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Vandergrift makes a comeback

Pittsburgh Post Gazette By Kate Luce Angell
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Like many once-thriving Pennsylvania steel towns, Vandergrift, about 30 miles northeast of Pittsburgh on the Kiskiminetas River, is pretty quiet nowadays.

Last Saturday, it was the occasional car that passed through the business district, where several storefronts sat vacant. Under the shade of the century-old plane trees, the broad porches of the Victorian houses were empty.

But there were signs of life. A group at the Presbyterian Church was preparing a spaghetti dinner. The Vandergrift Historical Society was open to visitors.

And nearly 50 people were walking the streets for the Pittsburgh History and Landmark Foundation’s tour of the town once known as “the workingman’s paradise” that is now struggling to preserve a rich heritage and make a fresh start.

Built in 1895 as the new home of the Apollo Iron and Steel Co., Vandergrift once had a population of 10,000 and the largest rolled steel mill in the world, employing more than 5,000 workers. Today the mill, now owned by Allegheny Ludlum, employs 265, and the town’s population is around 5,000.

But while Vandergrift’s economic woes are common, the town, as the foundation’s tour revealed, is anything but.

George McMurtry, the owner of Apollo Iron and Steel, founded Vandergrift in the belief that workers would be more productive living in pleasant surroundings, with modern conveniences. He hired the firm of Frederick Olmsted, the designer of New York’s Central Park, to plan a worker-owned industrial community that would be “the best of the best,” in Mr. McMurtry’s words.

Mr. Olmsted’s firm produced a town that even today preserves a parklike atmosphere. With no corners, wide boulevards lined with trees curve into a business district accented by rounded brick facades.

For his part, Mr. McMurtry sold lots only to businesses and his own workers and offered free land, matching construction funds and a free organ to churches. He also donated land and funds for the Casino Theater, schools, the library and many other public projects.

Like other industrialists of his age, Mr. McMurtry’s philanthropic impulses went along with a strong profit motive: His lots for homes were expensive, and he owned the bank that offered the mortgages. One of the reasons he founded Vandergrift was to keep his mill nonunion, and he succeeded until the 1930s.

But Vandergrift became famous as a town where workers and their families could live the American dream, and the streets, lined with yellow brick, must have seemed paved with gold to some of the thousands of immigrant families who made their homes in the growing community.

As Vandergrift historian and tour leader Ken Blose pointed out, much of that brick now lies buried under crumbling asphalt. But a partnership of nonprofit groups is trying, with the help of local residents and business owners, to make Vandergrift golden again.

The Vandergrift Improvement Program, located in a small storefront on downtown Grant Street, is the local level of the national Main Street program, which works to revitalize traditional business districts by organizing local efforts, promotion of local businesses and attractions and economic restructuring.

Pittsburgh History and Landmark Foundation serves as VIP’s area coordinator. The program’s board includes local business owners and Vandergrift’s mayor, Lou Purificato.

Shaun Yurcaba, the local Main Street coordinator, said that even though VIP organized in January 2004, the groundwork laid by the program is just beginning to pay off.

“It takes a while to get started,” she explained. “We’ve been gathering information, coordinating volunteers and groups. We’re just beginning to work on business recruitment and retention.”

Already, VIP has sponsored events to help local businesses compete with “big box” stores and helped to secure funding for the refurbishment of the business district’s store facades, as well as holding community events like a recent Arts Festival.

In February, 200 Westmoreland County students will present their design ideas for turning Vandergrift’s abandoned J.C. Penney building into a new community arts center as part of the PHLF’s annual architectural design challenge. “Revitalization is a marathon,” said Mrs. Yurcaba, “not a race.”

As Mr. Blose pointed out, even before VIP, Vandergrift had residents concerned with preserving its past for a better future. “In the ’80s, they were about ready to tear the Casino Theater down. The roof was leaking, plaster falling off the walls. The Historical Society fought to save it.”

Today the Casino Theater is the oldest operating theater in southwestern Pennsylvania, and the refurbished three-story building, adorned with Greek-style columns, again hosts music and theater performances. It was recently designated the National Museum of Vaudeville in recognition of the venue’s importance during the heyday of vaudeville performance.

As Mr. Blose prepared to lead the Foundation tour group across Columbia Avenue, a group of young girls gathered on a nearby porch, curious about the crowd. “We’re on a tour,” he called out, inviting them to join in and “learn something about the town you live in.”

When the tour group moved on, PHLF executive director Louise Sturgess looked back at the girls and observed that helping a community recognize its own value was a big part of both the Foundation’s and VIP’s mission. “If they realize how special their town is, they’ll fight harder to save it.”

First published on October 18, 2007 at 6:27 am
Kate Luce Angell is a freelance writer.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633