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A Monessen bank building's inclusion on a statewide list of endangered historic sites could advance the cause of its preservation, but partisans on both sides of the issue agree that it's still a longshot.
Despite its derelict state, the building continues to capture attention of historic preservationists who insist that the three-story brick and stone structure is worth saving. Most recently, Preservation Pennsylvania, a nonprofit organization based in Harrisburg, added the Monessen building to its 2017 list of the most endangered historic properties.
Three of the 11 properties named in the 2017 Pennsylvania At Risk report are in southwestern Pennsylvania. In addition to Monessen Savings, they include the Ekin House in Elizabeth, Allegheny County, and Moon Lorn in Prosperity, Washington County.
Monessen native Matt Shorraw, who has become the building's biggest champion, welcomed the renewed attention from Preservation Pennsylvania but put a realistic face on his efforts to save the building.
“If the building can be proven to be saved, I'm going to continue to pursue it. If it can't be, then I'll move on,” he said.
Shorraw, 25, said a study should be done to settle the question once and for all. He estimates it would cost up to $3 million to abate any environmental nuisances — especially asbestos and lead — repair the roof, reinforce the brick and stone exterior, replace the 75 windows, and furnish the interior for a proposed café and concert venue.
“I told the city that I am willing to have an assessment done on the property to just see how feasible it is to fix it or demolish it,” he said. “The city isn't willing to do anything to prove that the building can or can't be saved.”
First-term Mayor Lou Mavrakis has one question for the preservationists: “Do they have $5 million?” That's how much he believes such a renovation would cost.
Mavrakis would rather the building, which the city owns, be demolished. He said it was condemned by the city in 2012 and is on schedule to be demolished, once the funds are obtained, later this year.
“That building has 30 years of pigeon (expletive) in it. It has trees growing in it. Have you seen it?” he said.
Mavrakis said he has little patience for preservationists, whom he calls “dreamers.” “If people want to dream, let them dream; but this is a nightmare,” he said. “The preservationists don't live here. They know absolutely nothing about the city I represent.”
The blighted building has become a political football now that Shorraw has entered the Monessen mayor's race and is running against Mavrakis in the May 16 Democratic primary. Mavrakis believes the preservation push is monumentally misplaced in light of other problems facing the city.
Shorraw said there's both public support and precedent for a renovation effort. He noted that the former Eisenberg's Department Store in downtown Monessen is being converted into an apartment building by the Mon Valley Initiative, with funding from the federal government.
“That building, which had all the same problems (as Monessen Savings), is proof that if you're willing to have something fixed, it can be fixed,” he said.
Mavrakis said the Monessen Savings building is in much worse shape than Eisenberg's was. He cites the city's 2012 condemnation order, which called the building an “imminent danger” that is unfit for human occupancy. The city has posted a notice on the front door and blocked off the east sidewalk with a tall fence.
On Saturday, supporters of the building's preservation gathered outside for a “Heart Bomb” event that involved placing messages on paper hearts and taking pictures in front of the building.
Of the 218 historical sites that have been put on the Pennsylvania At Risk list since 1992, 109 have been saved or partially saved, 50 have been lost or demolished and 59 remain “at risk,” said Julia Chain, the group's program director.
Preservation Pennsylvania hopes to facilitate negotiations with the city of Monessen and assist with the transfer of ownership to another party, the 2017 report said. Meanwhile, Shorraw has started a website (the500donnerproject.org) and a Facebook page (The 500 Donner Project).
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280 or email@example.com.
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