Column #141 - July 22, 2001
CHANGING TIMES SEALED THE FATE
OF THE MONONGAHELA HOTEL
by Glenn Tunney
series about Brownsville's Monongahela Hotel concludes with a look back at the
hotel's many owners and its residents, both transient and permanent.
"The transient guests were often traveling salesmen who stopped in Brownsville to make their rounds," remarked Lou Opall, former night clerk. "Other guests included railroad workers ‘laying over' in Brownsville and people from outlying areas who stayed at the hotel to insure they wouldn't miss the early morning bus or train out of town."
As those folks boarded their bus or train the next day, they brushed shoulders with disembarking passengers who walked directly across the street to the hotel.
"People came in on the Blue Ridge bus across the street," declared former night clerk Jim Vecheck, "just to stay at our hotel."
"And whenever a carnival or circus came to town," added Lou Opall, "the ‘advance man' and some of the performers stayed at the hotel. In return for pasting up a few signs on my way to school, I always had tickets to share with my friends."
And the hotel's nightly rates?
"In the early forties, it would cost you $1.50 per night," Jim Vecheck told me, "and if you wanted to take a bath, it was two dollars!"
Many of the hotel's guests were permanent residents there.
"You had to have so many transient rooms available for travelers," said former hotel bartender Joe Lesko. "But there were quite a few people who lived permanently in the hotel because of the convenience of having meals served upstairs, maid service, and so on. They even got their mail delivered there!"
"Of our permanent guests," commented Lou Opall, "I especially recall Edwin and Doctor Veronica Binns, who lived in a two room suite near the front of the building. They were nice, polite people who always had a friendly word.
"Another permanent guest," Lou went on, "was Ben Hirschfield, who had a heating and ventilation business in the cinder block building at the foot of Front Street. With his grey mustache and Ivy League clothes, I often wondered how he managed to do any business in the mining ‘patches.' The maids, Annie and her co-worker whose name I've forgotten, also lived at the hotel. They were not only friendly, they were the life of the hotel, always joking and laughing loudly enough to be heard on the street."
"Other permanent residents I remember," said Jim Vecheck, "were Mr. Gregg, who owned West Side Bottling; George Hopson, a businessman in the Neck; Emil Hartman, a guard at the National Deposit Bank; and Mr. Bolo, who owned coin-operated games. For my high school graduation, Mr. Bolo lent me his car, filled up the tank and said, ‘Enjoy!'"
Some of the hotel's permanent residents actually lived in a different building. Their rooms were on the third floor of the Monongahela National Bank building, which later became the First National Bank. When the hotel opened in 1925, the bank's third floor contained twenty hotel rooms and was connected to the hotel by an enclosed pedestrian "bridge." In 1932, a Brownsville Telegraph article indicated that the bridge would no longer be used.
Nancy Lynn Bakewell and her husband Bob of Morganton, North Carolina enlightened me about that bridge, which is still there today.
"Bob's parents lived on the third floor of the bank building," Nancy explained, "and he remembers a sort of covered arch between the bank building and the hotel. It had an opening on the third floor of the bank building, but it was closed off on the hotel end. Tenants in the bank stored things in there."
The top floor of the bank building was eventually converted into apartments.
"They were some pretty nice apartments," commented Nancy. "In the late l940's, my future in-laws' apartment had three bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen-dining room combo. They had great neighbors living up there, including Ruth Cashdollar and her mom, the Shumars, the Bonuccis, Bob and Gloria Law, Maymie Zimmerlink, and Nellie and Put Patton."
With the connecting bridge from the hotel closed and a bank below the third floor apartments, I asked Nancy how residents reached their apartments.
"All the bank fixtures were in place in the late 1940's," Nancy explained, "but the Monongahela Bank was no longer in business [having closed in 1931]. The building had an outer lobby, then another set of doors leading into the bank itself. Third floor tenants entered the outer lobby from the street and went directly up the stairs to their apartments."
During the Monongahela Hotel's years of operation, its staff and ownership were constantly changing. Jim Vecheck began working there in 1942 at age fifteen.
