Our Walking Tour Of The Neck
Today we will complete our armchair walk through Brownsville’s Neck, hoping to learn more about the history, ownership, and present use of each building that we pass. To summarize last week’s findings, we found that of the seventeen individual buildings on the “river” side of Market Street in the Neck, nine are owned by Ernest and Marilyn Liggett or one of their corporate entities (which include Manor Investments Ltd., Brownsville Group Ltd., and Alpha Financial Mortgage Inc.). The other eight buildings are owned by four different private owners (one of whom owns two of the buildings), one government agency and one non-profit community organization (which owns two of the buildings). We estimated that eight of the seventeen buildings on that side of Market Street are fully or partially in use.
It seems that when people think of the Neck, their mental image is of the stores on the “river” side of Market Street. That is not surprising, because a long stretch along the opposite side of Market Street is occupied by a municipal parking lot, and most of the buildings that are still standing on that side of the street are architecturally nondescript. However, that is not true of the three buildings on the extreme northeastern (Flatiron) end of the Neck, which is where we will resume our stroll through the Neck today.
Standing at the Flatiron building, let’s walk across Market Street to a three-story building that I have always felt is seldom noticed because of the many larger buildings nearby. It is the Second National Bank, and its exterior is in remarkably good condition. The building looks as solid as a rock, as though it could open its doors for banking business tomorrow. Believe it or not, it has not been a bank for seventy-five years, having closed its doors for good on August 25, 1930 when it merged with the Monongahela National Bank two doors down the street.
Nevertheless, a curious pedestrian who places an eye to this former bank’s front window can see through the blinds and marvel at the many old bank fixtures, including the safe, that are still in place inside. The walls are covered with marble from floor to ceiling, and the old-fashioned marble tellers’ counter is intact. According to the Fayette County Assessment Office web site, this vacant building at 62 Market Street is owned by Ernest E. and Marilyn K. Liggett.
To the right of the Second National Bank is 56 Market Street, the former Monongahela Hotel. Opened with great fanfare in 1925, the four-story, 130-room hotel has changed hands several times over the succeeding decades. It was eventually converted to an apartment building and renamed the Towne House.
In 1993, it was acquired by Ernest and Marilyn Liggett as part of a $201,030 real estate acquisition that also included the old Brownsville General Hospital and the former hospital nurses’ home. The Towne House was one of the Liggetts’ earliest Brownsville real estate purchases. Like the buildings on either side of it, the Towne House is vacant.
As we leave the former hotel behind, we pass the entrance to a narrow alley. Beyond it lies another impressive bank with four massive three-story columns flanking its entrance doors. Carved high on the stone facade of this three-story brick structure are the words “Monongahela National Bank.”
That was the name of Charles Snowdon’s bank, which in 1925 moved out of its building across the street (the Claybaugh building) and into this new headquarters. The bank’s new home was actually a renovated old hotel (the Monongahela Hotel, a newer version of which was simultaneously built next door and opened in 1925). Despite this beautiful new facility, the Monongahela National Bank closed its doors six years later due to Depression-induced insolvency.
In November 1947, the building reopened as the First National Bank of Brownsville (whose name was later changed to First National Bank of Washington after it was acquired by new ownership). Years later, the First National Bank of Washington was acquired by Integra Bank (the predecessor of National City Bank). Integra Bank already owned the former Gallatin Bank at the other end of town, so the Integra office in the dignified former Monongahela National Bank building was closed, and the building was eventually sold. It has been vacant since that time and is owned by Alpha Financial Mortgage Inc., whose Monroeville address is the same as that of Ernest and Marilyn Liggett. The small parking lot adjacent to the bank at the corner of Brownsville Avenue and Market Street is also owned by Alpha Financial Mortgage Inc.
