‘Oh My God, The Famous Is On Fire’
1976 catastrophe’s effects would be felt for years to come

Flames pour from the roof of The Famous, May 21, 1976, shortly after 4 p.m. Within an hour, much of a four-block area of Downtown McKeesport would be ablaze. (Photo donated to Tube City Online. Original in author’s collection; photographer unknown.) Click here to view additional photos.

By Jason Togyer
Copyright © 2006, all rights reserved.

It was 3:43 p.m. when Fire Chief David Fowler, sitting in his office in the McKeesport Municipal Building, spotted the smoke.

"Oh my God, the Famous is on fire," he said, getting to his feet.

The old department store building was only a block from the fire station. Fowler's crews were on the scene within minutes, pouring water onto the building, and reinforcements were soon roaring into the city from throughout the Mon Valley.

But all of their efforts seemed to be for nothing.

Fueled by high winds, the flames leapt from The Famous to the Elks Temple next door on Market Street. Debris and flames rained down on Kadar's Men's Store across Market, setting it ablaze. Then the fire jumped to the old Riggs Drug Store.

Within an hour, McKeesport's entire main street, from the Penn-McKee Hotel to the old Memorial Theater, was ablaze. The winds carried burning embers throughout the city and suburbs.

Soon, fires were breaking out on rooftops as far away as White Oak and North Huntingdon Township. Residents manned garden hoses and bucket brigades to douse them before they could do more damage.

When the smoke cleared on the night of May 21, 1976, two blocks of Downtown McKeesport were all but gone. Seven buildings were declared total losses and at least two dozen others sustained damage. Estimates of the total losses topped $5 million. While some of the damaged businesses would eventually relocate and reopen, a few—including the theater—would not.

And only one of the fire-damaged structures would be rebuilt. For the first time that anyone could remember, large empty lots in Downtown McKeesport—in prime locations—remained vacant.

The massive fire that damaged Downtown McKeesport that May wasn't a mortal blow to the city's business district. But it was arguably the first major setback in a long series of events that eventually gut the once-bustling commercial center of the Mon Valley.

A Downtown In Decline

Indeed, Downtown had been in a slow decline for at least a decade, as shoppers drifted off to suburban shopping centers like Monroeville Mall and Eastland in North Versailles. The city fathers had fought back with a number of projects designed to attract people back Downtown.

Since parking in the congested area around Fifth Avenue had always been a problem, a new garage was opened on Sixth Avenue to supplement the one on Lysle Boulevard. Stores stayed open late on Thursday nights to attract people after work.

When the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad rerouted its tracks around the area, eliminating the frequent grade crossing tie-ups Downtown, the city's Redevelopment Authority swung into action, condemning a slew of old brick and wood stores and warehouses between Sinclair Street and Tube Works Alley, and tearing them down. In their place rose the Midtown Plaza Mall—a $6 million enclosed shopping center and apartment building with its own parking garage—and the Executive Building, an office and retail complex with a built-in mini-plex movie theater.

But they were competing under several handicaps. For one thing, the parking garages came with bonds that had to be paid off. The city, suffering a financial crisis that forced it to lay off 12 police officers and dozens of other employees late in 1975, could hardly afford to pay the debts itself. So, the garages had to be financed through user fees. Parking at the malls, naturally, was free.

Then, too, there was a lingering perception that Downtown was "unsafe." McKeesport officials pointed out that there were thefts and muggings at the shopping centers, too—they just didn't make the newspapers.

And no matter what McKeesport tried, there would still be one thing that malls had that the city just couldn't offer: The malls were shiny and new.

Parts of McKeesport's Downtown still looked much the same as they did in the late 19th century. A nationwide craze for "gentrification" and preservation of old buildings was still several years away. For now, Downtown McKeesport's main streets, the pride of the entire valley after World War II, just looked tired and old.

Bright Spots Amid The Darkness

McKeesport was hardly alone, of course. Cities across the Northeast of nearly every size were fighting the same trends toward suburban malls, with varying degrees of success.

