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Historic Monessen department store revamped into stylish loft apartments

| Thursday, July 13, 2017, 6:09 p.m.
Kyle Hodges
Westmoreland County Commisioner Ted Kopas, center, speaks at the sneak preview of the loft apartments inside the renovated Eisenburg Department Store in Monessen on Thursday, July 13, 2017.
Kyle Hodges
Members of the Monessen Community Development Corp., from left, Rosalie Nicksich, Kathy Harhai, Matt Shorraw, and Mary Jo Smith, talk in the newly renovated Eisenburg Apartments in downtown Monessen on Thursday, July 13, 2017.

The population decline in Monessen has been so pronounced in the last few decades that the idea of people moving into the city may surprise some.

The Mon Valley Initiative is banking on that somewhat surprising idea, with its rehabilitation of the old Eisenberg's Department Store on Schoonmaker Avenue into stylish, loft apartments.

On Thursday, the public got a sneak preview and tour of the Eisenberg's Apartments, a dozen of which already have pre-leases signed and are awaiting occupancy this summer.

“It's a beginning. We're trying to sew the fabric together in these communities once again,” said Laura Zinski, CEO of the Mon Valley Initiative.

The three-year, $2.36 million project entailed the construction of 11 one-bedroom apartments and a pair of two-bedroom apartments for mixed-income residents. Rents will run from $405 to $620 a month.

The units, some of which are income-restricted, feature low-energy LED lighting, central air conditioning and laminate flooring.

Zinski said the Mon Valley Initiative began looking at the long-vacant property in late 2014, when the Monessen Community Development Corp. suggested the three-story brick building as a candidate for adaptive reuse.

“It had a good roof, and it was dry. Other than that, everything else was changed,” Zinski said.

The MVI, a cooperative of 10 community development corporations representing 12 communities in the Mon Valley, put together a funding package with help from Westmoreland County, state and federal agencies, and private donors.

“These types of things matter,” said County Commissioner Ted Kopas. “You're improving neighborhoods, you're improving downtown and you're providing affordable housing.”

Monessen residents have grown accustomed to seeing more vacant buildings downtown as jobs — and people — left the city. Eisenberg's Department Store closed in 1997 after an 88-year run.

Former owner Ron Wilen, whose grandfather Henry Eisenberg founded the store in 1908, held onto the building for five years but could no longer afford the taxes and insurance. He couldn't find a buyer, so he donated the building to a nonprofit organization that used it for storage.

“Every time I drove by, it just kept deteriorating,” Wilen said. “It was sad to shut it down after 88 years in the family.”

Eisenberg, an immigrant from Hungary, settled in the McKeesport area in the early 1900s and worked as a traveling salesman. He bought the Monessen men's clothing store and renamed it, adding the brick structure in 1915 and 1916.

The business expanded as Monessen's population grew and its fortunes improved with the steel industry. Eisenberg passed on the business to his son-in-law, Abe Wilen, who passed it on to his son when he retired.

Wilen said he was pleased that the apartment complex will retain the Eisenberg name.

“It's nice that this building will continue to be an important part of the community. It just means so much,” he said.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, or via Twitter @shuba_trib.

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