Besides being a civil rights activist, I am a strong supporter of historic preservation and the arts. So I’m putting on a different hat today to talk about a pending crisis in my home town that can be averted if we have people like you who are willing to assist us by the end of August. Here’s the story…
I have, on and off for almost two decades, been a member of the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association (BHCA). BHCA’s mission, in part is to:
[I]ncrease the awareness of the significance of Bellefonte’s cultural heritage and the value of its preservation; foster the economic development and maintenance of downtown Bellefonte; promote tourism and tourism development; and provide a much needed venue for local artists and friends of the arts.
The two major functions of BHCA–arts and historic preservation–have come together in a project to save the Garman Opera House (or Theatre) and turn it into a regional community arts center. The Garman Theatre was constructed in 1890 across a side street from the Centre County, PA Courthouse. Some of its historic claims to fame:
- The song, “After the Ball is Over” was first sung publicly at the Garman in the 1890’s soon after it opened;
- The Garman hosted many famous acts over the years, including George Burns and Gracie Allen, Houdini, the Flora Dora Girls, and a myriad of Wild West and one-act shows; and
- In the 1900s it started showing films, first silent and then talking. This continued until 1961.
The Garman, after several years of use as a furniture store warehouse, was restored in the 1990s as a stage performance center and then turned back into a combination theatre and performance center. Unfortunately, it was damaged by fire on September 9, 2012 when the building next door was destroyed due to arson. The Bellefonte Borough took over the Garman Theatre as a “blighted and abandoned” property under Pennsylvania’s Conservatorship Act and gave it to a conservator, the Bellefonte Area Industrial Development Authority (IDA), to dispose of it.
The conservator asked for proposals as to what to do with the property. Only two showed any interest in this property:
- The Progress Development Group, LLC, who wants to raze it and build a new building to be a part of 32 high-density housing project in downtown Bellefonte; and
- BHCA, who wants to save and restore the Garman to its historical function in keeping with a “restrictive land covenant” which is attached to the property deed.
BHCA became involved in April 2013 after hiring a structural engineer who confirmed our suspicions that the Garman was still structurally sound, despite the damage caused by the fire. And we later found out that the Bellefonte IDA had made the same structural-integrity assessment. Yet the IDA decided to go ahead with the destruction of the Garman and told the court of their decision. We decided to contest that decision as allowed under the Pennsylvania Conservatorship Act.
Both parties went to court last month and made their cases before the judge. On June 28, Centre County Judge Thomas Kistler granted a reprieve to the destruction of the historic Garman Opera House and Theatre here in Bellefonte. So we have 60 days to come up with a detailed plan, including financing, to save the Garman and turn it into an art and cultural center for the town.
We want to do what the Wellsboro, PA community did a couple of years ago when they saved a historic building destined for destruction; they turned that building into the award-winning (see page 6 this PDF file for info on this award) regional arts center now known as the Deane Center for the Performing Arts.
Here’s where you come in. YOU can help us to save the Garman by making a donation to BHCA. Here’s the message from Keith Koch, President of BHCA calling for donations:
NOTE: We now can take PLEDGES and $$$ contributions. We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization which means any donation is 100% tax-deductible for the donor as we are not providing any “goods or services” to the donor.
Checks can be made out to “BHCA” and noted as “Garman.” They can be sent to BHCA, PO Box 141, Bellefonte, PA 16823.
We would be honored if you would make a donation to BHCA to help save what I deeply believe is truly a historical, architectural gem? And please spread the word. Thank you for your support!