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Owner of once-grand Beverly Hills Hotel vows it will return

Wednesday, January 02, 2002

By Jonathan Barnes

The old Beverly Hills Hotel in Ross, once a popular nightspot in the North Hills, has gradually deteriorated into part legend, part haunted house and part source of community rumors.

Its owner, however, says she is going to restore the grand hotel to all its former glory.

"It's going to be renovated," said Constance Costa Schaefer, 86, of Bellevue. "I'm going up there to direct the work."

Schaefer said work on the building is expected to begin soon, but she did not specify a starting date.

The old hotel, which sits on nine acres and has entrances off Evergreen Road and Babcock Boulevard, has seen bad times over the past 20 years. It never quite came back from a 1975 fire that damaged part of the building, and it closed in the 1980s.

Local legend says the fire was started by members of organized crime and that prostitutes had used two small houses on the property.

Schaefer said the accusations about the hotel's past are false. "Never, never, never," she said. "They'll say anything."

What is clear is the hotel once hosted live performances and was considered the nightclub to visit in the North Hills. The food was good, and many people came to dine and to catch a show in the upstairs, wood-paneled Plantation Room or to grab a bite to eat in the downstairs Grill Room. Wedding receptions were held there, with members of the wedding parties posing for pictures by the Evergreen Road balustrade or by a fountain and sprawling Catalpa tree on the lower level of the property.

But with the new Ross community park being built just up the street, township officials want the rundown building either renovated or removed.

"When I was canvassing the neighborhood during election time, a lot of people commented that they couldn't believe we couldn't do anything about the Beverly Hills Hotel," said Pete Ferraro, Ross commissioner for the 8th Ward.

He said he spoke with township solicitor C. Donald Gates and was told the place might be condemned as unsafe, something the township tried to do a decade ago.

"[Schaefer] has been planning to rebuild since I've been in office -- for 12 years," Ferraro said. "We don't want the property. All we want to do is remove the eyesore."

Gates believes a recent court case in Erie could bolster the township's effort to force Shaefer to take some action on the property. In the City of Erie vs. Stelmack, Commonwealth Court affirmed the right of the city to demolish a privately owned building and to assess the cost of demolition to the property owner.

Some neighbors of the hotel aren't that eager to see it torn down.

"I prefer [the hotel] there, rather than apartment buildings," said Steve Werner, who lives with his wife, Paula, across from the hotel on Evergreen Road. "It's an eyesore, but it's kind of a secluded road."

Many of the homes across from the hotel have high terraces and look down on the hotel's roof.

Paula Werner recalled that a year or so ago the place was going to be fixed up for use by church groups.

"But the kids keep on breaking in and trashing the place," she said. "I don't think it's safe. I would like to see it torn down. I'm just afraid of what they'll put across the street -- like an apartment complex."

What's left

The grand old nightclub retains some of its former dignity, but the place has deteriorated greatly as vandals and thieves have ransacked it over the years.

One of the 12-foot-tall wooden front doors at the Evergreen Road entrance hangs faithfully from its iron hinges, but only a sliver of its partner door remains. Most of the windows have been smashed.

Inside, half of the main bar has been removed, and the large chandelier and wall sconces that graced the Plantation Room are long gone.

Many of the ornate, inlaid sections of mahogany paneling were taken long ago, but a few remain to give some hint of the hotel's former grandeur. A few buckets catch water dripping from the roof.

Much of the tongue-and-groove floor of the two-tiered stage is gone. Nearby, a couple of piles of plywood lie stacked and ready, as if someone was about to board up the place before being interrupted.

A racoon emerges on the building's metal framework above the women's restroom, scampering overhead. It's not the only animal living in the hotel, sharing the space with a snake and other creatures.

Though the lawn surrounding the old hotel has been cut, many of the old evergreens and azaleas hugging stone-lined paths have grown wild. Large yews lining the hotel's Babcock Boulevard driveway have grown monstrous and bulky. The stone-covered steps leading to the porch on the lower side have been mostly removed, and a few scrappy trees have taken root. Even missing its roof, the columned lower entrance hints of finer times, when the place hosted the elite of the area.

The 12-foot-wide fountain pond, the background of many group photographs, is half-filled with firewood and parts of the concrete balustrade that once lined the serpentine Evergreen Road driveway. Piles of shorn bushes sit strewn about the hotel's side yard, in what was the Rose Garden, where the rose bushes have grown shoulder-high. A couple of old toilets sit in the yard.

The Babcock Boulevard driveway is half-overgrown with grass. Piles of lumber and brush, as well as tons of dumped construction materials, spot the driveway and the lower parking lot. The rusted wrought-iron railing of the patio, though still intact with the circular "BH" emblem, looks beyond repair. Though most of the doors of the hotel's lower level are blocked, a few have been broken open, revealing a jumble of tables, chairs and old restaurant equipment.

Kenneth Swegman, who is working with Schaefer, and contractor Ed Hilderhoff were recently seen looking over the building. Both declined to comment about the scope of the planned repairs.

Schaefer said those who say the building would be too expensive to remodel are off the mark. "I have the report from the engineer -- he said it is structurally sound. It's solid as could be," she said of the steel beam and concrete structure.

A battle brews

Gates and Allen Brunwasser, Schaefer's attorney, have filed preliminary motions in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court in the township's effort to force some action to be taken on the building.

"We're strictly looking at it for the health, welfare and safety of the community," Gates said.

Brunwasser, 80, is semiretired but took the hotel case five years ago. "I took the case because I've always been cordial with Don Gates, and he's always been a reasonable lawyer," he said.

He added, "They're not going to get to tear that place down."

Some Ross commissioners have said Brunwasser will be a tough opponent.

"Allen's 80 years old, but he hasn't mellowed any," Gates said.

The continual vandalism at the hotel has made it difficult to keep the place protected, Schaefer said. "What're you going to do?" she asked. "They knocked the windows out."

Schaefer looks back fondly to the glory days of the hotel, its former beauty and the entertainment it provided. She has several antique stained-glass windows that she plans to have installed as part of the improvements.

"We'll do it again. It'll be beautiful."

Jonathan Barnes is a free-lance writer.

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