Earth Matters: Repurposing historic buildings good for aesthetics, environment

Forward-thinking, innovative and courageous people, organizations and businesses are usually the ones that make a difference. This is true not just in successful business ventures, but is also the case when organizations and communities do exceptional things.

Many environmentally sound practices and improvements come about because someone or some group of people take a chance or go beyond the typical call of duty. This has certainly proven to be the case when it comes to historic, environmental and community preservation efforts in Blair County.

The environmental impacts of building demolition and new construction are, by themselves, quite notable. Demolition waste is one of the greatest subsets of our waste stream. But the new construction has its drawbacks, too. Typical buildings consume significant amounts of virgin resources, and a great deal of energy is consumed to transform them into building materials. The historic and aesthetic value of the buildings makes preservation an even better idea.

Earlier in the spring, we talked about some of the notable preservation efforts across the county. I asked readers to contribute their thoughts on what landmarks they miss and what they believe is still worth saving. Admittedly, the sample size (of a few dozen readers) was small, but it would seem to indicate that many believe that these old buildings are treasures worth saving.

Readers noted 20 buildings that had been successfully recycled or restored, with the Mishler Theatre topping the list as the community’s favorite classic building. Many others we didn’t have room to mention in our last column were included on the list, the Lakemont Casino and the Reiser House at Canal Basin Park heading the list.

Buildings that were reincarnated into something different from their original uses caught the attention and admiration of many readers. Besides the downtown Penn State buildings, these included the Railroaders Museum, the Quaint Corner Children’s Museum, the Downtown Heritage Center, John Rita’s Church in the Middle of the Block on Fifth Avenue and the Amtran Trolley Works.

Many other places have been revived to serve a purpose similar to their original use. The Casanave Building is in the midst of an incredible renovation that should help people forget its checkered past as a bar. Perhaps my favorites in this category are the beautiful Altoona Trust Building on 12th Street and the M&T Bank Building (with its Hummelstown Brownstone trim) on Pennsylvania Avenue in Tyrone.

Respondents to our survey noted a dozen endangered buildings they hoped could be saved, and Hollidaysburg’s Highland Hall, not surprisingly, topped the list. Another Brownstone gem was second – the now vacant First Methodist Church on 12th Avenue in downtown Altoona.

Next on the list were the ornate Silverman Building across from the Altoona Post Office and the old Gable’s Department Store. It would seem that many would like to see the bland brick casing removed from Gable’s to uncover the architectural features still preserved beneath.

Building preservation is like so many aesthetic and environmental issues in the region. We realize that some good things are happening, but we have also come to recognize that there is still much work to be done.

John Frederick (jfrederick@ writes on environmental issues every other Saturday. To see photos of many of the buildings mentioned, visit and type in Altoona, PA.