A three-pronged marriage of necessity and opportunity is leading to the multimillion-dollar restoration of the historic offices of inventor George Westinghouse in Wilmerding.

The building, dating to 1890 and dubbed Westinghouse Castle because of its ornate design, sat mostly unused and deteriorating for more than 10 years. On Thursday, officials showed off the ongoing restoration of the first two floors into dance, music and visual arts studios as part of a collaboration between a neighboring charter school and a fledgling community arts group.

Plans call for the restoration of the upper two floors — including fancy offices once used by Westinghouse and top executives at Westinghouse Air Brake — into administrative offices, a chemistry lab and a community center by the end of 2024.

Tenth grade student Danica Hickman talks about the Westinghouse Arts Academy’s television and film studio during a tour of the Wilmerding facility on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. (Nate Guidry/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Building a plan

So how did the project reach this point?

In 1985, WABCO, successor to Westinghouse Air Brake, moved to more modern offices, and the building was sold to an industrial preservation group and then a community preservation group, both of which had difficulty operating and maintaining the 45,000-square-foot structure. It went up for sheriff’s sale in 2016, when it was purchased by the owner of the Priory Hotel on Pittsburgh’s North Side, which had plans to operate it as a hotel and event center.

In the same time period, Westinghouse Arts Academy charter school opened across the parking lot from the castle in 2017, taking over a former East Allegheny elementary school to offer high school students a wide-ranging arts education. It’s been very popular and now is bursting at the seams with 325 students from 40 school districts across seven counties.

A key incident occurred in early 2021, when a chunk of the castle fell onto the street, causing school officials to ask its renovation team what could be done to prevent a serious accident. That led to discussions with the Priory, where financial problems related to the COVID-19 pandemic had scotched plans for the castle any time soon.

The third corner of this triangle is Turtle Creek Valley Arts, a group formed in 2021 that is dedicated to bringing more artistic offerings into the Monongahela Valley. Many of the charter school’s officials serve joint roles on the TCVA board.

The renovation team, the school and TCVA formed Westinghouse Castle LP to buy the building for $86,200. The partnership will own the building and lease it to the arts group, which will sublease space to the school.

Under the plan, the arts group will be able to use school studios and other spaces during nonschool hours for community classes and programs. It also plans to rent the community center space for events such as weddings, graduations and corporate meetings.

Senior student Summer Sands shows off the photography darkroom. (Nate Guidry/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

New offerings

During media tours Thursday, students showed off the new spaces on the first two floors of the Westinghouse Castle.

The overall project is expected to cost more than $4 million, and the group has cobbled together a big portion of that money through grants from the Westinghouse, Allegheny and Letham Family foundations as well as state and county economic development grants. Fundraising continues for the rest of the money.

The new facilities will be unveiled to school supporters during a sold-out fundraising gala Saturday, where a $55 ticket gets visitors a meal, performance of a musical written and performed by students and a castle tour.

The new rooms include painting, pottery, visual arts and other art studios. Many of those activities happen in the same room at the former elementary school.

New offerings will include a digital editing room with 12 computer stations — Letham contributed to this because the family’s grandparents met at Westinghouse Airbrake — video and audio recording studios; a darkroom for photography; a sewing room to make theater costumes; kitchen facilities for a new culinary arts program; and an esports lab. A faculty lounge and another cafeteria are also included.

Students will be moving into the new facilities over the next few weeks.

“We listen and try to give the students what they are interested in,” said Alex Boyd, the school’s marketing director.

Chloe Miller, a sophomore specializing in musical theater, is impressed with the pottery studio, which will have eight wheels and two kilns.

“It’s giving students a great opportunity to really create with their hands,” she said.

Ninth grade student Anna Walker talks about the printmaking room. (Nate Guidry/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Restoring history

During a tour of the building, Boyd said crews faced major challenges when work started on the castle about 14 months ago.

“All of this was just disgusting when we came in,” Boyd said as he walked up marble steps to the third floor. “Water was gushing down the steps from a hole in the roof.”

Despite some of the disrepair from age and neglect, Boyd said the history of the building is easy to appreciate.

The office area, from Westinghouse’s curved quarters with windows looking over the borough to huge fireplaces and personal bathrooms in each suite, speaks of old money. Some of that elegance, such as the carvings on the underside of staircases that had been painted over and crown molding that had fallen on the first floor, took special attention to return it to yesteryear.

“There really is a lot of history in here,” Boyd said. “was really like coming into a time machine.

“This project isn’t a renovation. It’s a restoration.”

It seems the school has the right person in charge. CEO Richard Fosbrink, a Pittsburgh native and former high school music teacher, joined the school in 2019 after serving as the head of the Theatre Historical Society of America outside Chicago, which specializes in restoring old movie and stage theaters.

“For me, I’m a bit of a unicorn for the job,” he said.

A big key to the project is providing space to educate more students.

“That’s the whole plan because there are more students out there who would benefit from an arts education,” he said.

Senior student Laura Huggins provides a tour of one the academy’s galleries. (Nate Guidry/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Helping the community

The other aspect of the project is opening the facilities to neighboring communities, where many residents have been struggling economically and living in an arts desert. Officials hope the castle project will help change both of those items.

“What we’re doing is economic development,” Fosbrink said. “We’re using the arts as an economic development tool for these communities.”

Nadine Dunn, the school’s director of engagement, also serves on the Turtle Creek Valley Arts board of directors.

“To be able to have a building where after school we can open it up to the community for art classes or community performances is wonderful,” she said. “I can’t wait for the culinary arts program to start so I can learn how to cook.

“It really fulfills a need for the quality of life that’s not available out here.”

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.

Ed Blazina

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.