We now cross Brownsville Avenue, which is the street leading into Snowdon Square, and continue walking down Market Street past the large municipal parking lot owned by the Brownsville Borough Parking Authority. This lot was constructed in 1971 after several old buildings were torn down to create space for it. The demolished buildings had housed Cooper’s Men’s Wear, Jay’s Women’s Wear, the Nut Shop, and Hopson’s Wallpaper and Paint Store, several of which were still in business when the buildings were condemned.
With the construction of this parking lot, Brownsville’s parking capacity dramatically increased, even as the number of stores in town was shrinking. At the same time, less than twenty minutes’ drive from Brownsville, the area’s first two indoor shopping malls, Laurel Mall and Uniontown Mall, were nearing completion. For Brownsville, it was a case of incredibly bad timing.
We continue our walk past the municipal parking lot until we come to a one-story, three-storefront brick structure that formerly housed Isaly’s (later Ernie’s Hardware) in its left storefront and Kroger’s (later Foodland) in its larger right storefront. This building is now owned by Manor Investments Ltd., and county assessment office records show that it was purchased in 1998 for $35,000.
To the right of this building is a 13-foot wide, four-story building that once housed Health Mart (before Health Mart moved up the street one door into the former Foodland storefront). It is called the Wise building, named for a business that once occupied it. According to Fayette County Redevelopment Authority executive director Andrew French, this building, which is vacant, has “code problems,” and in December 2004 it was donated by its previous owner to the redevelopment authority.
Next to the Wise building is a small “parklet” on an open lot owned by the Brownsville Municipal Authority. The site is the former location of the Strand Theater, which was built by James Laskey in 1915. It closed as a movie house in 1952 and accidentally burned down in 1960 while it was being demolished.
The last building on our walk before we reach the Cast Iron Bridge is the long, four-storefront, one-story brick Mardave building, which stretches all the way from the former Strand site to the Cast Iron Bridge. Some of this structure is built on piers anchored in Dunlap’s Creek. Built in 1923, the low-slung building once housed Woolworth, Bud’s Clothing Store, Reed’s Drug Store, Book’s Shoes and a shoemaker shop, as well as many other businesses over the years.
On December 6, 1991, the vacant Mardave building was purchased for $1,750 at a Fayette County auction of unwanted properties. It was one of eighty-six properties of which the county had assumed ownership when sales for delinquent taxes and free and clear sales produced no buyers.
The buyer of the Mardave building back in December of 1991 was a little-known Pittsburgh area developer named Ernest E. Liggett, who purchased the property under the name Brownsville Group Ltd. of Monroeville. At that same auction, Brownsville Group Ltd. acquired the Plaza Theater for $400 and the former Sam Bush-owned Gerecter’s Furniture Store (opposite the municipal building) for $1,000. It was one of the first, if not the first, purchases of Brownsville property by the Liggetts and their various corporations.
Our two-way walk through the Neck is complete. As we did last week, let us summarize what we have discovered about the Neck properties on the “Snowdon Square” side of Market Street. From the Second National Bank through the Mardave building there are only six structures, as compared to seventeen on the opposite side of the street. Of those six structures, five are owned by Ernest and Marilyn Liggett or their associated corporations, and one is owned by the Fayette County Redevelopment Authority. All six of the buildings are vacant.
In these past three articles, our goal has been to identify the owner of each building in the Neck, give some background on these buildings, and determine how many of these buildings are in use. The results of our informal survey reveal that there are twenty-three separate buildings in Brownsville’s Neck. Fourteen of them are owned by the Liggetts and their corporations; of the remaining nine, five are owned by private owners, two by BARC, and two by the Fayette County Redevelopment Authority. Only eight of the twenty-three buildings are fully or partially in use; fifteen are vacant.
Now that we know something about the history, ownership, and use of each building in the Neck, we can turn to the question that is bedeviling Brownsville’s citizens: what is the consensus of the community as to what plan, if any, should be adopted for dealing with the Neck?
As might be expected, there is no consensus.
Next week, I will share with you some former and current Brownsville
residents’ thoughts about the Neck’s future when we continue our series Brownsville’s
Neck – Its Past, Present and Future.
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