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Charleroi landmark nearing milestones

| Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013, 12:02 a.m.

It has been called the Municipal Building, the Borough Building, City Hall and the center of life for all citizens of Charleroi.

Call it what you like, but the three-story structure at the corner of Fourth Street and Fallowfield Avenue will mark two anniversaries this year.

Construction of the municipal headquarters began on May 23, 1917. But it wasn't until more than two years later, on July 30, 1919, that borough officials began calling it home.

Plans for a new and permanent site were discussed many times at the turn of the last century. A story on the front page of The Charleroi Mail on Aug. 12, 1915, recounted the progress (or lack thereof) in the report of a similar project in Monongahela. It read:

“Though starting a movement later than Charleroi to get a new municipal building, Monongahela will have one before the Magic City, the contract for the erection of a brick structure having been awarded by the city councilmen Tuesday evening to Yohe Brothers. Charleroi has the site but construction of a building lies in the dim and uncertain future.”

The story noted that Monongahela would construct its new facilities at the corner of Main Street and Pike Alley, funds having been provided by a bond issue. The building, the newspaper said, “will be sufficient in size to accommodate the various departments of the city work, including the fire department.”

Earlier in 1915, Charleroi Borough purchased a new municipal building site at the corner of Fourth Street and Fallowfield Avenue from Mahlon E. Riggs. The purchase price was $10,500, and payment was to be arranged through a bond issue.

Plans for a building were contemplated, whereupon it was learned that funds would not be available for the building at this time, The Mail said on Aug. 12. It had been proposed that the borough properties now owned be sold but possible buyers apparently were not ready to invest. It would cost possibly $30,000 to erect the sort of building Charleroi needs.

Prior to seeking construction of a new building, Charleroi borough offices and the police and fire departments were headquartered at various sites on Fallowfield Avenue between Fourth and Fifth streets.

Riggs was a longtime Charleroi businessman who also was involved in real estate and insurance.

He was associated with the Riggs and Riggs shoe store at 431 McKean Ave. at the time of the sale of the property at Fourth and Fallowfield in 1915. That business was started by his son, Lance Riggs, and Albert Stech on April 3, 1912, and was initially known as the Riggs and Stech shoe store. As early as Oct. 1, 1905, however, it was reported in The Daily Mail, a predecessor of The Charleroi Mail, that M.E. Riggs had built four small buildings at the corner of Fourth and Fallowfield. Those structures had only two rooms each and were later sold by Riggs, who advertised them as bungalows.

Borough council announced on Jan. 5, 1917, that by the first of March if details can be arranged the contract would be awarded for construction of the new municipal building.

The plans have been completely outlined until the arrangement is about as council desires it, the newspaper said. From now until the time of the letting of the contract, council and the architect, J.S. Brenton, will be busy on the work of choosing materials and drawing up of specifications.

Meeting in regular session on April 4, 1917, council opened bids for construction of the new municipal building and rejected all of them, primarily because they were too high. The bids ranged from $72,000 to $89,000, so council “held to the option that some changes would have to be made before an contract is awarded.” Submitting bids were Gus Blair, McKeesport, $72,000; Fayette Construction Company, $76,684; Brownsville Construction Company, $79,474; Charleroi Lumber Company, $79,875; and Motz Lumber Company of Monessen, $89,600.

Council instructed borough clerk Ira L. Nickeson to re-advertise for bids and those proposals were opened at a meeting on May 2, 1917, the contract then being awarded to Charleroi Lumber Company, which submitted a low bid of $55,000. Other bidders were Motz Lumber Company, $60,704; Fayette Construction Company, $60,791; and Brownsville Construction Company, $61,312.

Nickeson was told to inform West Penn Power Company and M.E. Riggs to remove property they had on the borough site at Fourth and Fallowfield within a period of five days. Work was to be started by the Charleroi Lumber Company at that time.

Some changes were necessary in the plans for the new structure to lower the price, newspaper accounts said. The plans call for the entire three stories to be put up as originally called for. However, only the first floor will be completed for present use.

