Bellefonte’s Civil Rights Legacy

My town. Bellefonte. I’m proud of its legacy on civil rights. We were a significant part of the Underground Railroad in the 19th Century.

Serge Bielanko posted an article about Martin Luther King and Bellefonte’s history associated with civil rights on our local website.  There are a couple of paragraphs from this article that I’d like to share:

In the early 19th Century, Bellefonte rose up from nothing on the hardworking backs of the iron workers who sweated away in the forges that dotted the landscape. Many of those workers were African-American. And later, before the Civil War- when slavery was becoming a hotly contested issue- Bellefonte was a vital stop along the infamous Underground Railroad. The name Bellefonte was whispered in hushed tones among men, women, and children who were fleeing a life of servitude in search of true freedom.

Think about that for a moment.

Bellefonte once literally meant ‘one step closer to freedom’ to human beings in a way that none of us will ever truly understand or fathom. That’s something for each and every one of us to be proud of in this town. I’m not blowing smoke. It’s a heavy notion, but one which I suspect Dr. King would have tipped his own cap to if given half a chance.

Around the time Civil War broke out, Bellefonte’s very own, Andrew Curtin, became Governor of Pennsylvania. This native son was a fierce champion for equality and a close confidant of President Abraham Lincoln’s throughout the war. Governor Curtin was in staunch opposition to slavery and fought fiercely to wipe it off of the American map. He was an important man in United States history, and one that represented a side of Bellefonte that so many current residents still stand strong for.

Among the several stops on the Railroad were the Saint Paul AME Church, the Linn House (which now houses the Bellefonte Art Museum), the Samuel Harris House (home to Candace and Bob Dannaker; she’s a former mayor of Bellefonte), and the William Harris House (aka, “The Wren’s Nest,” home to Ted and Carla Conklin ). Here are some pictures of these stops on the Underground Railroad.

IMG_9809 St. Paul AME Church-001

St. Paul AME Church

IMG_9812 Wren's Nest-001

William Harris House: aka The Wren’s Nest

IMG_9815 Samuel Harris House

Samuel Harris House

IMG_9813 Linn House-001

Linn House

Standing up for equality on Martin Luther King Day and every day, as was done here in the 1800’s, is the legacy we need to perpetuate here and across the country.

I’ll do my part. Will you?

 

Scrooge to Bellefonte: “Bah! Humbug!”

Streetscape next to the Centre County Courthouse if and when the Garman Opera House is razed. We need to stop this before it happens. Photo rendition by Mary Vollero

Streetscape next to the Centre County Courthouse once the Garman Opera House and Hotel DoDe are razed.  Photo rendition by Mary Vollero

Three days ago, Ara Kervandjian, in his capacity as head of PDG and Bellefonte Mews (both are limited partnership companies created by Kervandjian), started tearing down the Garman Opera House and the Hotel DoDe (also see my previous blogs on this issue here, here and here).  He received clearance to start the demolition after the Bellefonte Borough Council by a 5-4 vote granted a permit for demolition of this structurally sound historic theatre. The windows are already gone as are, I understand, the chairs inside. Teardown of the building, brick by brick is expected to start on Friday, December 20–five days before Christmas.

This morning, Gary Hoover’s letter to the editor appeared in the Centre Daily Times.  He focused on the effect of the impending demolition of the Garman Opera House and the Hotel DoDe to the Bellefonte, PA community. Here are a couple of sentences from that letter:

It will take years to reckon the true cost for our community on multiple levels and, because of the precedent it sets, for future preservation efforts across the state.

But I bet the sum, when fully known, will be astonishing. Just the damage done to various important community-working relationships, erosion of trust in the responsiveness of local government and of faith in the fairness of our court system already frame a disaster.

I agree fully with Gary Hoover.  This callous destruction of the Garman Opera House and the Hotel DoDe is truly Scrooge-like.  Ripping down these gems of Victorian Bellefonte is ripping out much of the heart of our town. In terms of history.  In terms of historic architecture. In terms of economic sustainability. In terms of community.  In terms of trust in our local government.  In terms of business continuity.  And inevitably, in terms of continued respect and interest from visitors to our town.