And there were bright spots, to be sure. Robert M. Cox, president of Cox's Department Stores (itself opening branches in suburban malls by that point) completed a multi-million dollar expansion of his flagship store in 1972. Wander Sales, a local chain of television and appliance stores, erected a nice new building on Fifth Avenue across the street from the Executive Building. A new Sheraton Hotel opened on Lysle Boulevard, featuring one of several "Red Bull Inn" restaurants in the Pittsburgh area. And the Midtown Plaza Mall, though it lacked a large "anchor" tenant,  was full of life.

Plus, even if Downtown McKeesport no longer drew many shoppers from the suburbs, it still had a large captive population of office workers and professionals every day. The old People's Union Bank Building—by then owned by Pittsburgh's Union National Bank—was full of doctors and lawyers. So was the smaller McKeesport National Bank Building a few blocks away. G.C. Murphy Company, a chain of more than 500 variety and discount stores located up and down the Eastern Seaboard, employed 1,000 people at its headquarters.

Each morning, thousands of people arrived Downtown to go to work; many stopped for breakfast on the way. At lunchtime, they poured onto the streets, many to go shopping. And many others stopped off for a drink or dinner on the way home.

And three times a day, shift change at U.S. Steel National Plant sent thousands of people out into the streets of Downtown McKeesport. While most of the 7,000 mill employees were no longer walking or taking buses home—they were living out in North Huntingdon Township, and driving to and from the mill—a considerable percentage still spent some time Downtown.

Indeed, the situation seemed hopeful enough for several private developers to take a chance on the city's future. One was former city councilman Michael Newman, owner of the Penn-McKee. Newman's political career had been torpedoed by his conviction a few years earlier for allegedly tapping the phones of one of his political enemies. But he was far from finished, and he had big plans for the corner of Fifth and Market—and the old Famous.

The Famous: McKeesport's 'Big Store'

The Famous—"McKeesport's Big Store," as it billed itself—was the descendant of a dry goods store called Skelly's, which opened in 1897 inside the Oppenheimer Building, completed a few years earlier. In 1915, Skelly's was purchased by the Katz and Goldsmith families, who owned The Famous Department Store in nearby Braddock. The McKeesport store took the parent company’s name.

A few years later, as the Katzes and Goldsmiths got ready to expand The Famous, tragedy struck.

Early on the morning of Sunday, Feb. 8, 1920, a fire began at the People's Ice Company on Fifth Avenue, then spread to the neighboring Crown Chocolate Co. factory at the corner of Fifth and Strawberry. From there, the flames leapt to the adjacent Famous. The blaze, which did $1 million damage, was, ironically, the largest fire in McKeesport history—until 1976.

The 1920 fire didn’t keep The Famous closed for long. The renovated store opened to customers by Aug. 26. The Katzes and Goldsmiths then purchased a neighboring lot on Market Street, along with the adjacent Edmundson Building, and constructed a five-story addition to The Famous.

This new, larger store opened for business Oct. 25, 1926, and McKeesporters were bursting their buttons at the sight of it. The addition "makes The Famous the largest store in Western Pennsylvania between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh," reported The Daily News in an article that, perhaps, was a little too enthusiastic. "It is truly a metropolitan store and offers to the people of this community the most desirable, quality merchandise at prices that are always lower than the average."

Still, what was high-cotton in 1926—wooden floors, brass railings, tin ceilings—was old hat and corny in the 1950s. In April 1955, The Famous was sold to the Pittsburgh Mercantile Company, the former "company store" at the Jones & Laughlin Company’s steel mill on the South Side of Pittsburgh, and The Famous was modernized—externally, at least. New blue tiles were attached to the facade, in imitation of Cox's.

But Cox's, and other stores Downtown, clearly outclassed The Famous, which was no longer competitive. It was sold again in 1962 to a company called Mutual Industrial Sales Co., or "MISCO," a membership-only discount store. MISCO failed in 1965. Another discounter, Gold Coast Stores, moved into the building in September 1968, only to close a short time later.

