Razing once-grand Belvedere Hotel along Route 66 proves to be problematic, costly
The dilapidated Belvedere Hotel along Route 66 in Oklahoma Borough could collapse anytime, spilling debris onto the road and perhaps beyond, local officials are warning.
The front wall of the Swiss chalet-inspired, four-story hotel is leaning toward Route 66, Orr Avenue and active Norfolk Southern railroad tracks, according to Lee Schumaker, borough code enforcement officer for Allegheny Township and Oklahoma Borough.
“In my opinion, it could come down tonight,” Schumaker said last week.
Inspections by Bill Braun of Senate Engineering in late 2016 and 2017 found deteriorated, broken and rotted floor joists due to water damage on all levels of the 28-room building, located at 1 Orr Ave. The severity of the deterioration caused District Judge Cheryl Peck Yakopec to order the building to be declared unsafe to occupy in 2017.
Now, the roof is sagging and the front wall leaning, suggesting continuing and swift deterioration, according to Schumaker and Braun.
“We’ve got a problem that’s not going away,” Schumaker told a roomfull of officials from PennDOT, the state Department of Environmental Protection, Westmoreland County and the borough during a meeting Wednesday at the Allegheny Township Community Building.
If just a portion of the century-plus-old building falls, the entire structure will have to be razed promptly because it contains asbestos, according to George Traister Jr., a DEP air quality specialist.
The math is not encouraging:
• The 52-foot-tall building is 6 feet from Orr Avenue, 10 feet from Route 66 and 37 feet from the railroad tracks, according to Schumaker.
• The borough recently consulted a Johnstown-based demolition expert. They estimated the cost to raze the building could be more than double Oklahoma Borough’s annual budget. Demolition and related expenses would range from $200,000 to $500,000. Oklahoma Borough, population 915, has a budget of almost $162,000 for 2019.
Oklahoma Borough officials are asking for funding from Westmoreland County, the state and federal offices.
Going through the normal channels to find money and project planning, the demolition could take about a year to get under way, said Terry Antonacci, local government representative for Westmoreland County.
“Is there some way to stabilize the structure?” he asked.
Schumaker and Braun said the building’s large size and its proximity to roads eliminate possibilities of stabilizing the structure. Both men want continued inspections of the hotel’s exterior to detect further movement in the building.
Jennifer Woodling, local government coordinator for Westmoreland County, said her office will look into ways to help.
Given the potential closures of that portion of Route 66 and Orr Avenue and its impact on business and transportation to Apollo and beyond, she said, “This is a regional problem, not just an Oklahoma problem.”
The hotel is owned by Lanna Planitzer, who is about 80 years old. Because of Peck-Yakopec’s order, she moved out of the building in July 2017. She does not have the resources to pay for the demolition of the hotel, Schumaker said.
Planitzer wasn’t immediately available for comment. She bought the hotel in 1979, according to news accounts, with dreams of restoring and re-energizing the hotel, which by then was more well-known as a bar and an apartment house than a hotel.
Local unofficial landmark
The hotel was built in 1905 by Joseph Gianini, who was born in Switzerland in 1852, immigrated to the United States and became an engineer-builder. After completing a job in the Apollo area, he wanted to find work for his employees who pleaded with him, “Don’t send us back to the soup kitchens in Pittsburgh,” according to Valley News Dispatch writer John Gibson in an article published in the 1970s.
The Belvedere, which means “beautiful view” in Italian, was built into a hillside with a commanding view of the Kiski River cutting through a valley with the town of Apollo across the way. Passenger trains brought carloads of salesmen and others to the nearby West Apollo Train Station on their way to Apollo.
Visitors could dine on French cuisine and visit the parlor that sold candy, ice cream and eventually liquor.
In later years, after the hotel rooms were turned into apartments, the building still held considerable charm.
“No one will ever know how beautiful it was inside,” said Patty Foster, 68, of Unity Township, who lived there as a young girl from 1953-61 with her family.
“It was the craftsmanship,” she said. “All of the oak used for the fireplaces with large mirrors, baseboards — even the parquet floor — it was all detailed, even the brass doorknobs.”
During a visit last year, she spied an original door still visible from a porch that was half oak and half window glass.
Much of the wood and other architectural artifacts have since been stripped out of the building, according to Schumaker.
The hotel aged out
The Belvedere is a victim of history and innovations with the waning of the passenger railroad and the increase in cars and roads.
Today, as the hotel sits, due to current zoning requirements, the hotel can’t meet setback requirements and would not be eligible for an occupancy permit, according to Schumaker. Both Orr Avenue and Route 66 were paved after the hotel was built.
The hotel’s heyday was in the early 1900s, when passenger trains stopped across from the hotel, according to Alan Morgan of Apollo, secretary of the Historical Society of Apollo.
The last train of the day, known as the “bummer,” pulled in at 12:45 a.m., according to Morgan.
“Not all on the ‘bummer’ were able — or wanted — to go home, so they stayed at the hotel,” Morgan said.
When the passenger train was replaced by the proliferation of cars and roads, then parking, accessibility and the decreasing need for overnight accommodations changed the Belvedere’s fortunes.
But the hotel — which later became known as Gianini’s and the Tin Hut — was still a place where people stopped.
The Apollo historical society still frequently receives phones calls about the hotel, according to Morgan.
“Everybody is fascinated by it,” he said, “even in the shape it’s in, you can tell it was a beautiful building.”
Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter .