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History on menu at vintage Serro's Diner

By Deborah Brehun
Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011

As Travis Smeltzer and his crew tore apart the old Serro's Diner, they uncovered a treasure trove tracing back to its 1930s heyday.

Smeltzer hopes to have the diner back to its original glory by this spring. It will be the focal point of the Lincoln Highway Experience Museum, to be built in Unity near the Kingston Bridge.

"We never know what we are going to find," said Smeltzer as he emptied a bag of muddy silverware found behind the cooking counters of the 1938 diner that first operated on Route 30 in Irwin.

All of the items -- along with an apron, condiment bottles, bread baskets, ashtrays, old newspapers and receipts -- have been cataloged.

"With any project you peel away layers," said Olga Herbert, executive director of the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor. "You never know what's there until you remove the layers."

Crews discovered stained glass windows under several coats of paint. Beneath a linoleum floor, they found maple floors.

The biggest surprise was a solid mahogany refrigerator, with glass-door insets, buried underneath stainless steel framing, said the owner of Travis Smeltzer Construction of Apollo.

"It's like an archaeological dig. As we do repairs, we find unusual things we did even know were there," Smeltzer said.

He will restore the 44-foot-long diner following national guidelines for the treatment of historic properties.

"We've done a lot of other restoration projects in the area, including the Palace Theatre in Greensburg," Smeltzer said. "I love to do this. It is the type of project I want to do."

The Unity site includes a stone, Colonial-style home and former tavern built by Alexander Johnston in 1815. The historic landmark, once called the Kingston House and later known as the Johnston House, will house thousands of Lincoln Highway artifacts including signs, vintage postcards and photographs, and other highway memorabilia.

"The diner will be a focal point at the Lincoln Highway Experience Museum," Herbert said. "Visitors can come see the diner and get a piece of pie and coffee."

The restored diner will not be fully operational, but waitresses wearing uniforms similar to those worn at Serro's in the late 1930s will serve locally baked pies.

The Monarch-style diner was constructed by the Jerry O'Mahony Diner Co. in Elizabeth, N.J., and delivered by railroad car to brothers Louis and Joseph Serro of Herminie. There was table seating for 16 patrons and 16 stools at the counter.

Its design featured Art Deco-style porcelain panels, ceramic tile walls, a marble counter, mahogany booths and tables and chrome stools.

"This was the Cadillac of diners," Herbert said.

Project manager Chas Hayes researched the history of the diner and interviewed members of the Serro family.

"It is a legacy to the Serro family and we want to make sure it is as historically correct as we can make it," Hayes said.

The diner was moved to Willow Crossing in Hempfield, south of Greensburg, in 1958 when the Serro family purchased a new diner. John and Lillian Rolka operated the Willow Diner there until 1992, when it was sold to the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania.

It was stored at a warehouse in Pittsburgh until it was donated to the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor in 2003. Since then, it had been stored in a Latrobe warehouse.

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