Hope—Then Tragedy

Then came Newman. He announced plans in 1973 for a $400,000 building project that would rehabilitate both the Penn-McKee and the old Famous. Most of the Famous was to be torn down, with only the newer parts of the building left standing. Those would be turned into a shopping plaza and parking lot, which would be integrated with the hotel.

Firefighters struggle in vain to control the wind-whipped blaze at The Famous.

In January 1976, Newman purchased the building that had housed The Famous from the Oppenheimer family for $97,000. When spring came, crews from Potterfield & Ritenour Co. of Connellsville moved in, and began demolishing the structure.

On the afternoon of May 21, they were on the roof of The Famous, using cutting torches and saws to take apart a 2,000-gallon water tank. It was a nice day for the work—sunny and mild, if a little bit breezy. Officials later speculated that pieces of hot metal from the water tank fell onto the roofing tar and smoldered for some time.

Suddenly, those pleasant breezes whipped the smoldering tar into flames.

Across the street at the state liquor store, clerk John Hvoszik saw smoke on the roof of The Famous. "Then in a couple of seconds, it started to smoke like hell, and in another minute, it was really flaming," Hvoszik said.

The demolition crew escaped down the steps and to the street as Chief Fowler spotted the fire and sounded the alarm.

But fighting the blaze at The Famous wouldn’t be easy. To aid the demolition, the wrecking crews had cut holes down through the roof and the floors of the building, so that equipment and debris could be passed up and down. Now, those passageways acted like chimneys, feeding air to the flames.

And though the building had a steel skeleton and a brick and terra cotta facade, everything else inside was inflammable. Over many years and several owners, layers of new plaster, wood and lath had been hung over top of the old walls and ceilings of the old Oppenheimer Building. Now, the dry building materials burned quick and hot.

The flames leapt the alley to the Elks Temple next door. The old Market Street School, recently used by Community College of Allegheny County as a satellite campus, caught fire next. The Penn-McKee Hotel was evacuated.

Flames Whipped By Wind

More fire companies were called for assistance, but the wind blew harder. Across Market Street, to the east of The Famous, was Kadar's Men's Store. Though the business was fairly young by McKeesport standards—about 35 years old—the building wasn't. Built in the mid-19th century, it was a city landmark, thanks to the big "silver dollar" that decorated its cornice.

A salesman at the Clairton branch of Kadar's, hearing of the fire in McKeesport, called the store anxiously. "It's fine," he was told.

He called back a few minutes later. We're still OK, they said. He called back a few minutes later. A recorded message told him the number was out of service.

The front windows of Kadar's had blown out, and the store was ablaze, too.

"It was the most terrifying scene I ever witnessed," Al Kadar said the next day. "Every window of the store was framed with fire. It was unbelievable."

Spectators watch as Kadar’s is engulfed by flames.

From Kadar's, the flames moved to the Farmer's Pride poultry market next door, and then to Coney Grill. Soon, all were burning furiously. Although the flames scorched the sides of the former Memorial Theater—recently gutted and turned into a "twin theater" called the McKee Cinemas—the heavy brick walls of the fireproof auditorium prevented the fire from moving further east on Fifth Avenue.

There was no such barrier to keep the fire from reaching The Apple Shop Too, located in the old Riggs' Drug Store, catty-corner to The Famous. Next went Oddo's Hobby Shop, Book Sale, Feig's Bakery, Natale's Sporting Goods, and the Music Box, a record store less than a year old. Owner Wayne Simco only had time to grab the cash drawer and his electric guitar before the store burst into flames.

'This Was a Firestorm'

And still the winds kept shifting. Police cordoned off streets, only to have the winds change direction, carrying the flames behind the safety lines. One police officer responding to the disaster parked his personal car on Sixth Avenue, sure it would be safe; he returned a few hours later to find the vinyl top melted. At the corner of Sixth and Market, the heat blistered the white paint from the front of the century-old Hunter-Edmundson-Striffler Funeral Home.

