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Goodbye, Columbus

| Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
A lone onlooker watches demolition of the former Columbus Hotel building in Charleroi on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013.
Ron Paglia| For The Valley Independent
A lone onlooker watches demolition of the former Columbus Hotel building in Charleroi on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013.

Demolition of a landmark building in Charleroi that has housed, among other things, hotels is stirring questions about the history of the structure.

“There's a lot of history there, no question about it,” said Charleroi Borough Manager Donn Henderson in reference to the former Columbus Hotel at Third Street and McKean Avenue. “It was operated as a hotel under various names for many years.”

Henderson said the building, which has been closed for several years, is currently owned by an unidentified firm in New Jersey.

“It has changed ownership a few times in recent years,” Henderson said. “The building was for sale on the Internet.”

Henderson said the $8,000 cost for razing the building is being covered by Charleroi's state Community Development Block Grant funds.

The history of the building is rather enigmatic.

Nikki A.C. Sheppick, chairwoman of the Charleroi Area Historical Society's board of directors, said it was built at the turn of the last century by David Gelb, the original owner of what was known then as the Hotel Gelb or more commonly as The Gelb. Gelb was a wholesale liquor distributor from Pittsburgh who purchased several properties in the community, she said.

Gelb also was an ardent supporter of John K. Tener's bid for Congress in 1908 and led a large group of distillers offering financial backing for Tener's campaign.

Sheppick noted that Gelb's widow, Fannie Gelb, sold the borough property at Fourth and Fallowfield Avenue, which is home to the municipal building.

“According to our records, it appears that (the Gelbs) were part and parcel of some of the early land speculators who came to Charleroi looking to make money by obtaining property where in a town, factory or business would boom,” she said. “And boom it did. When her husband died in 1913, Mrs. Gelb owned the property that the borough wanted to use for construction of its borough building and she sold it to them in 1914.”

A large stone ornamentation located between windows on the second and third floors of the building now being razed carries this inscription: D. Gelb.

That would give credence to Gelb being the owner of the building, but a note in the Charleroi Millennium 2000 book says that “... around 1900, John W. (Jack) Mathias, a local sports figure, opened the Walford Hotel at 301 McKean Ave., naming it after his first son, Walford.” A classified advertisement in the May 12, 1909, issue of The Charleroi Mail said the facility was looking to hire a chambermaid and directed candidates for the job to “apply at Hotel Walford.”

Mathias was a founder and charter member of Charleroi Aerie 390 of the Fraternal Order of Eagles and a past exalted ruler of Charleroi Lodge 494 of the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks. He also served two terms as tax collector in Charleroi. Born in Pittsburgh, he came to Charleroi with the MacBeth Glass Co., which became MacBeth-Evans in 1894.

Those points, and others, were emphasized in Mathias's obituary when he died Aug. 14, 1950, at his home in Ridley Park near Philadelphia, but there was no mention of him having owned the hotel.

Sheppick said the historical society archives includes pictures and stories about Hotel Gelb sponsoring a championship baseball in 1902. A team photo shows Mathias, a standout pitcher, sitting front and center. A story among those artifacts identifies him as manager of the hotel.

The society's collection also includes pictures of the exterior and interior (dining room, bar) of the hotel that appeared in the May 1903 Charleroi Chamber of Commerce Industrial Edition.

Another mystery surrounding the building is reference in the Millennium book that the Robertson Brothers Candy Co. occupied the structure after the hotel shut down in the 1920s. There is no official record of that business, although some old-timers do recall a “candy business of some sort” being located along that stretch of McKean Avenue, which also includes The Coyle Theater.

A story in the June 16, 1965, edition of The Charleroi Mail announced that the Columbus Hotel had been purchased by William D. Caterini and his wife Veronica of Roscoe.

“The hotel had been known by several names until 1945 when it was purchased by the Columbus Club Association, which was affiliated with the Knights of Columbus, and was renamed the Columbus Hotel,” The Mail story said. “The Columbus Club Association sold its interest in the business to Pauline Connor and her late husband, Neil Connor, in 1948. Following Mr. Connor's death ... it was continued by Mrs. Connor.”

Neil Connor died Dec. 15, 1958. His wife, the former Pauline Regula, died on Feb. 7, 2005. In addition to owning and operating the Columbus Hotel, Pauline Connor was the executive housekeeper at the former Memorial Hospital of Monongahela until her retirement in 1976.

When Bill and Veronica Caterini purchased the hotel in 1965, they announced plans to renovate and continue the dining facilities and make it available to the public for various functions. It had enjoyed a long and positive reputation for those services over the years.

“They had great food and the best draught beer in town,” said a man who asked not to be identified as he watched the demolition work this week. “They were one of the first (restaurants/bars) to install a television set in the late 1940s or early ‘50s and we loved to go there to watch sports events, especially professional wrestling, and enjoy a couple of cold ones.”

The hotel had 29 guest rooms and two apartments for permanent occupancy for many years. Sheppick said the Charleroi Area Historical Society, which has long advocated and fought for preservation of historical sites in the community, is “very sorry” to see the Columbus Hotel building “was let go as it was – per the deed search.”

“It showed that not more than a couple of years ago it was bought via real estate ‘flipping' and then nothing was done to make it a viable part of the community,” she said. “It was trashed by thoughtless vandals and was hit by a suspicious fire. It was allowed to deteriorate and soon it will be gone forever.”

Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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