Bah! Humbug!

Ignoring and dismissal of the public concern about destroying our history is part of this Scrooge-like behavior. How was the public ignored?  Here’s just one example of the “Bah, Humbug to you” mentality of the people in power; it is one of many that have occurred since this saga started.

In late October, Bellefonte’s Scrooge-like Council initially tried to clear the room of supporters of the Garman at a Council meeting.  On the agenda that night was a vote for demolition of the Garman Opera House and the Hotel DoDe.  They cited a fire hazard when they ordered us to leave.  They backed down and tabled the vote for two weeks after I stood up and cited Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Law regarding public participation and comment before taking any official actions.

Two weeks later, over 130 people came to the special meeting.  Twenty-six people spoke out; none of them supported the demolition of the Garman.  After the public comment period ended, Council asked Ara Kervandjian for comments. He stood up and had a letter written into the record that erroneously stated that the demolition follows federal preservation rules. When several people in the room called for proof of this statement from the appropriate authority, the President of Council denied any further comment from the public and called for a vote to demolish the buildings.

Three days later, Borough Council, Kervandjian and several others received a letter from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s (PHMC) Bureau of Historic Preservation stating that the letter read before the vote was incorrect (see quote below). Thus the vote for demolishing these historic buildings appears to have been flawed.  Yet when the public asked the Council to reconsider this vote based on having been presented flawed information, Council said no.

In other words, “Bah! Humbug! to the citizens, businesses and visitors of historic, Victorian Bellefonte.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future Speak Out

Quoting from the PHMC Bureau of Historic Preservation letter:

We recently received a copy of the November 11 letter addressed to you from Holly Glauser of PHFA. In it, she mistakenly states that the review process under Section 106 is complete [emphasis added]….

In our opinion, although fire damaged, these building retain sufficient integrity to convey their significance and contribute to the Bellefonte Historic District.  Therefore, the removal of the contributing buildings and new construction has the potential to adversely affect historic properties, specifically the Bellefonte Historic District….

Under Section 110(k)of the National Historic Preservation Act, any demolition (even as a result of a court order) that occurs PRIOR to [emphasis in original] completing the Section 106 review process would be considered “anticipatory demolition” and could put your use of HUD funds in jeopardy. Every effort should be made to resolve the potential adverse effect prior to any decision to demolish a contributing building within the Bellefonte Historic District.

Andrea McDonald, Acting Director, Bureau of Historic Preservation

Who is Scrooge?

Who is Scrooge in this act of destruction?  There’s more than one Scrooge in this comedy of errors.

There’s the developer, Ara Kervandjian and his companies PDG and Bellefonte Mews who ignored all calls for saving the Garman. They said it’s “too expensive” to preserve even the facade.

There’s the Bellefonte Area Industrial Authority who pooh-poohed the alternative plan by the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association (BHCA) to preserve the theatre and create a regional arts center. They gave Kervandjian essentially a free ride in presenting his plan while at the same time created multiple hurdles for BHCA to jump over that weren’t raised in Kervandjian’s plan.

And then there’s the majority of members of the Bellefonte Council who ignored calls, petitions, and public meeting calls for saving the building  and then voted to destroy part of the town’s National Historic District based on false information.

Here in Victorian Bellefonte, we are not likely to see the happy ending written into the original Victorian classic, “A Christmas Carol.”  Our Scrooges haven’t seen, or heard the spirits of Bellefonte’s past, present, or future. Their hearts and minds appear to be heartlessly frozen.

Neither Bellefonte nor the state want to see these miserly Ebenezer Scrooge’s harm our town and historic preservation in general.

Scrooges, do the town some good.  We still have a chance to turn this travesty around before the buildings are completely gone. These historic buildings are our town’s Tiny Tim.  Save “him” now.

Halloween Ode to the Garman Opera House

Happy Halloween readers!

It’s a day of “Trick or Treating” or “Trunk or Treating” depending on where you live.  In my case, a safe, historic town with lots of door-to-door trick or treaters.

However, it may also be a sad day – IF the Garman Opera House is allowed to be demolished by the Bellefonte Borough Council when it votes on the recommendation to raze this historic theater Monday night, November 4.  Despite the fact that the plan to demolish the Garman is on appeal in the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.

