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Museum group in race to save building

Tuesday, September 15, 1998

By Adrian McCoy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A local group that is battling uphill to establish a broadcasting museum here is facing a new stumbling block: the possible loss of a landmark building slated to be a major component of the museum.

The Conrad Project, the force behind the proposed National Museum of Broadcasting in Pittsburgh, is trying to save the Wilkinsburg garage where Frank Conrad, a Westinghouse engineer and amateur radio operator, conducted experiments that led to what were the first public broadcasts - and the predecessor to commercial radio broadcasting.

The property is for sale, so the group must be ready to tear down and move the garage as quickly as possible, according to Conrad project chairman Rick Harris. The Wilkinsburg Elks, who own the property, have donated the building to the museum effort.

The NMB group is looking for financial and physical help in getting the garage dismantled and put into storage as it continues to pursue funding to acquire a site for the new museum.

The long-planned NMB effort is inching closer to reality. In October 1997, the state's Capital Budget Project Itemization Act authorized an allocation of $1 million for property acquisition and development costs. A year later, the money's still available, but there is a catch: The NMB has to come up with matching funds or the equivalent in donated property value to qualify for the state funding.

The group has been exploring several historically significant sites for the new museum, but of late has been focusing its attention on the former Westinghouse Recreation Center, near Greensburg Pike in Forest Hills, which was the place where early experiments in short-wave broadcasting were conducted.

The group is negotiating with CBS, which now owns the lodge building and 14 acres, and the borough of Forest Hills. Earlier this year, the CBS board of directors voted to donate the building and property, appraised at between $1 million and $1.3 million, to establish the museum.

But as negotiations continue, time slips away for Conrad's garage. The two-story building, Harris says, "is to the broadcasting industry what Henry Ford's workshop is to the auto industry. This is our history. It's an important part of world history. There's no tomorrow if we don't get something done now."

He estimates it will take at least $50,000 to move the garage, brick by brick, into storage until it can be reconstructed.

The "Save the Garage" campaign has approached local foundations for funds and now is appealing to the public as well, both for donations of money and of labor.

NMB president Alice Sapienza-Donnelly has been waging a campaign to keep Conrad's garage intact since 1972, and since the mid-'80s has spearheaded the effort to establish a national broadcasting museum here.

"The thing that appalls me, and has appalled me since 1972, is that nowhere else on planet Earth did human communication [via the airwaves] begin. Shame on us that we don't have a museum."

The National Museum of Broadcasting/Conrad Project can be contacted at 407 Woodside Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15221, or by calling (412) 241-4508.

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