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Railroad car starts trip from rags back to riches

Monday, March 20, 2000

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Lindsey Bell's railroad car was born in elegance during the Roaring '20s, but in recent years it has suffered vandalism, fires and neglect while parked as a historic decoration at Station Square on the South Side.

  The railroad car is lifted across a Station Square parking lot yesterday. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

Now Bell, a 28-year-old nature photographer and "struggling actress" who grew up in Sewickley and got the rail car from her father, wants to have the 100-ton car moved to a Vermont rail yard so it can be restored to its former glory.

Yesterday, Bell brought in two huge cranes that hoisted the steel rail car, with its armor-plated floor, about six feet off the ground. Over a period of several hours, the cranes laboriously moved the car about 100 yards to a spot beside the CSX railroad tracks that run between Station Square and the Monongahela River.

"This is like moving a mountain -- it's really difficult," Bell said as she alternately watched and took photos of the giant cranes as they dangled her rail car and swung it closer to the shoreline.

In about three weeks, Bell said, she wants to hook the powerless car up to an engine that will haul it to Newport, Vt., where $250,000 in repairs can be made at a railroad repair facility owned by a friend. Eventually, it may be returned to Station Square or kept somewhere on the East Coast to be rented out for private parties.

She said the interior of the rail car has been seriously damaged by fires, apparently set by homeless people who broke the windows and climbed inside to live for a while, leaving some of their clothes behind. Other intruders apparently tried to remove parts for resale.

"A copper sink looks like it was shredded by someone using tin snips," she said. "A wood and glass display case for china was dragged the length of the car but [the thieves] couldn't get it out. Someone stole 250-pound brake valves. A lot of hooks, latches and tool racks are missing. The supports for the mattress were smashed."

While compiling a list of damages, she said, "I cried and sobbed. It's so bad inside."

The dark green rail car, which also has suffered corrosion on the exterior, was made in 1926. It had an elegantly appointed interior with leather upholstery and wood veneers, four bedrooms, a kitchen, pantry and dining room.

Over the years, the car carried passengers including presidents Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, and various captains of American industry.

The car was built by the famous Pullman rail company of Chicago for about $40,000. It was purchased by a prominent banker of the era, George F. Baker Jr., as a birthday surprise for his wife, Edith. Baker, who had a family fortune pegged at $500 million, was also a director of the Pullman rail company.

The armor plating was added later to the floor of the car to protect it against attack during World War II, apparently because it carried prominent politicians and industrialists, Bell said.

As railroads declined in popularity, however, the car was bought in 1968 by her father, Peter Bell, for $18,000, Lindsey Bell said. He and his wife honeymooned in the rail car in 1969 and then lived in it for about two years, even though Peter Bell owned a four-story house on Embassy Row in Washington, D.C.

In 1980, he made a long-term loan of the car to the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, which created Station Square in the mid-70s. The foundation sold the 52 acres of land and buildings at Station Square to Forest City Enterprises of Cleveland in 1994.

Lindsey Bell grew up in Sewickley, attending both Sewickley Academy and Quaker Valley schools. She said that ever since she was a child, she's considered the rail car part of her family and thinks of the effort to restore it as "a crusade."

Bell now lives in Hollywood, where she pursues an acting career. She used to be a TV weather forecaster in Malibu, which she noted was an easy job because "the weather in Malibu never changes."

Peter Bell, who now lives in Mexico, gave the car to his daughter. The repairs she will have done in Vermont aren't the only reason the rail car now must be moved. It's standing in the way of an upcoming restaurant and family entertainment facility that is planned to open at Station Square in early August.

The restaurant will go into an old warehouse, part of the Forest City-owned complex, which stands where the Smithfield Street Bridge meets Carson Street. The site, right next to Hooters, had been the location of a sports bar and later housed Woodson's All-Star Grille, a restaurant and bar that closed in August.

Two Pittsburgh businessmen and a partner from Detroit plan to turn that vacant space into the first American franchise of Toronto-based Philthy McNasty's Bar & Grill, which, despite its name, is billed as a family-oriented eatery and entertainment place. There are five of the restaurants in Toronto.

It will be owned by Coleman Hughes, a longtime hotel official who will leave his job as director of operations at the Doubletree Hotel Pittsburgh in early April, and Michael Bahalib, a native of East Africa who came to Pittsburgh in 1980 and worked at Froggy's restaurant and later at the Doubletree. Their partner is Frank Taylor of Detroit, whose wife is Carolyn Clifford, a TV news anchor who used to work at the Fox station in Pittsburgh.

"I was sitting with my wife, Barbara, in a Philthy McNasty's in Toronto in January 1997," Hughes said. "I told her, 'You know, I think this concept would work in Pittsburgh.' "

After $1 million in renovations are made to the building, the new restaurant will have video and virtual reality games for youngsters as well as a three-quarter-length bowling alley. There also will be numerous TV sets showing various sporting events. The deck outside the front door will seat about 140.

A unique feature of his restaurant, Hughes said, will be that any child who eats there can win free dessert for his family simply by standing on the bar and singing a song into a hand-held microphone.

Station Square marketing Director Diane Greco said the changes at the old warehouse are just part of a new effort by Forest City to increase Station Square's profile as an entertainment destination for Pittsburghers and visitors.

A third restaurant/tavern will soon be announced for the other side of Hooters, she said. A second railroad car that now stands behind that section of the building also will have to be moved to complete that project. She declined to give the name of the third business but said it should be ready by fall.

The orientation of the building, which now faces Carson Street, will be reversed, so that Hooters, Philthy's and the new bar will face the river and Downtown across the river. A large deck will be added to the new front of the building.

In addition, Forest City plans to increase the size of the Sheraton Hotel Station Square and its parking garage as well as add entertainment buildings in what now is a parking lot between the Freight House Shops and the river. The city Planning Commission is to discuss the plans at a meeting tomorrow. Forest City also is seeking approval to demolish the empty, dilapidated Lawrence Paint building at the western end of the property and create a park.

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