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New owner to turn Westinghouse Castle into hotel, event facility

| Saturday, June 18, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

John Graf first heard of Westinghouse Castle by “pure happenstance” at a production studio in Monroeville in 2011.

The person running the studio happened to be from Wilmerding and told Graf to check out the castle, so he drove to the George Street building one afternoon. He immediately was hooked.

“I was like, ‘Holy cow, look at this thing,' ” he said.

Equally impressed with the structure's deep, historic roots and its architectural grandeur, Graf began working with the nonprofit that owned the castle, Wilmerding Renewed Inc., helping the group with maintenance and upkeep that cost about $15,000 a year.

He spent the next five years investing his time and money into the idea of one day owning the property — and thanks to a recent Allegheny County Sheriff's sale, he finally was handed the keys.

On June 6, Graf, the owner of The Priory Hotel, a historic 42-room boutique hotel on the North Side, bought the castle for $100,000. This occurred after no bids were placed on the initial selling price of $550,000.

“It really has been a long road,” Graf said.

He plans to use his expertise in running an independent, non-nationally branded hotel to convert the former General Office building for renowned industrialist George Westinghouse's Air Brake Co. into a hotel and event facility. His plans are to turn the layout of the castle, which was built in 1890, into 35 guest suites and three ballrooms as well as facilities for corporate-type retreats, in addition to a full-service restaurant and gaming room. He will also offer free shuttle service and outdoor activities such as croquet and bocce.

The project is expected to cost $8 million or $9 million, but Graf is emphatic about staying true to the castle's history.

“We really want to try and preserve the aesthetic of the rooms to the best extent that we can,” he said.

The castle was designed by noted Pittsburgh architects Frederick J. Osterling, who designed the original structure in the 1890s, and Benno Janssen, who built the secondary part in the 1920s. Graf said the building will need new mechanical systems such as a boiler, furnace and air conditioning units in addition to a final fix of its roof. He plans to keep the castle's limestone fireplaces, wood paneling and ornate plaster work.

His favorite room is the general manager's office, which he said has a European castle look. It features floor-to-ceiling wood paneling, decorative cross beams and distinctive wavy plaster work on the ceiling.

“This will be like our rock star suite,” he said.

He said the facility will showcase artifacts that were on display at the castle when it was used as a museum, so that “people can see it and really get an idea of who George Westinghouse was, what impact he has on our lives today.”

Westinghouse invented the air brake, which revolutionized train travel, and cultivated alternating current electricity, which is still used, Graf said.

“That sort of tapestry of history that weaves itself through this building, I think, is really something, going from the architecture to who occupied the building, to the accomplishments of that person,” he said. “I think it's something that we in this region need to celebrate, and I'm really happy to be a part of it.”

Geraldine Homitz, 79, is the operation manager for Wilmerding Renewed Inc. and a former mayor of Wilmerding. She has been volunteering to “save the castle” since 2006 and is happy with Graf's purchase.

Homitz said Graf is the type of business owner one would want to revitalize a place such as Westinghouse Castle because of his previous work. His other hotel, The Priory, was once a monastery.

“He's a wonderful guy, and he's got a lot of business sense,” Homitz said of him. “This is a guy that went through it, and he knows what he has to face on a bigger scale. He has all these connections, and this is the kind of person you need in a place like this. I really have a lot of faith in him.”

Graf said he has spoken with “quite a few” people who have expressed interest in investing in the project. He is looking for $3 million to $4 million in private capital investment.

The financial backers that would work best for the project are those who don't expect a quick turnaround, Graf said.

“I think it will provide a nice rate of return for them, and it will be an opportunity to be part of something that's historic and hopefully game-changing for this part of the Pittsburgh metro area,” he said.

Graf will charge $145 to $210 per room. He expects the facility to open in 2018.

Madasyn Czebiniak is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
The Westinghouse Castle in Wilmerding.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
John Graf bought Westinghouse Castle in Wilmerding for $100,000 at a sheriff’s sale. He's pictured in the General Managers office. Graf plans to transform the castle into a hotel.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
A limestone mantle dedicated to George Westinghouse at the Westinghouse Castle in Wilmerding.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
An original bronze baluster in the George Westinghouse Castle in Wilmerding.
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