The site of the first debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon is not only in desperate need of rehabilitation and preservation—it may one day have an appointment with a wrecking ball.
Of course, many reading this will be tempted to Google just where the two presidential candidates squared off nearly 50 years ago on September 26, 1960. I’ll save you the search—the venue was the McClurg Court television studios of WBBM Television in Chicago. That facility was, in fact, demolished last year, in spite of its historic significance—being a valuable piece of Windy City real estate.
But the two future giant politicos had traded rhetorical blows long before that—more than 13 years before, actually. And it is that venue that is at risk right now.
In April of 1947, only a few months into the first new Congressional term since end of World War Two, two young, thin, and ambitious politicians made their way to McKeesport, Pennsylvania, a coal mining and steel industry town of around 53,000 citizens at the time, located about fifteen miles from Pittsburgh at the confluence of the Monongahela and Youghiogheny Rivers. They came to debate labor issues in general and the new Taft-Hartley Bill, in particular.
The setting was chosen, no doubt, because McKeesport was a poster-burgh for the labor issues the nation would wrestle with during the post-war years. Home of the National Tube Works, the town was dubbed: “Tube-City.” In fact, the workers there were the leading producers of iron pipe in the world.
Arriving in town that day, young Kennedy and Nixon encountered a setting bearing a striking resemblance to “Beford Falls”—the fictional town featured prominently in the then recently released Frank Capra film It’s A Wonderful Life.
Few, outside their own constituencies, knew their names those days—but they would both become quite famous. Their joint appearance in McKeesport was the first of many times they would be linked together as part of the post-war American political story.
Their debate was held at the Penn-McKee Hotel. In those days there was a saying: “If it happens in McKeesport, it happens at the Penn-McKee.” Opened in 1926, it quickly became the place for weddings, club meetings, and a variety of special events. Harry Truman dined there during his 1944 Vice Presidential campaign. The ground floor cocktail lounge was known as “the passion pit” and reputed to be a great place for dancing.
One of the clubs that regularly met at the Penn-Mckee was the Junto Forum, a local group, similar to others around the Keystone state, whose meetings were first organized more than 200 years before by a guy named Benjamin Franklin. In his autobiography, the myriad-minded Franklin described the Junto’s purpose as an association dedicated to the discussion of “morals, politics, or natural philosophy”. He added:
Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.
And on April 22, 1947 about 150 people made their way into the Penn-McKee’s grand ballroom to hear what Nixon and Kennedy had to say.
Nixon spoke in strong support of the bill. Kennedy was opposed—but not without commending certain aspects of the legislation. Chris Matthews in his 1996 book – “Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry that Shaped Postwar America”—suggested that the crowd clearly favored Kennedy (being a largely blue-collar and pro-labor district) and that the catcalls from some were so fierce that “a local business leader felt called upon to apologize to the Republican congressman in writing.”
Kennedy, however, saw it differently. In October of 1962, just three days before he would see the first photographic evidence of the Soviet missile build up in Cuba, President Kennedy returned to McKeesport. In his speech that day at their City Hall, he recalled:
The first time I came to this city was in 1947, when Mr. Richard Nixon and I engaged in our first debate. He won that one, and we went on to other things.
Their moment in McKeesport is a fascinating little bit of history in preview. Following their debate that evening long ago, the two future fierce opponents made their way to the town’s Star Diner to eat hamburgers and talk about baseball. They were killing time before heading to the train station to catch the midnight Capital Limited back to Washington. Sharing a compartment on the train, they drew straws to see who got the lower berth.
Nixon won that one too.
By all accounts, Mr. 35 and Mr. 37 talked long into the wee hours of the morning about the issue that most resonated with them—foreign policy. The Cold War was underway, and these two men who would play such vital roles during its most critical moments, contemplated their world.
These days that ballroom, scene of so many local events from the familial, to the civic, to the political, is empty and in disrepair. The Penn-McKee Hotel is in desperate need of restoration. If nothing is done, the storied facility may eventually find its very existence in peril.
Not, however, if some civic-and-history-minded-people have their way—or at least their say.
The McKeesport Preservation Society (MPS), a 501(c)3 corporation, is working to purchase and restore the Penn-McKee Hotel. By purchasing this historic structure, they plan to restore the building as a monument to these two former U.S. Presidents and nominate it to the National Register of Historic Places.
They are fighting an uphill battle not only on the funding side, but also because there are some who would just as soon see the building demolished to make way for something else. But many people believe that a little bit of history will be lost, should the venerable structure ever find itself confronted with a wrecking ball. The good people at MPS are looking for any help or support they can find.
It remains to be seen if, in fact, the Penn-McKee can be saved.