"This was a firestorm," Chief Fowler said later. "It went from The Famous across Market Street like a tornado. The Famous was down within a half-hour, and Kadar's went right away. ... I've been a fireman 29 years, and I never saw anything like this."

The demand for water was sucking hydrants dry. Hoses were snaked down Fifth Avenue to the riverfront at Water Street, where a pumper engine drew water from the Youghiogheny.

At Mon-Yough Fire Defense Council, orders went out for an "all-call"—every single fire department in a 15-mile radius was to respond. For more than an hour, the air was split by the sound of civil defense sirens, wailing across the valley to alert volunteer firefighters and rescue personnel.

Relations between the city and the surrounding boroughs and townships hadn't always been pleasant, but no one refused this plea for help. "There was no 'we' and 'they,'" one exhausted volunteer told The Daily News. "It was more like man against the elements."

More than 40 companies answered the call; in all, 1,000 members of the fire service from across the Mon Valley were involved in the effort.

"Maybe some of the people in City Hall will learn to quit insulting the surrounding communities," City Councilman Thomas O'Neil said.

And not all of the rescuers were fighting the fire at the corner of Fifth and Market.

The winds spreading the flames were carrying large chunks of burning wood and roofing tar across the city, and now, new fires were reported all over McKeesport. An old warehouse in the Third Ward burst into flames. Two houses on Jenny Lind Street were burning as well, as were several homes on Ninth Avenue.

Four blocks south on Walnut Street, the Salvation Army mobilized to provide aid to the firefighters—only to have its building catch fire, too. Volunteer firefighters from Coulter poured water onto the roof, and onto the post office across the street.

National Guard Mobilized

With Downtown becoming chaotic, police threw up roadblocks on Walnut Street at the 15th Avenue Bridge, West Fifth Avenue at Rebecca Street, and Lysle Boulevard at Coursin Street. The Pennsylvania Army National Guard rolled into town to help keep the peace, along with county sheriff's deputies and state troopers.

Onlookers and gawkers sought vantage points across the Mon Valley.

Except for fire trucks and police cars screaming through intersections, responding to calls, traffic in Downtown McKeesport ground to a halt; Port Authority buses trying to leave the city were trapped for up to four hours, while those trying to enter the city were turned back. A reporter for The Pittsburgh Press spotted a long line of men in business suits, queued up at a Fifth Avenue phone booth, calling home to report they'd be late.

Yet despite the police presence, the fire drew hundreds of spectators who might otherwise have been shopping or seeing a movie Downtown on a Friday night. Bystanders clogged the approaches to the Jerome Avenue Bridge.

Indeed, since the smoke and flame could be seen for miles, viewers crowded onto any high point that offered a view—Romine Avenue in Port Vue, Skyline Drive in West Mifflin, the parking lot at Eastland Mall. From the Boston Bridge, four miles away in Versailles, onlookers stared transfixed at the column of black smoke rising from the northwest. Some people reported that the mood of the bystanders was festive.

The mood was not as jovial Downtown, where businessmen and residents alike were breaking down into sobs while watching the calamity.

Some just stared, open-mouthed, at what they said looked like the aftermath of the incendiary bombing raids on Europe during World War II.

"Everything I have" went up in smoke, said Larry Ruttenberg, owner of Book Sale. Ruttenberg had been planning to move to a new building, so was carrying only $10,000 in insurance; his inventory alone was worth 10 times that. "I'd need $50,000 to start again," he said. "Where am I going to get that? What am I going to do? This was my whole life."

Extent of Damage Becomes Clear

By midnight, calm was starting to return as firefighters brought the last of the fires under control. And a few hours later, as city council met in emergency session, the morning sun revealed the true extent of the damage.

