Column #138 - July 1, 2001
BROWNSVILLE'S BIGGEST HOTEL WAS BUILT
DURING THE ROARING TWENTIES
by Glenn Tunney
Three hotels in Brownsville's
history have borne the name Monongahela House or Monongahela Hotel. The
original Monongahela House, built as a residence in 1832 and converted to a
hotel in 1844, was razed in 1911 and replaced by a new hotel. Both the
original and its replacement were located on the same three Market Street lots
where the former First National Bank now stands.
Locals called the new hotel the Monongahela House, but a 1920 Sanborn fire insurance map of Brownsville labels it the "New Monongahela Hotel." According to the map, the right- hand third of the new hotel's ground floor (as viewed from the front) was occupied by a men's furnishings store and the middle portion by the hotel lobby and offices. The left side was a bar until 1919, when prohibition closed all hotel bars and sent customers scurrying to speakeasies. Here is what the Brownsville Telegraph wrote in 1929 about how prohibition had affected Brownsville's hotels.
"Brownsville beer, Silver Top, Iron City, Schlitz, Budweiser, and the stronger spirits -- Sam Thompson, Bridgeport, Four Roses, Canadian Club, Overholt, Large, Gordon Gin and other beverages -- were passed over the counter of the old saloons here by many a genial hotel proprietor just a little more than a decade ago," noted the Telegraph. "Then, twelve hotels with barrooms attached were located in the Brownsvilles. Five were in Brownsville, four were in South Brownsville and three in West Brownsville."
Prohibition changed that. "By 1929," the Telegraph said, "only three hotels remained in Brownsville borough --- the Brownsville Hotel on Market Street, the Storey House above the Flatiron Building, and the town's largest establishment, the Monongahela Hotel. It replaced the old Monongahela House, which was purchased by the Monongahela National Bank for a banking building."
That last sentence contains a clue as to why the third and final Monongahela Hotel, now called the Towne House, was built. The Monongahela National Bank was in a narrow building still standing to the left of the Snowdon Building. In March of 1923, the National Deposit Bank in South Brownsville borough dedicated an impressive new bank building at the corner of Bank and High Streets, a structure that today houses National City Bank and the Gallatin Apartments.
Not to be outdone by their main competitor, directors of the Monongahela National Bank decided that their bank needed a more prestigious building too, but they didn't intend to build one from scratch. Instead, the directors' collective eye fell upon the twelve-year-old Monongahela Hotel, right across the street from their bank. They approached the owner of the Monongahela Hotel about the possibility of purchasing his hotel.
Monongahela Hotel owner Samuel Leff was ready to sell. Even though his new hotel building was only twelve years old, it was already too small. The hotel had approximately fifty rooms, but demand for rooms often surpassed capacity and Leff needed a larger building. He accepted the bank's offer.
In late 1923 the Monongahela Hotel was closed, and two adjacent construction projects got underway on Market Street. One was the two-year project to convert the closed hotel into a new headquarters for the Monongahela National Bank. To its immediate left, Leff and his partners began building a 100-plus room hotel. Only a narrow alley separated the two construction projects. The three lots where the hotel was rising were previously occupied by a confectionery and fruit market, the former Arcade Theater (which burned the year before) and a tailor shop.
Both buildings were completed in 1925, and the Monongahela Hotel held its grand opening on March 15, 1925. A Brownsville Telegraph article described the town's newest hotel.
"The hotel contains 110 rooms," reported the Telegraph, "and a 20 room annex, which is above the Monongahela National Bank in the old hotel building."
A hotel "annex" above the bank? Visitors to Brownsville can still see evidence of this unusual setup. Take a peek into the alley separating the Monongahela National Bank (later the First National Bank) and the Monongahela Hotel (now the Towne House). Look up and you will see that the third floor of the bank is connected to the Towne House by an enclosed bridge that spans the alley. A 1924 Sanborn fire insurance map, published the year before the hotel opened, shows this connection and calls it a "passage." The hotel rooms on the third floor of the bank building were left intact to provide overflow accommodations in the event of excess demand.
