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.

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!