the town when it was built in 1900.
It still is.