The Telegraph article went on to say, "The building is absolutely fireproof and every room is nicely furnished with all steel furniture. In connection with the hotel there is a Coffee Shoppe, where good wholesome food is served at moderate prices. [There was no bar during Prohibition.] There is a large airy dining room with a seating capacity of 200 where banquets, dinners and parties are held.
"On Monday evening the Quota club meets there and Tuesday at noon, the Kiwanis club. In the rear of the hotel you will find a fireproof garage where your car can be stored for a small sum. Your car will be taken to the garage by an attendant and will be ready at the hotel door when you are ready to leave."
Does history repeat itself? It did in the years after the Monongahela Hotel opened for business in 1925. Last week we learned that less than a decade after the residence of Samuel J. Krepps was converted into the Monongahela House in 1844, the town's economy slumped, the hotel business went sour, and the Monongahela House changed hands repeatedly over the next thirty years.
The same fate awaited the third Monongahela Hotel in the twentieth century. After its grand opening in 1925, the hotel did well until the Great Depression began. Mines closed, coke ovens were idled, train travel declined, and hard times hit the Monongahela Hotel.
By March 1930, the hotel had already changed hands once, and its new owners were scrambling for income. A 1930 Brownsville Telegraph article reported, "Samuel S. Sidle, Bentleyville merchant and automobile sales agent, announces that he will assume management of the first and second floor of the Monongahela Hotel garage in Snowdon Place. The new concern will be known as the ‘Sidle Motor Company of Brownsville.' The company will handle the latest models of Oakland-Pontiac products. Arrangements to take over the main floors of the garage were completed several days ago with the River Transit Company. A 10-year lease was secured."
Later that same year, as the hotel's debts kept piling up, some of its creditors called in their markers. A sheriff's sale was scheduled for late December 1930 to sell the contents of the hotel, but before the sale could be held, other creditors took pre-emptive action. In November 1930, the Brownsville Telegraph reported "The Monongahela Hotels company, Brownsville, has been served with an involuntary petition of bankruptcy in federal court in Pittsburgh. The petition was signed by Frank W. Jackson, deputy from the state department of banking, who was in charge of the affairs of the Citizens' Title and Trust Company of Uniontown. Among the claims against the hotel company was one for $25,000 borrowed from the bank. The Monongahela Hotel was erected seven years ago by local interests and later taken over by the Monongahela Hotels company. The sheriff's sale of the contents of the hotel that was set for late December will be cancelled automatically by today's bankruptcy action."
Despite the hotel's financial instability, it remained open through this period. Articles in the Telegraph indicate that local civic organizations continued to hold meetings in its dining room. In 1931, the building was sold again, and one cost-cutting move the new owners made was to stop using those twenty extra rooms on the third floor of the neighboring Monongahela National Bank.
The bank building had become a quiet place, because the Monongahela National Bank had become insolvent and closed its doors in April 1931. Although the bank was in receivership, its building still had to be insured against fire, and it was decided that those hotel rooms on the bank's third floor were adversely affecting the building's fire insurance rates.
This brings us to a bit of an unsolved mystery. An article appeared in the March 12, 1932 edition of the Brownsville Telegraph. It read, "A ramp which formerly connected the Monongahela Hotel and Monongahela National Bank buildings on Market street was being removed today by workmen. Rooms on the top floor of the bank building were once utilized by the hotel, but this was discontinued more than a year ago when the hotel building was sold. Holes made by the ramp in both ends of the structures will be sealed with bricks and an entrance made to the top floor of the bank building. Access before could only be gained by the ramp leading from the hotel. The change is being made to obtain a reduction in the bank's insurance rate."
Of course, the mystery is that a passageway is still there today, spanning the alley between the two buildings. Could that be a second passageway, reconstructed when economic times improved later? Or was the original never destroyed, despite what the 1932 Telegraph article said? Any reader who can shed light on the matter is invited to contact me.
The Monongahela Hotel remained in business during the 1930's and beyond. Next week, some of the people who worked there will share their memories of Brownsville's grandest hotel.
Readers may call me at 724-785-3201, e-mail me at [email protected] or write me at 6068 National Pike East, Grindstone, PA 15442.
CLICK HERE to return to Glenn Tunney's Column Home Page.