Only the twisted steel skeleton of The Famous was still standing. Kadar's was a pile of debris. A few walls remained of the other buildings. The heavy masonry shell of the Elks Temple, built in 1904, was intact, though the interior had collapsed.

On the outside, the McKee Cinemas seemed to have withstood the flames in good shape, but inside, water and smoke had taken their toll. A beautiful showplace when it opened in 1927, the theater had already been relegated to showing soft-core porn and foreign films. Its owners decided it wasn't worth repairing the damage.

The names of the features were removed from the marquee, and letters reading "Closed Till Further Notice" went up in their place. Those same letters remained on the sign until the theater's demolition in 1985, waiting for a further notice that never came.

Other buildings, though damaged by smoke and water, were more fortunate. Immanuel Presbyterian Church, built in 1902, had water damage to its basement and smoke throughout, but it would be cleaned and repaired. The Penn-McKee—years past its prime, now a residence for transients and businessmen—would reopen as well.

By mid-morning of the day after the fire, bulldozers were chewing through the piles of debris. Within a few weeks, the demolition was complete.

State, Feds Rebuff City’s Pleas

And then, as if the fire hadn't been bad enough, McKeesport discovered that a nasty coda was attached—the city was going to receive almost no help from the county, state or federal governments.

Gov. Milton Shapp had toured the fire scene only five days later. “It looks like a disaster area,” he told Mayor Thomas Fullard, assuring him, “We'll get some help here.”

Shapp's word was good for less than a week.

On June 1, his administration sent a letter to Fullard. Shapp’s Deputy Secretary for Community Affairs told the city that the $5 million loss was not of “such severity and magnitude” that McKeesport couldn't handle the cleanup itself, at least in the state’s opinion.

The impact of the fire that had gutted two blocks of Downtown McKeesport was not of “such magnitude to warrant” a declaration of disaster, the Shapp administration concluded.

The state even turned down an emergency request for $10,000 to cover police overtime.

"I've never seen such bureaucracy in my life," Mayor Fullard told a reporter. "I feel they're totally full of ... whatever."

Worse yet, the state's refusal to act was cited by the federal government as the reason that it couldn't (or wouldn’t) help either. In the days following the blaze, U.S. Rep. Joseph Gaydos and others had promised that a million dollars in emergency federal aid would soon be on the way.

But because of the state’s rejection of McKeesport’s requests, only $100,000 came—a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to reimburse the city for cleaning up areas that were already targeted for urban renewal before the fire.

To add insult to injury, one HUD official said that McKeesporters should be happy about the disaster. It had created “some prime real estate in the Downtown area,” he said. “Let’s work on the idea of turning adversity into advantage for McKeesport.”

Another federal agency, the Small Business Administration, offered loans to business owners—but on the same terms they would have provided before the fires destroyed the incomes the businesses produced.

Under those conditions, the loans were worse than useless. The merchants had no ability to pay them back.

"They didn't need help before the fire," Fullard fumed. "They were in business then."

McKeesporters Press On

Nevertheless, those McKeesporters that could, persevered. Kadar’s and Natale’s relocated. “I can’t leave,” said Al Kadar. “This is a good city. I know and like the people.”

On the site of The Famous, Elks Lodge No. 136 built a modern new hall with a banquet facility and an attractive dance floor. Declining membership eventually forced the lodge to sell the building, and then disband.

Some of the displaced stores, like Oddo's and Farmer's Pride, relocated to the Midtown Plaza, but the sheen was starting to come off of the massive mall, even though it was only a few years old. The lack of a big anchor tenant left it without a major draw, and soon the smaller stores were closing, one by one. Derelicts started hanging out in the corridors until mall management began locking the outside doors.

In 1979, Century III Mall opened in West Mifflin. With four major anchors and more than 100 other shops, the new facility sent Midtown Plaza and the rest of Downtown into an accelerated decline.

