Pennsylvania Electric Coil Corporation

Pennsylvania Electric Coil Corp.
The Pennsylvania Electric Coil Corp facility along Saw Mill Run Boulevard circa 1960.

The Pennsylvania Electric Coil Corp facility, located at 1301 Saw Mill Run Boulevard, one mile south of the Liberty Tunnels near the intersection with Edgebrook Avenue and shown above in the late-1950s, was a mainstay along Route 51 in Bon Air from 1937 until 2000.

Pennsylvania Electric Coil had its beginnings downtown at 412 First Avenue in 1917. Then called the Pennsylvanie Electric Repair Company, the founders were Charles Dingman and Ralph Close, both former employees of the Otis Elevator Company. The former Electric Repair Company building still stands in downtown Pittsburgh.

Pennsylvania Electric Coil Corp.
Founders Charles Dingman and Ralph Close stand in the doorway as employees gather outside the downtown location.

In 1936, the company, which specialized in the manufacture of high voltage stator coils and the repair of AC and DC motors, purchased the property at 1301 Saw Mill Run Boulevard with plans to improve the lot and construct a new headquarters plant. The original building was designed by architect Paul R. Scheuneman.

The office and factory were completed and equipped the following year at a total cost of $250,000. Notable in the new workplace were the provisions made for the comfort of the workers. Radios, for example, were placed throughout the building, permitting the workers, sixty of them women, to work with music. On July 16, 1937 the company announced that the name was being changed to Pennsylvania Electric Coil Company.

Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph 10/17/1937.

Owner Ralph Close had a bold vision that was reported in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph on October 17, 1937. He proposed building a large-scale housing project on a hilltop overlooking the plant. The land was purchased and plans called for at least forty all new houses in his model workers' village. The company would finance all of the homes then transfer them to workers that paid installments over time. It is unknown if any of these homes were ever built.

On October 27, 1938 it was reported that a closed shop contract covering the sixty men and women employees was signed with the CIO union, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. The pact lifted women's minimum wages nine cents to 41 cents an hour, and men's seven cents to fifty.

Two months to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor catapulted America into World War II, the Office of Civilian Defense conducted an experiment at the Penn Coil plant, holding registration for civilian defense volunteers. The trial was a huge success, with 100 percent results. Prior to that, only six out of 110 employees had previously registered at outside points.

Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph 02/28/1943.

Civilian Defense was not the only contribution made by Pennsylvania Electric Coil employees. Many served in the armed forces or other branch of service, including machinist sisters Mildred and Catherine Cerovac, who joined the WAAC (Women's Army Auxiliary Corps).

Over the next few decades, the company gradually purchased all but one of the nearby homes, using the added space for employee parking and expanding the plant several times in the process.

The picture below shows the company facility in late-1948. The original building was much smaller, as change in roof color shows an expansion to the rear. The addition to the right, which included a second floor had just been completed and dedicated on May 14, 1948, almost doubling the floor space to 45,000 square feet and including a pattern shop and dip and bake room. At the time of the expansion the company had 200 employees, nearly half of those women.

Pennsylvania Electric Coil Corp.
The Pennsylvania Electric Coil Corp plant in the circa 1948. Note the small amount of employee parking.
The car on the left belonged to John Zsak, an engineer WWII Navy veteran.

Unfortunately for the company's skilled employees, the open space around the plant was again eliminated and the building now butted up against houses, meaning there was very little property left for parking.

In 1952, Saw Mill Run Boulevard was widened as part of a proposed new expressway that never materialized. The improvement was great for motorists as the wider roadway included a divider and guard rail, but it was somewhat frowned upon by Penn Coil employees. The project eliminated much of the company's frontage and further exacerbated the parking nightmare.

Looking north from Edgebrook Avenue in 1952.
Saw Mill Run Boulevard in August 1952. Workers are installing a divider on the
highly traveled roadway from Edgebrook Avenue to Bausmann Street. The
Penn Coil facility is located just past the homes to the right.

The metals industry celebrated in May 1960, when Allegheny Ludlum Steel Corporation celebrated a new continuous annealing process called flash annealing, designed to give fabricators a metal which can be pressed and shaped with a minumum chance of cracking or breaking. The continuous annealing process was developed by the Penn Induction Corporation and the Pennsylvania Electric Coil Corporation.

On June 22, 1972, Allis-Chalmers Corporation announced that it has purchased the assets of Pennsylvania Electric Coil. The president of the company at the time of the acquisition was George W. Green. The company went on another expansion, increasing its manufacturing capability through the lease of a 50,000 square foot building at 7501 Penn Avenue in the East End. An expansion of the Saw Mill Run facility was also planned.

Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph 02/28/1943.

Adequate parking for employees was a continual challenge with the continual expansion of the plant and work force. Parking was at such a premium that during a subsequent plant expansion in 1974, the roof space was designed to handle parking several automobiles. In later years, once the company had purchased and demolished all of the surrounding homes, this problem was finally resolved.

The Penn Avenue facility was closed in 1986, and another 9,000 square foot addition was built at the Saw Mill Run location. At the time there were 100 people employed locally.

Pennsylvania Electric Coil Corporation was acquired by Monarch Electric Service Company in June 1997. Then, on August 30, 2000, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette announced that the company would be moving to a new plant in Glassport PA along with all seventy-five current employees.

The headquarters complex along Saw Mill Run was eventually sold, a difficult process due to the fact that the factory was located in what was by then designated a flood plain.

Cars drive through flood waters along Saw Mill Run Boulevard in 1956.
Cars driving through flood waters along Saw Mill Run Boulevard in 1956.

The creek called Saw Mill Run has historically been prone to seasonal flooding. Forty-three year former Penn Electric Coil employee Jim McFarlane recalls days when the flood waters rose:

"I could talk all day about the flooding but we never had water in our shop during my time there. At least two or three times a year, Saw Mill Run Boulevard would be closed due to flooding. It wasn't unusual that we would be trapped because the road would be closed at Whited Street and also down at Bausman Street. So, we could't get out. Usually, this only lasted a few hours but sometimes longer."

"The worst experience we had during my time occurred on July 9, 1975. At around 11:00am, the sky turned pitch black and it began raining so hard that you couldn't see Route 51 from our building. This went on for about an hour. There was a drain in our parking lot which emptied out into the creek. It didn't take long for this to become clogged and, as the water cascaded down our back hillside, our parking lot soon became a lake, at one point getting to upwards of ten feet deep nearest the building. At least fourteen employee vehicles were totaled with many more sustained damage.

"But again," McFarlane reiterated, "during my time, the building was never shut down due to flooding. Plenty of other local businesses were, though!"

Pennsylvania Electric Coil Corp.
A 1990 photo showing the final plant expansion, done in 1985. The lone home was purchased and demolished in 1997.

The former Pennsylvania Electric Coil Corporation headquarters facility still occupies the land at the corner of Saw Mill Run Boulevard at Edgebrook Avenue and, as of 2020, is the location of an auto dealership, an auto restoration company and a creative dance studio.

* Information and photos provided by Jim McFarlane *

<Now and Then> <> <Brookline History>