Penn Hills' stunning structures: 'Castle,' Atlas Cement Co.

Patrick Varine
| Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

(Editor's note: This is the second entry in a two-part series about architecturally interesting or eye-catching properties in Penn Hills area.)

Our tour of interesting buildings continues with castle crenellations and the ghostly remnants of what once was Penn Hills' largest industry.

They are just a few of many Penn Hills properties that stand out in the neighborhoods.

A castle for his queen

Tom Marucci and his wife, Eileen, bought a ranch home on Hershey Road in Penn Hills about 38 years ago.

To drive by today, one never would recognize it as the original.

The home's front now is dominated by a two-car garage featuring natural brick arches, to make no mention of the two-story crenellated castle tower at one end of the house. A second, smaller tower at the bottom of the driveway houses the mailbox.

“I always liked the romance of arches,” said Marucci, who does electrical and masonry work in his spare time, applying those skills to his home. He also builds and manufactures shopping-mall children's trains alongside his twin brother.

Marucci raised the home's roof and built a two-car garage by himself, using leverage to haul 30-foot wooden beams into place.

“I've basically covered the old house entirely,” he said, pointing to a brick wall in the garage that once was his home's exterior.

All of this neglects to mention one of the home's most interesting features: the mailbox is on an automated cable that tows it up the steep front yard and directly to the front door.

“I wanted to build a castle for my wife,” Marucci said. “And she didn't want to walk all the way down the driveway in winter to get the mail.”

Throughout his property there are now roughly 40 arches, and Marucci said he always has a project in mind.

“It was always a family joke: ‘Oh, Tom? He's working on his house again,'” he said.

A once-mighty industry

On June 1, 1980, Penn Hills' largest industry shut down, as the Universal Atlas Cement Co. stopped production at its Universal Road property.

The still-unoccupied site has been a hot spot for “urban explorers,” who venture — occasionally via trespassing — onto abandoned properties to see what was left behind, and have posted no shortage of photos of mysterious, decaying structures throughout the former plant's 183 acres.

The plant was once the lifeblood of the Clarksville neighborhood, whose name was changed to “Universal” to reflect the massive industry just up the road, which at one time was producing roughly a half-million tons of white and gray cement each year.

Lois Ann Fiala Guzzo, who now splits her time between homes in California and Florida, grew up in Clarksville, and her aunt Mary Ann Fiala Gregory ran one of the all-cement boarding houses adjacent to the plant, where workers stayed.

“Most of the men in Universal were hired by the cement works,” Guzzo said. “My aunt was the cook and the cleaner. (The boarding house) accommodated the Gregory family, but also many of the out-of-town workers.”

Rows of condo-style buildings — all made of cement — sprung up as the plant's business boomed, and Guzzo said company houses were also built on adjacent property, an area referred to as “Mudville.”

“The streets were basically soil,” Guzzo said. “At the top of the hill, not far from the building house, was a school which was built entirely of cement.”

A drive up Main Street/Universal Road makes clear the impact that the cement plant had: two out of every three structures has a bottom floor whose outside walls are built out of the plant's textured cement blocks, and former plant manager Emmert Harchelroad designed the present-day United Presbyterian Church of Universal, with its cement veneer.

Many of the property's structural oddities and buildings have been demolished in recent years, according to Penn Hills Planning Director Howard Davidson.

One that remains, however, is a fairly ornate, almost Spanish-style building, which was rented at one time to the American Iron and Steel Institute for research and development.

The property is currently owned by Alpine, Utah-based MM&G Associates, and another Alpine company, Private Capital Group, manages the property. A Private Capital official said the company is doing environmental assessment work on the property, but could not give any details on future development.

The land served as an easily convincing abandoned industrial plant in the 2002 Richard Gere film “The Mothman Prophecies” that filmed throughout the region.

Patrick Varine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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