Spotlight On: The Penn-McKee Hotel
The Penn-McKee Hotel has received increased news coverage in recent days as being an intended recipient of the $3 million in state funds coming to the City of McKeesport over the next six years. While the historic hotel is not currently ready for renovation, funds from the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) and other institutions will be put towards stabilizing the landmark structure.
Perhaps best known as the site of the first debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in 1947, the Penn-McKee Hotel opened in 1926 and served for many years as a source of city pride. It was designed by Benno Janssen, a prominent architect who is also remembered for the William Penn Hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh and the Mellon Institute in Oakland.
According to an editorial published in the Daily News on March 20, 1926, “the Penn-McKee means that McKeesport will leap from a backward community…and take its place with other progressive cities whose attractiveness has never failed to be enhanced by the erection of a modern hotel.”
Records indicate that the original space boasted 98 rooms, retail space connected to the hotel lobby and lounge, and a coffee shop and formal dining room. One of the main attractions for the hotel was a grand Louis XVI-style ballroom, featuring a 60-by-75-foot parquet dance floor built to accommodate “250 couples.” Janssen designed chandeliers in black and gold crystal specifically for the Penn-McKee, and in 1943 Pittsburgh Plate Glass was commissioned to create a mural for the hotel’s cocktail lounge which was referred to as “the largest edge-lighted mirror mural ever built…onto a single piece of polished plate glass.”
As noted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1980, “for the next four decades, if it happened in McKeesport, it probably happened at the Penn-McKee.” In addition to future presidents Kennedy and Nixon, the hotel also hosted President Harry Truman several times as well as Pennsylvania governors and other political figures, important industrialists, and union events.
Unfortunately for the hotel, competition from more modern hotels, its distance from major highways, and the 1976 fire that destroyed much of Downtown McKeesport helped push the Penn-McKee into serious decline. The building has been largely vacant since 1985, but has thus far been saved from demolition thanks to its historic and architectural value.
Hopefully, stabilization from the city’s incoming funds will allow the site to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places and help revitalize the space for generations of McKeesporters to enjoy.