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Wilmerding group sees chance for renewal

By Jack Markowitz
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

It’s an old company town with at least half the population gone from the glory days. But the headquarters of the company’s great founder still stands, and as the saying goes, “they don’t build ’em like that anymore.”

The question is, can a new era of civic vitality spring up around what townsfolk call “the Castle?”

That is the situation of Wilmerding, a green-hilled Turtle Creek valley community of 2,200 in eastern Allegheny County. George Westinghouse, inventor and businessman extraordinaire, employed thousands in the town making railroad brakes from the late 1800s. People can still visit the office he used until 1913, with its solid wooden desk and high bay windows.

Wilmerding Renewed Inc. is betting modern professionals will want to be his neighbor, one century removed.

Wilmerding Renewed is a nonprofit corporation of six people who, with no paid staff, are buying the Castle for $750,000 and aiming to raise $4 million over the next two years to put it on a self-sustaining economic basis. They also want to recycle a nearby school for public events, more offices and a private or charter academy. And farther out, to bring new life to rows of historic “company town” houses.

John Gagetta, chairman of Wilmerding Renewed and an energy consultant, says the town was lucky to escape the bulldozers of “redevelopment.” He expects the Castle purchase to close June 30. “We gave ourselves a smaller window than most nonprofits — only eight months — to get this done, and we’re starting with debt,” he said.

Some 75 percent of the building’s 50,000 square feet is being marketed by Aegis Realty Partners Inc. at $14 a year per square foot, including utilities and parking overlooking the town’s central park. The rate easily beats Downtown Pittsburgh. But the ornate onetime home of Westinghouse Air Brake Co. has stone and brick walls six feet thick. Fiber-optic cable can’t get in there, says Joe Tosi, of Aegis. But computers and phones work fine.

The best prospects, Tosi said, are professional offices of 200 to 2,000 square feet that might enjoy free use of elegant 1890s conference rooms. A dozen tenants already are aboard from previous management. Also up and running is a George Westinghouse Memorial Museum rich in artifacts and memories.

The current owner is APICS, acronym for an industrial training foundation in the Washington, D.C., area, whose space needs are shrinking. APICS bought the Castle for $10, a gift from the old Wabco after a merger. It was obviously regarded as a white elephant.

But in this era of blah architecture, castles can live again, says Arthur P. Ziegler Jr., president of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. A steel mill is hard to recycle, he said, but an office building “as impressive as this, on an impressive site, has a very good chance.”

Jack Markowitz can be reached at

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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