Then came U.S. Steel’s decision to close many of its Pittsburgh-area facilities. The Duquesne Works closed in 1984, and its sister plant, National Works soon followed, leaving 10,000 steelworkers unemployed. Many moved away; those who stayed behind had little money to spend on new clothes or jewelry in Downtown stores like David Israel or Goodman’s. Meanwhile, stock speculators on Wall Street fueled a bidding war for the G.C. Murphy Company, which found itself the unexpected target of a hostile takeover by Ames Department Stores. The Murphy offices soon closed, eliminating another 1,000 good-paying jobs.

These were substantial blows that few business districts the size of McKeesport's could withstand.

In a Downtown area that had transacted $77 million in retail sales in 1948, only a handful of businesses remained by the mid-1980s. Many of the storefronts were empty. The doctors and lawyers who once packed the office buildings joined the retail stores in the suburbs; the offices they left behind either stayed vacant, or were rented to agencies that served the poor and elderly.

The Final Curtain

The aftermath: Seven buildings destroyed or heavily damaged, with more than two dozen others impacted. The final damage was estimated at $5 million.

And the Memorial Theater, once a showplace in the style of the major urban movie palaces of the 1920s, had become an albatross instead of an asset. The gloomy, boarded-up hulk loomed over pedestrians going to and from the Sixth Avenue parking garage.

Except for some emergency repairs, the soot-blackened walls of its massive auditorium looked much the same as they had the morning after the fire—except that they were deteriorating with each passing year.

Yet when the Memorial Theater was finally demolished, nine years after the fire, a few people stood on Fifth Avenue and wept again—just as they had on the night of May 21, 1976.

They cried because the cranes ripping down the Memorial's walls had revealed a surprising, somewhat distressing secret.

It seemed that the remodeling effort to create the two "McKee Cinemas" inside the Memorial's auditorium had left its ornate 1920s details largely intact.

False walls and ceilings had been erected inside the originals. But above the cheap wallboard and fiber ceiling tiles, gilded grape vines still climbed Moorish columns. The mighty proscenium arch, though injured in a few places, was otherwise as strong and graceful as ever.

And if you squinted through the swirling clouds of dust and debris, you could make out the pale blue ceiling, once decorated with hundreds of twinkling light bulbs to simulate stars.

It was as if the past glories of McKeesport—wiped away first by a massive fire, then by a decade of corporate indifference—had come back to taunt the city's people, one last time.


Author's notes and interviews

Vertical file, ”The Famous," McKeesport Heritage Center, McKeesport, Pa.

Mike Anderson, ”'Everything I Have' Went Up In Smoke," The Pittsburgh Press, May 23, 1976.

Robert S. Austin, ”Devastation Reported to Businesses," The Daily News, McKeesport, May 22, 1976.

Stuart Brown, ”No Pa., U.S. Aid for McKeesport in Aftermath of Downtown Blaze," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Aug. 19, 1976.

James B. Johnson, ”'The Famous' Fire Compared to Previous Ice House Blaze," The Daily News, McKeesport, May 22, 1976.

Nicholas Knezovich, ”McKeesport Fire Rips Two Blocks," The Pittsburgh Press, May 22, 1976.

Tim Martin, ”City Heads Meet, Plan Cleanup Action," The Daily News, McKeesport, May 22, 1976.

Paul Maryniak, ”Fire-Blitzed McKeesport Grateful But Banking on U.S.," The Pittsburgh Press, May 26, 1976.

Robert McHugh, ”McKeesport Begins Long Journey Back," The Pittsburgh Press, May 23, 1976.

Regis M. Stefanik, ”McKeesport Fire Razes Seven Buildings," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 22, 1976.

Ray Steffens, ”Fire Turns Remodeling McKeesport Into Disaster Area,” The Pittsburgh Press, May 23, 1976.

A McKeesport Commemorative. McKeesport, Pa: McKeesport Bicentennial Committee, 1976.

"Old Famous Store Facing Demolition in McKeesport," The Pittsburgh Press, Feb. 15, 1976.