Engineer, chemist think they have formula to revive the Praha in Tarentum
An engineer and a chemist buy a bar.
It’s not the beginning of a bad joke. It’s what Ken and Cris Gulick hope will be the rebirth of what is both a landmark Tarentum building and business.
The Gulicks, who live in Frazer, are the new owners of the Praha, at the corner of East Fourth Avenue and Corbet Street.
They bought it for $100,000 from Ron and Lisa Lang, who had owned and operated it for about 20 years.
The Gulicks plan to fix up the 113-year-old building, which houses a restaurant and bar on the first floor and rooms above.
“We want to make the place something Tarentum can be proud of,” said Ken Gulick, the engineer of the couple.
The restaurant remains open, and Susie Santucci is still in the kitchen, serving her much-loved “Funzi Wings,” named after the nickname of her late father, Alfonzo Santucci.
“We’re very happy she wanted to stay,” Ken Gulick said. “The food is excellent.”
The three-story, yellow brick building was built after the Esler Livery Barn there was torn down in 1905, according to the history book “Tarentum, Pa. Then and Now.”
First known as the Bordonaro Building, for produce peddler Joseph Bordonaro, the original construction cost was $14,078. It was an opulent building for its time.
It was built to have commercial space on the first floor and hotel rooms above.
The first businesses there were Bordonaro’s produce shop and a confectionery store run by his wife, Carmella. It later housed drugstores and a jewelry store before becoming a restaurant.
The hotel had a few names over the decades as businesses came and went — the Wallace Hotel, then the Commercial Hotel.
It became the Praha Hotel in the mid-1950s, and in the 1980s was known as the Praha-Hilvosky Hotel, before going back to just Praha, with the hotel and bar sharing the name.
Praha is the Czech name for Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. It is also a village and municipality in Slovakia.
The Gulicks aren’t changing the name.
Ken Gulick said they are trying to get a landmark plaque for the hotel in recognition of the building’s history, which is guiding the restoration.
Ken Gulick said he expects to invest about $150,000 on improvements over the next 12 to 18 months.
The restaurant and bar are expected to remain open during work.
“Our intention is to bring it back to what it was at the turn of the (20th) century,” he said. “It’s a neat building that we’re very interested in restoring.”
Planned improvements include new windows, new tin ceiling in the bar and dining room, new wood flooring, belt-driven ceiling fans and a new tap system for the bar.
An awning will wrap around the corner of the building, harkening back to a second-floor balcony that did so.
Upstairs, Ken Gulick said they plan to turn some of the small hotel rooms into apartments, while keeping some single rooms to rent.
Currently, about six or seven people live on the upper floors, and some of the rooms are not in use.
And if it’s blue, it’s gone — inside and out.
Tarentum Council President Erika Josefoski said officials are excited about the Gulicks’ plans for the Praha, and want to meet with them to see how the borough can help.
It’s a bit of good news out of the same spot in town that recently had bad with the closing of Rite Aid, across the street from the Praha and which many Tarentum residents relied upon.
“That’s huge for us. That’s what we want. That’s what we’re pushing for,” Josefoski said. “It’s hard to get private investment. Tarentum has so much to offer. It’s an historic little community with so many beautiful buildings.
“Any time someone wants to come in and renovate, that’s huge for us,” she said. “It’s unfortunate we have to demolish so many old structures.”
Getting new businesses in the borough’s historic buildings is what council wants, she said.
“I think we’re the next Lawrenceville,” she said. “It wasn’t all that long ago Lawrenceville was in the position we are. It’s completely different now.”
As first-time investors in commercial real estate, Ken Gulick said Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood was among the places he and his wife first looked to buy, along with the Strip District and the South Side.
“It didn’t take too long to figure out that’s a very competitive market,” he said. “It’s crazy what things go for.”
Looking closer to home, they found Tarentum more accessible, more affordable, and — they hope — ready for an upswing.
With reasonably priced properties, quick access to Route 28 and an attractive riverfront, “I feel strongly that Tarentum has a ton of potential,” Ken Gulick said.
“We feel we have something special,” he said. “Hopefully, this will be a catalyst to spark additional growth.”