So a friend of mine (who is also a member of the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association) has created a Halloween lawn Ode entitled “Let Us Eat Your Town” on his front lawn to the Garman Opera House (1890-?) and to the destruction of Historic Victorian Bellefonte – our town:

 

Photo of Patrick North's front yard with his Halloween Ode to the Garman Opera HouseGarman Opera House

Ode to the Garman Opera House: “Let Us Eat Your Town.” Photo taken by Sally Houser

What will be lost?  Here’s the streetscape as it looks today.  On the left is the Centre County Courthouse. The Garman Opera House is the building on the right with the black bonnets over the first-floor windows:

 

Streetscape of High Street as seen today of the Garman Opera House across the street from the Centre County Courthouse.


Streetscape of High Street as seen today of the Garman Opera House across the street from the Centre County PA Courthouse.

And here’s what it will look like once the building is razed, courtesy of the artistic Photoshop skills of my friend Mary Vollero – a locally well-known artist and PSU faculty member.

 

Streetscape next to the Centre County Courthouse if and when the Garman Opera House is razed. We need to stop this before it happens. Photo rendition by Mary Vollero

Streetscape next to the Centre County Courthouse if and when the Garman Opera House is razed. We need to stop this before it happens. Photo rendition by Mary Vollero

Note, the developer, who purchased the building through a local court order, has given no guarantee that he will build ANYTHING in the next two years to replace the Garman.  His only guarantee is to raze the building and plant grass.  If he doesn’t restore/rebuild, he has agreed to give town council the right of first refusal to buy the property back at his cost for purchasing and razing the building.

The Bellefonte Borough Council is meeting on Monday, November 4, 2013 at 7:30 pm.  They will be voting on the recommendation to raze the Garman.

Despite opposition by the community (at least 700 residents of the town and more than 1700 signers on BHCA’s Save the Garman petition).  Despite the fact that the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association has a feasible plan (and initial funds) to save and restore this structurally-sound historic theatre as a regional community arts center. And despite the fact that the decision to destroy this historic building was done through the misuse of Pennsylvania’s Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act; that decision is now on appeal in Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court.

For more info, you can check out the complete Save the Garman Opera House website as well as my two earlier blogs (here and here) on this gem of history and the arts here in rural central Pennsylvania.

So…

Happy Halloween All!

It might be the last one for the Garman Opera House UNLESS we can change the minds of the Bellefonte Borough Council. Come to Bellefonte’s council meeting on Monday evening, November 4 @ 7:30 pm to stand up for and speak out against the demolition/razing of the historic Garman Theater. Meeting will be held at Borough Council Chambers, Bellefonte Municipal Building, 236 West Lamb Street, Bellefonte, PA 16823.  If you can’t come, you can contact members of council through this link: http://bellefonte.net/government/directory/borough-contacts/

Thank you and

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!  BOO!

Preservation: We’re Down to the Wire

picture of the front facade of the Garman Opera House in Bellefonte, PA

Help Save the Garman Opera House

On July 1, I posted a blog about a local historic theatre in Bellefonte, PA.  At the beginning of August, Judge Kistler ordered the Bellefonte Industrial Development Authority (IDA) to seriously consider the plan offered by the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association.  We presented that plan on Monday, August 26.  Then on Friday, August 30, the IDA responded with a series of conditions. One of these conditions includes raising more funds by September 11, when they will make their final decision.  We have already raised 60% of the necessary funds in the last 6 weeks.  We are now down to the wire and need your financial help.  Here’s the background.  Please read and consider donating or pledging to help us raise these start-up funds.

History

The Garman Opera House is located on East High Street on the south side of the Courthouse in Bellefonte, PA, next to the Garman House. Later known as the State Theatre, it was constructed next to the Garman House in 1890. This Theatre added another attraction to the busy world of fashion and culture. The song “After the Ball is Over” was first sung in public here. The theatre was host to the likes of George Burns and Gracie Allen, Houdini, the Flora Dora Girls, and a myriad of Wild West and one-act shows. In the 1900s it started showing films, first silent and then talking, but the last movie was shown in 1961. It then became a warehouse. It was restored in the 1990s as a stage performance center and then turned back into a movie theatre as well as performance center. In 2006 the rear portion was expanded upwards with guest rooms and suites. That venture did not, unfortunately, meet with success.

