Train station marks its debut a century ago
By Bob Stiles
Published: Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, 8:58 p.m.
Pennsylvania Railroad officials realized in the early 1900s that the rectangular train station near Harrison Avenue in Greensburg no longer could handle the spike in passengers and a freight boom fueled by coal.
They hired architect William Cookman to build a new station.
It turned into the center of grand times in Greensburg.
Later, it fell into disrepair, a magnet for vandals, before being reborn in the 1990s.
“It was a historic building in this city, with citizens going off to the wars, people returning from the wars, commerce,” recalled former city mayor Scott Brown.
Workers finished interior work on the new Train Station and landscaping 100 years ago, although they completed exterior work in 1911 and held a groundbreaking ceremony that fall, said Greensburg attorney Lou DeRose, a local historian and member of the Westmoreland County Historical Society board.
“The station they had in the early 1900s had an incredible volume of traffic, and the Pennsylvania Railroad realized they had an enormous problem because they needed a bigger station,” DeRose said.
The station had been remodeled in 1893. Workers began tearing down the old station in 1909.
Railroad officials eliminated a crossing on Harrison Avenue and built a new bridge on North Main Street. They needed to elevate the tracks to lessen the westbound grade because the area was in a valley and passenger trains with big wheels couldn't get going after stopping, DeRose said.
“At that time, it was also necessary to redesign the tracks to accommodate the increased rail traffic and the spurs that had been added,” according to an article on the Westmoreland Cultural Trust's website.
Workers removed a tunnel under Main Street and Maple Avenue and built the arch over College Avenue. In the process, they demolished two or three houses and a restaurant, DeRose said.
The station flourished until the late 1940s. But then Americans began a love affair with the automobile and an improving highway system contributed to a decrease in rail-passenger travel.
“All of a sudden people came home from (World War II), and they wanted their own cars, their own homes in the suburbs,” DeRose said.
In the late 1960s, the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central Railroad merged, creating Penn Central Railroad.
Officials later sold off the Penn Central, which led to further declines of stations and passenger travel. Businesses began to depend more on tractor-trailers to move goods, DeRose said.
Amtrak restored passenger service to the Main Line in 1977, the same year the station was placed on the National Register for Historic Places.
In the ensuing years, the station fell into disrepair. Local leaders' efforts to refurbish it between the late 1970s and early 1990s failed.
“The only thing I remember was people saying, ‘Can we do something about The Train Station?” said Brown, the mayor from 1983 to 1991.
“It's a building everybody loved, and (they) still do.”
Greensburg leaders discussed the building with railroad officials, “but they wouldn't sell at that point,” Brown said.
“We were just trying to get them to preserve it or do something or, ideally, sell it, which they wouldn't do at that time, or give somebody a very long lease (to remodel),” he said.
Developers told city officials parking was key to making the project work, Brown said. Then the Penn Albert Annex was torn down.
The city's development hinged on creating a cultural district around the station, according to a 1984 study.
As time went on, vagrants began hanging out at the station.
One night in the late 1980s or early 1990s, a fire broke out at the dilapidated station, city fire Chief J. Edward Hutchinson recalled.
“Coming up Harrison Avenue, I thought it was gone,” Hutchinson remembered. “I'll never forget that.”
The fire, which started in a back corner of the boiler room, caused only minor damage.
“We were lucky,” Hutchinson added.
In the early 1990s, city leaders approached the Westmoreland Cultural Trust about taking over the station. At least two developers had nixed using the site because “they couldn't make the numbers work,” recalled Terry Reese, then treasurer of the Trust's board and its current chairman.
Trust officials tied in the station's rehabilitation with their first major renovation of The Palace Theatre, Reese said.
“We were able to get a significant state grant, and several local foundations got involved. We felt by combining the two projects a synergy resulted,” Reese said. “We had two anchors in what we called the ‘cultural district.'”
The station was “architecturally significant, and it desperately needed renovations,” Reese said.
The nonprofit group got “an income stream” by linking the station, which eventually became home to restaurants, other businesses and offices, with the Palace, Reese said.
The Trust's acquisition of the station spurred other development, said Michael Langer, current Trust president, including Seton Hill University's art center nearby.
“It allows us to fulfill our mission for the good of the community,” Langer said.
The Trust took over the station in 1993, began renovations in 1996 and completed the restoration in 1998.
“It took a building that really was an eyesore in the city and turned it into a site for the city, a strong asset for the city,” Reese said.
Bob Stiles is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6622 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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