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.
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.