In September 2012 the neighboring Garman House (Do-De Hotel) was destroyed by fire, and the roof and upper floor of the Opera House were damaged.

And at that point the Bellefonte Industrial Development Authority (BIDA) was appointed by the court to determine what to do with the Garman Opera House.

 Vision

OUR VISION: A STANDING GARMAN THEATER–and a vibrant arts center for the community and region.

  1. The Garman can become a venue for plays, concerts, readings, and other arts, rather than a rubble pile left from a wrecking ball or an empty lot.
  2. Once we stabilize the building and launch our capital campaign, the Bellefonte Regional Arts Center (BRAC) will operate as a nonprofit arts organization under the umbrella of the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association, with its own governance structure and directorship. Reborn as the BRAC, the Garman Theater will become a dynamic, multi-use center for regional arts and culture, accessible to everyone.
  3. A Regional Arts Center makes economic sense. Non-profit arts and culture organizations are a 2.5 billion dollar industry in Pennsylvania alone, supporting over 81,000 jobs in the state and generating hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue to state and local governments, as well as to residents.
  4. Throughout Pennsylvania, small towns and cities alike have revitalized their downtowns through arts organizations: Johnstown now has its own Kernville Arts District, featuring major public art and a variety of new arts spaces such as Art Works and the Bottleworks Ethnic Art Center. The rural towns of Wellsboro and Towanda are major tourist destinations on account of their arts-centered downtowns; both feature historic theaters that have been adapted to show films, plays, music, and other performing arts. Easton, Reading, Lewisburg, Bethlehem, Sewickley, Farmington, Jim Thorpe, Milford, and many communities have benefited substantially from regional or community arts centers.
  5. The BHCA [has contacted and] can benefit from partnering with other organizations, such as Artspace and the League of Historic American Theaters, two non-profits with experience in helping communities rehab empty spaces into creative places that draw people and commerce into communities. This is certainly preferable to empty lots and cookie-cutter housing units.

On Friday, August 30, the Bellefonte Industrial Development Authority sent the BHCA a series of conditions for selling the Garman to us to rehab.  Since mid-June, when the court ordered the IDA to seriously consider our plan for the Garman, we have raised just about $150,000.  The IDA has now said that we need to have $250,000 “in the bank” by September 11, 2013.  So those of us on the planning and fundraising committees are reaching out to everyone we know to ask them to make a tax-deductible donation as large as you can in time to meet this deadline.

We have two websites. One of them— http://garmanoperahouse.org — focuses on the Garman Opera House and our vision for the future. The other one — http://bellefontearts.org — presents the credentials of the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association; it also provides a look at the arts projects we currently organize and conduct.  I have a 34-page plan we put together that I can send to anyone needing additional information.  I also have a copy of the PowerPoint presentation we presented before the IDA on Monday, August 26 that I could provide.  My phone number is 814-355-3056 and I’m willing to talk to anyone who wants more information.

Donations can be made either by check or online. Online donations can be made via PayPal or credit card; go to the home page of the Garman Opera House and click on the “Donate” button.  You can also mail in your donation; make checks payable to BHCA and mail to:

BHCA
P.O. Box 141
Bellefonte, PA 16823

“The official registration and financial information of BHCA may be obtained from the Pennsylvania Department of State by calling toll-free, within Pennsylvania, 800-732-099. Registration does not imply endorsement.”

Thank you in advance for helping us out in this time-crunch period.

