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A man, a motel and a mystery: Route 51 inn finally opens -- almost 50 years after late owner began work

Wednesday, December 26, 2001

By Brian O'Neill, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Claude Melvin Kauffman was tough. To spend more than half of your 92 years building and never finishing a motel, you'd have to be.

The main building and house of the motel was started in the 1950s. Behind them is the 26-room motel. All of the buildings were constructed by Claude Kauffman alone. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

"He never wanted to borrow money just to pay somebody to finish it," his nephew and heir, Jere Hess, said. "I could never understand why he didn't. He had a nice income. He wasn't hurting for money. It was something he wanted to do by himself."

Kauffman died just before Thanksgiving last year, with his life's work unfinished. His motel never opened, despite almost 50 years of toiling at it. He once confided that he had sunk more than $1 million into the place everyone up and down Route 51 calls the "Stone Motel."

Dan and Linda Taiedi of Jefferson Hills, owners of a convenience store in West Elizabeth, paid the Kauffman estate $250,000 for the property on April 13. They spent the next six months readying it for opening. Stone masons, drywallers, plumbers, electricians and roofers came in waves.

Twenty-five tons of stone from Tennessee was brought in to match the stone Kauffman had put in place. A three-man crew led by Rick DiPippa of Green Tree spent 2 1/2 months mortaring the thousands of stones in place, one piece at a time. Meantime, Linda sanded the dirt and soot from the solid oak doors of the 26 rooms that form a single-story "L" above Route 51.

The Jefferson Hills Motel opened Oct. 23 with the message "A Dream Come True" on the marquee.

The timing could hardly be better. A new Mon Valley Expressway exit will open less than two miles south by next spring. Linda Taiedi says more than one Mon Valley resident has paid the $38 for a room for the night, after having watched the place go unused for most of their lives.

"We made Clyde's dream come true," Linda said.

Linda slips and calls Claude "Clyde" as often as not. She has known about this stone motel since she was a little girl growing up in Whitaker, but she never even knew the owner's name until she bought it. She never met the man whom she and her husband intend to honor with a plaque on the side of the motel.

What should that plaque say? Kauffman was an enigma to the end.

"If I could get inside his head, I could help you a lot," Hess said when asked about his uncle. "But nobody could."

Hess had only the barest sketch of his uncle's life. Kauffman grew up on a farm in Rawlinsville, Lancaster County, the youngest of eight or nine children in a Mennonite family. Family legend has it that he went 15 years without missing Sunday school.

As a young man, he moved to Tennessee and became an electrician. He worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority and, it was said, on the Manhattan Project that built the first atom bomb. When he moved to McKeesport in 1949 to do a job for Westinghouse, it cost him a wife. She stayed in Tennessee.

"He was a very stubborn guy, strong-willed almost to a fault," Hess said.

Deeds show he bought properties in Jefferson Hills in October 1952 and February 1953. By the summer of 1954, photos show him on that property building the stone pillars that mark the motel's driveway today.

But the blank pages in this story are more numerous than those filled in. Photos from January 1961 show Kauffman building a two-story stone house that fronts on Route 51 -- almost seven years after the driveway pillars went in.

Even PennDot worked faster than Kauffman. When he began dynamiting the hillside in the early 1950s, Route 51 was a two-lane road. Today, there are four lanes and the road is within spitting distance of the two-story stone house that fronts the motel nestled in the hills. Its second floor is the motel office.

Randy Lucas, who replaced the roof, said he was stunned by the work that had been done.

"It was a great building," Lucas said. "It was a solid building. It just needed finished."

Then there are the unusual features, such as the heated driveway and the tunnel beneath the rooms. Five feet wide and seven feet high, the tunnel has the mundane purpose of providing easy access for plumbing and electrical work, but this place has been so shrouded in mystery, Linda has been asked about rumors of the Mafia hiding cars down there.

Mob cars aren't that small, the last anyone checked.

"I think he walks that tunnel at night," Linda said of Kauffman.

By day, Kauffman was a union electrician, working at the Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Plant in Shippingport. But union records show he hadn't worked since being laid off in 1985.

Frank Ciccanti owns Ciccanti's restaurant directly across the four-lane road from the motel. "I've been here 15 years. He worked every weekend. The last 10 years he worked by himself.

"I guess he was, like, really in love with the project. One summer I watched him replace the whole sidewalk by hand."

And this is at least the third roof Ciccanti's seen.

Kauffman was never much for socializing, though. A nod of the head was all he'd offer. He never went into Ciccanti's, a friendly place with good food, in all those years.

Ciccanti said he had a friend, now dead, who used to help Kauffman. This friend told Ciccanti eight or nine years ago that someone stopped and offered $500,000 for the place. Kauffman angrily told him to leave.

Hess also said his uncle had been offered "pretty close to $1 million and wanted no part of it. He wanted double that."

Though the motel's stonework is striking and it would take a couple of thousand dollars to replace even one of the oak doors, the building's design is decades behind the fashion for road travel. The rooms are only 12-by-9, about half the size of the average motel room. But it was probably all someone driving in the 1950s wanted, and at $38 a room, it's a bargain today.

"They could put 100 motels on Route 51 but there'll never be one like this," Linda Taiedi said.

Business is so good the Taiedis intend to add five rooms in the spring. At least two or three times a week, she says, somebody from the Mon Valley checks in just so he can say he had slept there.

"If you sell this place for $1 million," she told her husband, "I'm leaving you."

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