On May 23, 1917, The Mail reported that, “Ground has been broken for the construction of the new Charleroi Municipal Building at the corner of Fourth Street and Fallowfield Avenue, the Charleroi Lumber company having sent men and wagons to work this morning. The contract, which runs between $50,000 and $60,000, was awarded sometime ago.” Various problems beset construction of the new building in the ensuing months. It was reported on March 19, 1919, that work was being held up “on account of the lockout on the part of the plumbers. The building is practically complete, except for the plumbing and a little tile work in the lower hall,” The Mail announced. “The carpenters have practically completed their work, while the plumbers will be through in a few days. However, the differences between the master and journeymen plumbers have held up the plumbing work and it will be impossible to occupy the building until this part of the contract is completed. The plumbing contractors promise to get to work sometime this week in hopes of finishing the work at an early date.” The journeymen plumbers returned to work on March 25 and said they expected to complete their work in about 10 days. The tile workers, however, were delayed because shipment of necessary materials was behind schedule.

“From present indications it will be early in April when the local borough authorities will be able to move to their new quarters and surrender possession of both of the former borough buildings,” the newspaper said.

Dale Davis was hired as janitor for the new building on April 9.

Another major issue in the project evolved April 18, 1919, at a meeting during which borough council approved a bond ordinance increasing the indebtedness of the borough to the extent of $40,000. That brought total indebtedness of the borough to $283,500. The assessed valuation of the municipality was $4,394,245, and the bond issue of $40,000 was one percent of the assessed evaluation. The ordinance set the rate of interest on the bonds at 4 percent. A legal notice in the newspaper on April 19, 1919, announced that sealed bids would be accepted until April 29 for the municipal building bonds. It was signed by Nickeson and Solicitor David M. McCloskey.

Surprisingly, there were no followup stories in the newspaper about the sale of the bonds, but council did approve advertising for bids for furniture supplies on April 30. Borough officials expressed optimism that they would be able to get into their new quarters by the middle of the coming month “unless there is some unforeseen delay.” The waiting ended on the morning of July 30, 1919, as the offices of the borough clerk, the burgess and the chief of police were moved into the new borough building at Fourth and Fallowfield, “where they will hereafter be found during their office hours.” The fire department headquarters also were in the new building and much of the furniture of that organization was already in place. The new quarters of the firefighters were described as “quite commodious, consisting of a large general meeting room on the second floor, immediately above the equipment quarters, with a smaller office of the fire chief.” The offices of the borough clerk were on the second floor and connected with the council chambers, “a room much more commodious than any which has heretofore been used by the borough legislators,” The Mail proclaimed. The newspaper continued its coverage of the transition as follows:

“On the first floor, and directly on the corner, are located the offices of the tax collector, while immediately in the rear of the building are located the burgess office and the office of the chief of police, Across the hall from the police department is located the lockup, separate provisions being made for male and female prisoners.

Ample provisions are made for the equipment of the fire company, the room being very commodious and capable of holding the truck as well as hose reels and other appliances necessary for the efficient working of the department. The basement of the building is used principally by the street department, where all the equipment is kept, as well as accommodations for the police patrol. The second floor is reached by stairways both in front and rear and the halls are both wide and commodious.

With the moving of the fire truck to the new location all of the departments of the borough will be housed in one building and in close proximity to each other, a condition which has not existed before for many years,” the story said. “Hereafter the new municipal building will be the center of activities for all borough affairs.” Borough council held its first meeting in the new building on Aug. 16, 1919.

“An excellent representation of citizens was in attendance,” The Mail reported. “Many favorable comments were made by the visitors on the splendid appointments of the new council chambers as well as the accommodations made for the public.” The first official order of business that evening came from Mrs. Ferdinand Playton of 310 Crest Ave., who expressed a willingness to allow the borough to run a surface water sewer over her property. Council accepted the offer.

The Charleroi Fire Department also held its first meeting in the new building on Aug. 16.

At their first meeting in the new building the firefighters extended sincere gratitude to businessman W.B. Pfleghardt for a new Victrola, which he had presented to the fire company and which had been installed in the rooms. “The men were using the instrument last night and were more than pleased with this fine gift,” The Charleroi Mail reported.

When the new borough building officially became occupied on July 30, 1919, it was announced that the third floor of the structure was not open yet, “nor will it be until it is finished and made ready for public use.” The spacious auditorium eventually did open and became the setting for myriad activities including patriotic assemblies, concerts and other entertainment, revivals, community meetings and canteen dances for teenagers. But that's another story for another day.

Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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