A Landmark Nearly Lost
Yet as the broadcasting industry grew and prospered, the little garage where it all began eventually became forgotten. By 1972, it was abandoned and slated for demolition. That’s when Alice Sapienza-Donnelly, then a student at the University of Pittsburgh, toured the garage and forcefully argued for its preservation. At the end of her visit and overwhelmed by the imminent loss of such an important piece of world history, Alice declared "I’d stand before the wrecking ball to stop the demolition, if necessary!"
Alice’s efforts persuaded the owners to halt the demolition plans, but for the next 15 years no progress was made to preserve the structure. Windows were bricked-up, doors replaced, Conrad’s lab turned into a meeting room. Several times the garage was threatened by development but each time, almost-miraculously, plans fell through.
A National Museum of Broadcasting
As Wilkinsburg celebrated its centennial in 1987, renewed efforts were underway to save Frank Conrad’s workshop. The Wilkinsburg Commission Inc. (WCI) was formed with one of its stated purposes to preserve and restore the Conrad Garage for future generations to enjoy. After several years of research and discussion, WCI formed the Conrad Project— an effort aimed at not only preserving the garage but also making it the focal point of a broadcasting museum of national, even international, scope.
WCI eventually changed its name to the National Museum of Broadcasting (NMB) to better reflect the primary focus of the organization.
The Pittsburgh Antique Radio Society (PARS) agreed to help with the project’s technical aspects. PARS is made up of members who collect and restore radio and TV artifacts. PARS offered to provide memorabilia for exhibits and help with the restoration and re-creation of Conrad’s workshop.
Local broadcasting stations and organizations pledged their support to the project as well. They would furnish historical data about their respective stations and provide audio and video tapes for the archives. As "media partners" they could provide advertisement and promotion of the museum over the airwaves.
Progress Toward a Museum
In the 1990s, the garage’s owners agreed to sell the building to NMB with the stipulation that it be moved off the property. A search was begun for an appropriate site to relocate the garage, restore it and develop it into a self-sustaining museum.
NMB looked at a number of possible locations for the garage and museum. These included the remaining historic broadcasting sites in eastern Allegheny County. One, the K Building at the former East Pittsburgh Works of Westinghouse, and another, the former shortwave station on Greensburg Pike, eventually were ruled out as potential sites.
Finally, the third surviving location, the actual site of Conrad’s Garage in Wilkinsburg, was put up for sale. By this time the owners had donated the garage to NMB and were ready to sell the property to the museum or another buyer.
Unsuccessful at acquiring the property, NMB was informed in 2000 that the property would be sold to a fast food restaurant and that it would have until April 15, 2001 to remove the garage or lose it to the bulldozers.
As the deadline loomed, New Yorker Ralph Guild, CEO of the radio firm Interep, came through with a major contribution that would cover the costs of the dismantling. The garage was taken apart brick-by-brick but not before it was extensively documented through measurements, photographs, videotape and 3D laser scanning.
As the building came down, the bricks were palletized, and, along with joists, rafters, doors and windows were taken to the former Westinghouse East Pittsburgh Works for storage. It’s ironic that the remains of Conrad’s Garage came to rest a few hundred feet from the spot where KDKA’s first broadcast was made.
And so, years later, the garage sits; a multi-ton giant jigsaw puzzle with no place at the moment for its reconstruction. What will happen to the garage? Only time will tell if it will find new life as part of the National Museum of Broadcasting in Pittsburgh.