714 McKee Place
Once alive, a center of activity for family, learning, revelry, and worship, 714 McKee Place had fallen silent, deserted and decaying.
Built in 1873, it was originally the home of Liam Robson, a rich landowner who preferred living in the city. It was castle-like in nature, made of stone and brick with a turret on its left side as the house faced the broad expanse of Lysle Boulevard, which was hidden from view by the closely lined trees that bordered the property.
He christened it “Glengarry” in honor of his ancestral home in Scotland. Boasting 21 total rooms, with 3 bathrooms on each of the two levels, it had a livery, a servant’s cottage, and sufficient resources for the upkeep of the 35 acre estate.
Robson had earned his fortune by speculating in land, mining, and timber. Fortunately for him, this was the period of Manifest Destiny, the Great Western Expansion, and the need for what he offered was almost insatiable.
Glengarry was witness to the Robson clan’s rise in wealth and power, and then its eventual demise. The Panic of 1907 completely ruined each business interest, throwing the family into a level of despair they had never known and from which none would return.
Mordecai Jacobs purchased the estate in a Sheriff’s Sale in May 1908. As a furrier, he was an astute and clever entrepreneur who imported from his cousins in Russia and Finland. Although he had no need for such a large house and grounds, (it was only him and Rebecca), he had always admired the structure and its privacy. He was able to afford the site, with its considerable liquidation discount, since his business alliance capitalized on the growing need for fur among the newly gilded money class throughout the early century and into the Roaring 20’s.
During that time, a growing segment of Mordecai’s incredible business success was a direct result of the wild and rising stock market and he leveraged his profits and personal savings into increasingly higher amounts of return.
Everything came to a sudden and fatal halt in October 1929 in the Great Crash. Unable to accept his catratrosphic and immediate financial ruin, Jacobs hurled himself from his 35th floor office window onto Fifth Avenue. Rebecca, on hearing of his death, packed two suitcases, took a few precious items, and walked out the unlocked door of the house that had always been too big, too cold… too lonely.
It became GG’s on New Year’s Eve, 1929 and up until the end of 1933, it was the hottest, the most jumping speakeasy in all the valley. Prohibition had driven alcohol underground and a 21-room estate, not to mention the six bathrooms, was an ideal site for drinking, gambling, and the general debauchery that the public always craved, laws be damned. Within its walls during those four raucous years, countless loves were found and lost, several people were killed, and too many lives were ruined.
In 1935, as part of FDR’s “New Deal”, community-focused, public funding transformed, what was by now a McKee Place landmark, into a local branch of the Carnegie Library System. Once again, its expansive offering of rooms provided just the type of environment needed for reading rooms, offices, and enough area for the shelving of voluminous books, magazines, and newspapers to be properly displayed and utilized.
Over the years, schoolchildren and adults alike frequented the various rooms filled with Aesop, Faulkner, Dumas, Thoreau and countless other authors, both famous and obscure. The hallways carried anxious immigrants to citizenship and language classes, bleary-eyed students to reference rooms, bibliophiles to book sales, and the occasional homeless person seeking warmth and shelter, who was always welcome.
The decades of the ‘40s through the early ‘70s were kind to the library, seeing ample use and benefit, the needed improvements, the occasional fresh paint and carpeting. The later 70’s and 80’s were not so kind, allowing neglect to accumulate. By the 90’s, both usage and funding had fallen to a level that jeopardized its very existence. Though several attempts were made to save “our old Glengarry,” it closed its doors in May 1997.
Ali Shaheed had been a regular at “old Glengarry” throughout his school years, even using its resources while working on his doctorate in Islamic Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Along with a great number of the community, he was saddened by its closure. But he also saw this as the opportunity he had been waiting for.
The Muslim community in the area, both small and accepted, were a devout and committed group. Never able to secure a suitable and proper location for a mosque, they crowded into an empty storefront owned by Ali’s father. Ali saw the availability of the library building as a sign from Allah to do everything possible to secure it for their worship site. And because of its size and grounds, he saw the opportunity of offering not only a place to worship, but an education and activity center for the entire Islamic community. Hopefully someday, it might even be used for an Ecumenical Community Center where Muslim, Christian and Jew could come together in friendship, Allah be praised.
Ali’s group acquired the grounds in September, 1997. Overall, the general community reaction, though not stellar, was acceptable and tolerant…. until 9/11/2001.
As a grieving nation tried to come to terms with such a horrific attack, Ali’s community grieved as well. These animals of the air were not Muslims, those who would follow the word of Allah could not do such things.. But Ali worried that others, non-Muslims, would not understand that and assume all Muslims were like those killers. He wondered how the outside community would react to him and those like him?
Ali did not have to wonder long. Within 48 hours of the Twin Towers falling, the Islamic Center was broken into, ransacked, and then set afire. The response by city firefighters, though initially quick, turned lackluster as they determined that the fire could be easily contained internally, or so they said. The overall structure was not destroyed.
As Ali and others walked through the burned out rooms, salvaging anything worthwhile, he came upon the mosque’s Koran, which was used in their daily prayer services. Though singed, it was not terribly burned. In fact, it was hardly scarred. Ali looked toward the heavens, and fighting back tears, whispered, “God is good.”