Frank Conrad’s garage and radio laboratory (left) and house (right) in Wilkinsburg. The pole next to the garage was part of Conrad’s broadcast antenna. Photo courtesy of the Senator John Heinz History Center.

The technology that you are using to read this story likely traces its history to a brick garage in Wilkinsburg where Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad tinkered with early radio equipment. And Conrad’s garage was just one of many garages throughout the region where history was made, not all of it related to parking.

The Pittsburgh garage is as much part of the city’s social and architectural history as the Pittsburgh potty. Conrad’s garage, which was demolished in 2001, is one chapter bracketed by stories about bootleggers using garages as breweries and distilleries and by garages that became early beer distributorships. 

A lot of history was made in garages around the U.S. Tech companies Apple and Hewlett-Packard began with tinkering inside family home garages. Hewlett-Packard, which turned the garage into a museum, describes it as “the birthplace of Silicon Valley.”

The garage apartment where outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow lived in Joplin, Missouri, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It was the site of a 1933 shootout involving Bonnie and Clyde’s gang. “The garage apartment represents a defining moment in the saga of Bonnie & Clyde as folk heroes,” writes Missouri State Historic Preservation Office historian Roger Maserang in the 2008 National Register nomination form.

Even Barbie can trace her roots to a modest garage. “It all began in a garage in 1945,” reads a history of Mattel, the toy manufacturer that introduced the iconic doll and inspiration for the 2023 blockbuster film.

Artist Olivia Erlanger and architect Luis Ortega Govela wrote a book titled “Garage” and produced a film about the building they describe as “the most important architectural form of the twentieth century.”

“The road trip. The startup. The garage band. Americana as we know it was born in the garage,” reads the introduction to a collection of video clips from the pair’s film. 

Retired National Park Service historian Barbara Wyatt was the main author of a report for the agency titled, “Evaluating Garages and Outbuildings in Historic Districts.” Published earlier this year, its main focus is on the links between suburbanization and the automobile. 

“Don’t forget garages that were the scene of historic events,” Wyatt wrote in an email response to questions about garages and their histories. She points out that many early garages themselves, like the later entrepreneurial activities conducted in them, were recycled buildings.

“The often visually more compelling carriage houses have their fans, Wyatt wrote. “But garages should be acknowledged as a commodity that shaped subdivision plans, became new uses for defunct carriage houses and reflected the evolution of automobile design.”

The Pittsburgh Parking Authority logo at the Smithfield-Liberty Garage was repainted for the 2012 Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.” Photo by David Rotenstein.

Many chapters of Pittsburgh history are parked inside garages. Commercial garages and filling stations began appearing in Pittsburgh in 1908. In fact, a longtime legend credits Pittsburgh with being the city where Gulf opened the world’s first gas station

In more recent history, the city’s garages have served as filming locations where Hollywood production companies have spun fanciful yarns. Downtown’s spiral Smithfield-Liberty Garage had a bit part in the climactic scenes of the 2012 Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.” More than a decade later, the Pittsburgh Parking Authority’s red and blue logo remains painted black and red. 

The garage also appears in another 2012 film, “Jack Reacher.”

Filling station legends and Hollywood fantasies aside, important garage milestones verifiably did happen here. 

A former warehouse Downtown was converted by the Pittsburgh Motor Service Company into a commercial garage. Photo published in The Horseless Age magazine, May 7, 1913.

In 1913, the Pittsburgh Motor Service Corporation owned a Downtown warehouse that the company converted into a garage. According to historians John Jakle and Keith Sculle, who wrote in their 2004 book, “Lots of Parking: Land Use in a Car Culture,” the company began offering some of the nation’s earliest combined services: a place to store cars and trucks near the Golden Triangle’s rail yards and a place where those vehicles could be repaired and serviced.  

Prohibition offered enterprising Pittsburgh bootleggers opportunities to find new uses for garages. Newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s published many stories about raids on garages by local and federal law enforcement agencies. 

“Garages played an important part in the transporting of whiskey. … Quite often the trade would occur in garages.” recalled Niobrara, Nebraska, resident Bob Vollmer in an online oral history.

Bootleggers and a body in a barrel

One of Pittsburgh’s earliest Prohibition raids involved West End saloonkeeper August Pope, his two sons Henry and Leo, and daughter Freda. 

The Popes went into the hospitality business after winning a large financial settlement from a streetcar company. The settlement for Henry having one of his legs severed when he was a child allowed August Pope to buy the Hay Hotel and its liquor license in 1910. 

The West End’s Main Street showing the Pope Hotel and Saloon, photographed in 1912 by the Pittsburgh City Photographer. Photo courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh.

The Popes legally sold liquor there until Prohibition began in January 1920. Located at 172 Main St. in the West End, their hotel and saloon was one block away from Joseph Kossler’s truck factory and dealership and two blocks away from a two-story brick garage that Kossler built in 1919.

Leo Pope rented one of 14 spaces inside Kossler’s garage. Leo testified in federal court that he used the space to store, repair and sell cars. Federal Prohibition agents claimed that the Popes were using Kossler’s garage to stockpile booze.