Save Centre Crest: A Public Nursing Home and Long-Term Care Facility

Here in Centre County, we have a county-run nursing home facility.  It is located in the county seat of Bellefonte, PA.  Centre Crest Nursing Home in Bellefonte has been county-owned and operated for 73 years. On June 18, Commissioners Steve Dershem (R) and Chris Exarchos (R) called for a surprise and unannounced vote (which may have violated Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Law) to transfer the facility to a private organization to be run as a non-profit.  If the transfer goes through:

  • We, citizens of Centre Co., will lose our say in the operation and funding of Centre Crest;
  • Our tax investments could be subsidizing a private company through a rent-free agreement, yet we’d have no say in how Centre Crest would be run;
  • Current Centre Crest employees will have their benefits and pensions cut;
  • The Bellefonte community would lose over $1 million when employees lose benefits and when jobs involving payroll, purchasing, and benefit administration services are outsourced to a private company based in outside of Centre County; and
  • We expect that costs will rise for the residents, most of who are lower-income and cannot afford any of the very expensive private nursing home care that is elsewhere available in the county.

Most of the citizens in the county are opposed to this transfer.  Some oppose the transfer because of the inability for citizens to have a continued say in how the nursing home should be run.  Some oppose the transfer for fear that their loved ones will no longer be able to afford the care and will be forced to move.  Some oppose the transfer because of the expected loss of benefits, including a defined pension plan, should the nursing home be turned into either a non-profit or for-profit nursing home. And some oppose the transfer due to the costs involved.

In 2012, the cost to the average household (not taxpayer, but household) to operate Centre Crest was $25 (5.6% of the county taxes) and it was less than that in each of the four years before that.  The third commissioner, Commissioner Michael Pipe (D) spent several months doing a cost-benefit analysis of either keeping Centre Crest as a fully county-run facility or selling it off.  The cost of Commissioners Pipe’s proposal to upgrade facilities at Centre Crest is less than $11.50 for the average household.  The cost of a suggested subsidy to the county to turn it into a nonprofit is $3 million.  In addition, the proposed plan involves this non-profit receiving the current and proposed new site rent free.  Should the facility be moved, the county could incur an additional cost of $700,000 to $900,000 to acquire the suggested new location (Bellefonte Armory) with no reimbursement from the non-profit.

The current set up, according to Commissioner Pike is a win-win for the county and for seniors.  As he argued before the vote, keeping Centre Crest as an upgraded county-run facility is both an “excellent use of our investments (taxes)” and “provides a home and medical care to our most vulnerable citizens–our seniors.”

The transfer is NOT A DONE DEAL.  Although the initial vote was taken to transfer the home, none of the legal paperwork has yet to be signed and there are some legal actions that are being considered to stop what has happened so far.

There is a better alternative.  Commissioner Pipe presented a plan to keep Centre Crest county owned and upgrade the facility for only $11.50 per year for the average household.

Together we can make this alternative happen.

If you live in Centre County, PA; have family in Centre County; or are concerned about the idea of profit over compassionate care for vulnerable seniors, then you can help stop this decision from coming to fruition.

  1. If you live in Centre County, attend the County Commissioners’ meetings.  They occur at 10:00 am every Tuesday morning. Voice your objection to the transfer during the public comment session at the beginning of each meeting;
  2. No matter where you live, you can donate $5 or $50 to “Centre County Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility.” Mail to: 148 Thornton Rd., State College. PA  16801;
  3. Write a letter to the editor. The local papers include the Centre Daily Times, Voices of Central PA, the Lock Haven Express, the Progress News, and the Centre County Gazette;
  4. Contact the Commissioners directly:
    • Via Letter*: Commissioners Steve Dershem, Chris Exarchos, and Michael Pipe, 420 Holmes St., Bellefonte, PA  16823
    • Email*:  BOC@centrecountypa.gov
    • Phone*:  814-355-6700
  5. Go to http://saveCentreCrest.org, click on “petition,” download, print and then sign it.  You can then, if you desire, you can gather more signatures.  Once your petition is complete, mail it to: Save Centre Crest, P.O. Box 262, Bellefonte, PA  16823

You can also obtain more information and background on Centre Crest, what’s happening, and what you can do by visiting the Save Centre Crest website.

Art and Preservation Need Your Help in Central PA

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:

  1. The song, “After the Ball is Over” was first sung publicly at the Garman in the 1890’s soon after it opened;
  2. 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
  3. In the 1900s it started showing films, first silent and then talking. This continued until 1961.
Picture of the Garman Opera House

Bellefonte’s Historic”Anchor:” The Garman Opera House Theatre, c. 1961. Built in 1890.

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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!