"I will always be grateful to Flora Sharpnack, a teacher at Brownsville High, who arranged my career at the hotel," Jim told me. "Upon graduating from high school in 1945, I landed a job with the Monongahela Railroad. Thankfully the war was nearly over, and my brief career at the railroad was starting. Later I graduated from California State Teachers College, served six years in the air force, then worked thirty years as a design engineer at Westinghouse in Baltimore."
When 18-year-old Jim informed the hotel owner's wife that he was giving up his night clerk's job, she wasn't happy.
"When I gave my resignation to Mrs. Richardson," Jim said, "she told me I was a ‘quitter' for leaving them during wartime!"
Fortunately, Mrs. Richardson's husband Delmar was more understanding.
"Delmar Richardson was the owner of the hotel," said Jim. "He was tall with dark eyes, a true gentleman. He was generous with his gray Cadillac, often assigning me to deliver it to the garage around Snowdon Square. He would let me take it for a spin, and I would end up keeping it for half a day, driving around town and picking up my friends!"
As Jim Vecheck was leaving his night clerk's job, Joe Lesko was hiring on as bartender.
"I started working there right after World War II," Joe said. "Samuel Sunkin and Charlie Long, Billy Long's brother, sold the Square Tavern and bought the hotel for around $68,000. But they eventually sold out to hotel people from Pittsburgh named Carlen."
"Why do you think they sold the hotel?" I asked Joe.
"Well, during the years that Mr. Sunkin and Mr. Long had it, motels started to become popular. Most of our transient clients had always used the train, but the passenger trains and streetcars stopped running into Brownsville around 1950. We didn't have much parking available at the Monongahela Hotel, so people in cars often went to the motels. My bosses got a little shaky, so they sold the hotel to Mr. Carlen.
"That turned out to be bad timing for Mr. Sunkin and Mr. Long," Joe continued, "because just after they sold the hotel, construction of the Labelle coal washer began. There were 138 rooms in that hotel, and every room was filled with construction workers from Texas, Mississippi, New York, all over.
"Mr. Carlen put up cots in the basement, charged the men 75 cents a night to sleep there, and made quite a bit of money during that time. But business soured later, and along came Earle Hotels, a chain outfit that leased the hotel and ran it dry. I worked for Mr. Carlen for about a year, then around 1951 I left and began bartending at the Bruce Hotel on the corner of Brownsville Avenue and Market Street, a building that has since been torn down."
Around the time Joe was leaving, teenager Lou Opall was hiring on at the Earle Hotel as bellhop, then night clerk.
"The operator of the hotel," said Lou, "was the Earle Milner Hotels Corporation. Founder Earl Milner was a man who wanted to build up a chain of hotels for ‘the average man.' In the late 40's, a room in his lower class Milner Hotels was $1 a night, while the nightly rate at his better class Earle Hotels, including the one in Brownsville, was $4.
"The managers of Brownsville's Earle Hotel were Joe Rizzo and his wife, who had Jersey accents and seemed out of place in sleepy Brownsville. I later learned that most of their working lives they had worked in carnivals. Rizzo was a carnie-type of character who talked out of the side of his mouth and wore large rings and bright, flashy clothes, while his wife wore rings of glass that she claimed were diamonds."
As the 1950's progressed, the hotel's business continued to decline. The handwriting was on the wall.
"The Earle Hotel people finally gave up too," said Joe Lesko, "and the hotel was purchased at auction by Frank Bock of Brownsville. He renamed it the Towne House and turned it into an apartment building, not wanting to bother with running a bar or serving food."
Today the massive brick building is completely empty, owned for the past few years by Ernest and Marilyn Liggett. It was one of the couple's first acquisitions in their decade-long real estate shopping spree. Now when Brownsville's younger generations pass by it, they see only a dirty vacant building with the barely legible words "Towne House" on its sagging marquee. Most have no clue that this huge building once housed Brownsville's biggest hotel.
But the men and women who remember its glory days occasionally pause on the sidewalk in front of it. As they stand and study the old building, their memories come alive with the sights and sounds of a once-vibrant, bustling downtown hotel. To them it seems as if it was only yesterday, rather than over half a century ago, that it was the grand Monongahela, "Brownsville's million dollar hotel.
Readers may call me at 724-785-3201, e-mail me at email@example.com or write me at 6068 National Pike East, Grindstone, PA 15442.
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