Tuesday, June 26, 2007

You can be sure if it’s a Westinghouse

Talking about the acquisitiveness of modern America, comedian George Carlin once quipped that a house is “just a place for your stuff.”
Whether the stuff fits the house would seem to be the owner’s concern. But Heinz History Center officials believe George Westinghouse’s stuff is too important to stay in a little museum in the inventor’s “Castle” in Wilmerding.
You might wonder why it matters if the George Westinghouse Museum, a collection of Westinghouse’s artifacts and a $250,000 endowment, goes to Pittsburgh to a site where more museum-goers are likely to see the collection. Those opposed to the move, which has been in the works for years, say their fight is about keeping the artifacts in their historical and geographical context, and about their pride in their town and its place in history.
“When the museum was started in 1985, nobody wanted all the stuff,” said museum board member and Wilmerding mayor Geraldine Homitz, explaining that a group of volunteers assembled the museum’s collection from cast-offs they collected from the old air brake company. “Now Heinz History Center is having the 250th anniversary [celebration] of the city, and they have to do an exhibit on the industrialists, and it’s easy for them to just take our collection,” she said.
Westinghouse Valley
Most people have heard of George Westinghouse, but not as many know of the borough of Wilmerding. The industrialist/inventor founded Westinghouse Air Brake Company in the small valley borough outside of Pittsburgh and the company still operates there, now under the name Wabtec. For more than a century, Westinghouse’s legacy and Wilmerding’s existence have been intertwined. That connection is most visible in the fortress-like stone “Castle” that served as the company’s headquarters and also as a community center in its early days. No matter where you walk in Wilmerding, the Castle is visible with its vaguely ominous presence hulking above.
During his career, Westinghouse started about seventy companies, and several of them still exist. Westinghouse Electric Company, located in Monroeville, is going strong and recently won a contract to build several nuclear reactors in China. The company also is planning to build a nuclear power-focused campus in Marshall.
Westinghouse enterprises once dominated the Turtle Creek Valley. The company’s “mother plant” covered 92 acres through Turtle Creek, East Pittsburgh and North Versailles. That plant manufactured generators for other plants, and in the 1940s it employed 20,000 people. Regional Industrial Development Corporation of southwestern Pennsylvania bought the property for $12 million in 1989 and is redeveloping it as a business incubator site. The acreage is still littered with vacant buildings that once were part of the bustling plant.
With much of Westinghouse’s physical and intellectual legacy being bought up or leaving the east suburbs of Pittsburgh, Wilmerding’s preservationists don’t want to see the George Westinghouse Museum become a part of the trend. They object to how some on the Museum’s board of directors has been working to have the Museum absorbed by the Heinz Museum.
Crucial Votes
Members of the Westinghouse Museum narrowly defeated a recent vote by the Westinghouse museum’s membership to change the organization’s bylaws and allow for proxy voting. The vote was held at Westinghouse’s former Churchill campus, and was intended by some on the board to pass, and thus allow out-of-state members to vote without having to travel to a meeting, say dissenting members of the Wilmerding museum. If the vote had passed, the change would have expedited Heinz History’s Center’s acquisition of the Wilmerding museum.
At a meeting on June 7, the George Westinghouse Museum board of directors voted 7-5 to bring the proposed “merger” of the museums to a vote of the membership. The vote will happen tomorrow night at the George Westinghouse Research and Technology Park in Churchill. The vote will decide the fate of the smaller museum.
In a June 15 letter from George Westinghouse Museum Foundation chairman Richard Shumaker to the museum’s membership, Shumaker states that the Board had considered many factors with regard to the proposed merger, including the museum’s “Mission Statement… the decline in our membership and visitors to the Museum, the wishes of George Westinghouse IV and the Westinghouse family, [and] the future viability of the Museum given its limited financial resources and almost all volunteer work force. The Board painstakingly examined the effect of such a move on Museum members, docents, Wilmerding itself, residents, the Castle, and other relevant factors. The Board studied the effect of a rapidly increasing rental population, police activity, plus real estate and banking objectives.”
It sounds as if some on the Westinghouse Museum board are tired of slumming it, and are hoping to duck out of what they perceive as a declining community. Some of the Westinghouse Museum members think such a move would only impoverish the community a bit more.
Dennis Pittman, a Mt. Lebanon native and the manager of McKeesport city government, is the youngest of the group of dissident Westinghouse museum members. Pittman represents Wilmerding’s Compass Bank on the museum. But like his dissenting peers, Pittman has warily observed some of the moves of the Westinghouse Museum board during the past few years. He thinks moving the museum from Wilmerding would hurt the town.
“They really should be working to make Wilmerding a destination point. Wilmerding still can and should be a destination point. The key to that is this building and the museum,” Pittman said of the Castle and the collection.
Room for compromise
Some Westinghouse museum members aren’t opposed to sharing part of their collection with the Heinz Museum, but they want it back after the Heinz has exhibited the collection. Such an agreement isn’t what Heinz History Center officials want.
“We’ve been in negotiations a couple of years now to have their collection merged with our center,” said Heinz History Center spokesman Ned Schano. “Our hope is that the Westinghouse Museum will merge with the History Center.”
“I’d rather not be quoted,” Schano said after giving the quote to me over the phone.
After making several calls to officials at the Heinz History Center who didn’t respond, I again called Schano and he assured me he would get my questions answered by the vice-president of the Heinz History Center. Instead of receiving answers to the handful of questions that I emailed along, I received an emailed statement from Schano that quoted Andy Masich, president and CEO of the Heinz History Center:
“The Senator John Heinz History Center and the George Westinghouse Museum Foundation are working together to develop a plan of action that will best preserve the Westinghouse legacy for future generations. We are exploring options that are in the best interest of the Westinghouse Museum Foundation’s mission.”
The vague statement would leave pretty much anyone incredulous, given its noncommittal stance. What do Heinz History Center officials fear in answering a few questions about this matter? Are they really that hurting for cash? It all makes you wonder how the late Sen. John Heinz, beloved by many working class people in Pittsburgh, would have felt about this impending move. Would John Heinz have thought that muscling old people to grab their collection and endowment was pomme de terre?
Apparently many of the Westinghouse Museum membership feel that the absorption of their museum by the Heinz Museum would be in the smaller museum’s best interest. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get any of them to talk to me about their thoughts on the controversy.
Looking at the Castle, standing in front of it and gazing at its stonework, or even standing inside and remarking on the woodwork fine enough to be in any of Pittsburgh’s elite clubs, a visitor might wonder why anyone would want to take the Westinghouse Museum collection from this grandly historic place, where the artifacts themselves once were part of George Westinghouse’s life?
Recently I met several of the dissenting Westinghouse Museum members to talk about the proposed museum “merger.” The Castle was the obvious place for the meeting. Gathered around a long table in a high-ceilinged, wood-paneled boardroom on the building’s fourth floor, the group of borough residents and museum members, mostly retirees, seemed unlikely dissenters.
George Corletti, a Wilmerding native and former Westinghouse Air Brake employee, grew agitated as he listened to his peers talk about the possibility of the small museum being absorbed by the Heinz Museum. The lanky, gray-haired Corletti seemed to be resisting the urge to stand up and shout.
“All they understand is that they’re going to take the museum’s endowment, and send it to Pittsburgh,” Corletti said, shaking his head. “The museum is part of Wilmerding and part of us.”