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Priory group interested in Wilmerding Castle

| Tuesday, March 5, 2013, 4:56 a.m.
Priory Hospitality Group officials have expressed interest in acquiring and remodeling the George Westinghouse Castle in Wilmerding. Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
Priory Hospitality Group officials have expressed interest in acquiring and remodeling the George Westinghouse Castle in Wilmerding. Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
Edward Ryan, a former resident of Liberty Manor Personal Care Home, walks around the neighborhood during an investigation of alleged narcotics and public health violations on Monday afternoon prior to the home's closing. Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News

A Pittsburgh-based company has expressed interest in buying the George Westinghouse Castle in Wilmerding and converting it into a hotel and restaurant similar to its operation on the North Shore.

The Priory Hospitality Group operates the Priory Hotel, a former Benedictine monastery turned 42-room family-owned and operated boutique hotel.

John Graf, vice president of operations of the Priory Hospitality Group, met Wilmerding council president Stephen Shurgot and other borough officials within the past three weeks regarding a proposal for 324 Commerce St.

Graf said he's in the process of gaining political support and funding for the project, but noted no purchase agreement has been signed.

“We've looked pretty hard at the property and I think it can work,” Graf said. “It's going to be expensive to do. ... It's a matter of trying to get financing together from different sources to get it up and get it running. That's kind of where things are right now. ... We have a lease on the property, but I'm not occupying it right now. It's just to maintain the property interest in it. ... I'm optimistic about the project. ... We're a ways off from being able to do something.”

The group is seeking help from lenders, private investors and possibly some public money. It may cost more than $10 million to rehabilitate and renovate the property.

Graf said his group first became interested in the castle in 2011 after winning a small business association award, and spoke with people at an event about the site.

A feasibility study was conducted and architects got involved. Plans include developing 37 hotel rooms, two 200-person capacity banquet halls, a restaurant and meeting rooms.

“Our idea is to do it as a beautiful, first-class space and make it a destination that people would be proud of,” Graf said.

Castle volunteer operations manager and former Wilmerding mayor Geraldine Homitz said the Priory's interest was kept under wraps for about a year, and now everyone's talking about it.

“He came in with planners and contractors,” Homitz said. “The guy has a good business head because he wanted to make sure (it was feasible). ... With something this phenomenal coming in, it's going to upgrade the town.”

“We're really excited that someone wants to renovate the Castle and make it a viable part of not only our community, but the whole region,” Shurgot said. “I think it would make Wilmerding a very popular space for weddings and things like that. ... Council will support him any way he needs help.”

Homitz said volunteers hope the developer would keep as much Castle history as possible.

“We asked if he could please leave at least George Westinghouse's office in there,” Homitz said. “It doesn't seem that he's going to have all the stuff that we had. ... Money's tough out there. I hope he gets it.”

“We'd like to weave as much of the history of the building in as we can,” Graf said.

Wilmerding Renewed bought the building in 2006 for $750,000 from Virginia-based APICS Educational Research Foundation.

The Castle underwent a major restoration in 2011 after an overflowing toilet caused significant flood damage.

A shutoff valve on a toilet near the President's Room on the third floor malfunctioned in 2010, sometime between late Dec. 12 and early Dec. 13, resulting in massive flooding and destruction of carpeting on the third floor, and to the walls, ceilings, electrical systems, offices, floors and other items on the first and second floors.

The damage forced six Castle tenants to evacuate, and many events were canceled. Trafford-based Disaster Restoration Services began work to restore the facility in February 2011.

Repairs were completed in June 2011, just in time for George Westinghouse Days.

The castle closed in October 2012 due to financial constraints. The last event at the Castle prior to its closing was a field trip for Allegheny Traditional Academy fifth-graders on Sept. 28. Last year's Christmas Tree Parade was canceled.

Homitz said operating the Castle costs about $10,000 a month; about $30,000-$40,000 would be needed to reopen.

The Castle is a unique and historic structure. It formerly housed the general office of the Westinghouse Air Brake Co. and the personal office of prolific inventor and industrialist George Westinghouse.

It's in the National Register of Historic Places and is recognized by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

Wilmerding was founded in 1890 as a company town around George Westinghouse's air brake business. The company's former headquarters in the Castle still houses Westinghouse products and memorabilia from its glory days.

The Priory Hospitality Group plan was discussed during Monday's workshop meeting of East Allegheny School District's board of directors.

“That might turn Wilmerding around,” Superintendent Roger A. D'Emidio suggested about the Priory plan, as well as a possible sale of his district's old Westinghouse Elementary School in Wilmerding.

Michael DiVittorio is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1965, or Staff Writer Patrick Cloonan contributed to this story.

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