According to newspaper reports and federal court records in the National Archives, agents seized 11 kegs of “vinous and spiritous intoxicating liquors,” and 50 bottles of “assorted intoxicating liquors” from Kossler’s garage.

Joseph Kossler’s West End garage in 2023. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

After the Popes were convicted in late 1920, the first of many prosecutions and convictions the crime family faced between 1920 and 1940, the Pittsburgh Daily Post noted its historic nature. “It is the first time here since prohibition became effective that a fine of $1,000, not to mention a light jail sentence with it, has been meted out,” the paper wrote.

Garages also became small-scale distilleries and breweries during Prohibition. Though there are no surviving accounts of gangland shootouts at any of Pittsburgh’s garages, there were many colorful and violent episodes.

One of the most infamous Prohibition-era killings in Pittsburgh happened in 1930 in a Bloomfield garage. 

This Bloomfield garage used as a brewery is where bootlegger William Gregory was killed in 1930. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

Police accused Philip De Fazia of murdering “booze runner” William Gregory inside a small Lorigan Street brewery.  The reason for the killing — Gregory allegedly “double-crossed” De Fazia by stealing a shipment of booze and selling it in Akron, Ohio — was as sensational as the details of the murder. 

Dubbed the “barrel murder,” Gregory’s decapitated and mutilated body was found stuffed inside a cabbage barrel in Penn Township. Law enforcement officials said that Gregory had been bound, stabbed and beaten. Evidence recovered included bloodstains inside the garage and a bloody wrench outside.

Newspapers reported that Gregory was the 78th racketeer murdered in the city in four years.

In 1922, bootlegger Joe Tito built a two-story brick garage in Uptown behind the Fifth Avenue home he had recently bought. The garage became a hub for his liquor transportation business. After he and his brothers bought the Latrobe Brewing Company in 1933 at the end of Prohibition, it became their first beer distributorship and the first place where Rolling Rock beer was sold. (Full disclosure: I wrote the historic landmark nomination for the house and garage.)

The Latrobe Brewing Company wasn’t the only company to use a former garage as a beer distributorship. Because of their design with large open spaces and easy access to streets, beer distributorships opened in former garages throughout Pennsylvania. 

Caruso Beer Distributor on the North Side before it closed in 2021. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

There were several in Pittsburgh, including Caruso’s on the North Side. Dubbed by Pittsburgh City Paper as “the longest-running beer store in Pennsylvania,” it was located in a former auto repair garage that specialized in car batteries. The beer distributor closed in 2021 after its last owner retired. 

Another is Pistella’s Beer in Friendship. Located at the corner of Penn and Stratford avenues, the distributor is located in a one-story brick building built in 1921 that once housed the Highway Service Company. 

Like the garage where Caruso’s opened, this facility also specialized in batteries. In 1922, the Highway Service Company boasted to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that its Friendship site was the “finest service station of its kind in the East.”

Pistella’s Beer in Friendship occupies a former service station and garage built in the 1920s. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

Radio history was made in a Pittsburgh garage

Of all the Pittsburgh garages to achieve fame, Frank Conrad’s may have been the only one to rank among the Hewlett-Packard and Steve Jobs (Apple) garages.

Conrad’s radio experimentation took place in an upstairs garage apartment at the corner of Penn Avenue and Peebles Street in Wilkinsburg. The Westinghouse electrical engineer rented the property from about 1916 to the late 1920s, according to avocational radio historian Rick Harris. 

In 2001, after spending more than a decade trying to preserve Conrad’s garage, Harris and his startup National Museum of Broadcasting colleagues meticulously dismantled the building brick by brick. 

It’s been in storage since then, waiting for the right combination of funding and a site to reconstruct the garage as part of a museum dedicated to telling the story of American broadcasting. 

The Willkinsburg garage where Frank Conrad pioneered radio technology was dismantled in 2001. Photo courtesy of Rick Harris/National Museum of Broadcasting.

“Pittsburgh in 1920, the very early ’20s, was kind of the center of the universe of radio and this new technology that caught on like wildfire,” says Harris. “In 1920, you had KDKA as the initial broadcasting station and a handful more came on the air, several of which were Westinghouse stations in 1921.”

Conrad was one of many engineers who contributed to the birth of radio broadcasting, including Reginald Fessenden who taught at Pitt in the 1890s and who developed the technology for AM radio, in part by beaming signals between Pittsburgh and Allegheny City (now the North Side). 

Conrad’s work in the garage behind his home and its ties to KDKA, the nation’s first licensed commercial broadcaster, makes him a singular figure among them all. 

The garage’s history marks a milestone in human history, says Harris. 

“We think that there is clear progress in the evolution of electronic media from what began here in Pittsburgh to the smartphone that we all carry with us today that contains multiple radio transmitters and receivers and is kind of a thing in our lives that we simply can’t do without,” Harris says.

And it all (sort of) started in a Pittsburgh garage.

David S. Rotenstein is a historian, folklorist, and award-winning freelance writer. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and he writes about urban history, race, and the history of organized crime in Pittsburgh.