Prolific 19th century architect left his mark on Altoona, Blair
C.M. Robinson exhibit is on display at Baker Mansion
Charles Morrison Robinson married the cousin of renowned Gen. George Custer, but his claim to fame was as Altoona’s “Golden Age” architect at the turn of the 19th century, drawing up plans for more than 60 iconic buildings in the area, including the town’s original hospital and high school.
The Blair County Historical Society is celebrating the architect’s 150th birthday this year with a temporary exhibit at its Baker Mansion History Museum that goes away after the holidays.
The museum’s winter hours typically are by appointment only, but you can see the exhibit and a decorated Baker Mansion during the Heritage Holiday tours that start on Wednesday and run until Dec. 23. Tours are $7 for students and $10 for adults, are guided and include free refreshments. Guest performers will sing carols on Friday evenings and an outside tree lighting ceremony is at 5 p.m. this Friday, said Executive Director Joe DeFrancesco. Saturdays will feature soup samplings and photos with Santa.
Even if you have visited the mansion previously, the Robinson exhibit only went up this summer after Blair County Historical Society board member Michael Farrow realized it was the sesquicentennial of Robinson’s birth.
“In the 1890s, Altoona and Blair County towns experienced a great building boom, which produced some of the greatest architecture between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh,” Farrow said. “Perhaps the most prolific of the many architects of that era was … Robinson.”
He was born in Hamilton, Virginia, the son of an architect. After deciding to follow his father’s career, Robinson served two apprenticeships, one in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and another in Pittsburgh.
He came to Altoona and formed a partnership with fellow architect G.T. Smith in 1889, and two years later, he married Annie Custer of Altoona, the famous general’s cousin.
That Custer family was in Altoona because Annie’s father, Benjamin, was the chief clerk of the motive power department of the Pennsylvania Railroad. They lived at 1128 Eighth Ave., only a block down from where fellow PRR employee and future magnate Andrew Carnegie lived from 1853 to 1859 before relocating to Pittsburgh and making history, according to Farrow.
The Robinsons, meanwhile, had two children and he “built a fine, gothic-style stone house with an eight-sided stable” on West Chestnut Avenue that still stands today, Farrow said. He also built a cottage overlooking the Juniata River in a country retreat development called Point View near Williamsburg that Farrow said also stands today.
His designs, starting in 1889, included Altoona Hospital, Blair County Almshouse, the first Altoona high school (called Lincoln), Central Trust Bank, the Casanave Building, the Masonic Temple on 11th Street and the Adams, Fourth Ward and St. Mary’s schools, among others. His church projects included the First Lutheran, Grace Lutheran, Broad Avenue Presbyterian and the Mountain City Hebrew Synagogue (the present-day Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church). During 1900-01 alone, he designed 16 churches, five schools and the Johnstown City Hall, according to Farrow.
Robinson also designed Methodist churches in Bellwood, Punxsutawney and Roaring Spring and the Lutheran church in Martinsburg; he built houses and department stores, including Wray & Irwin in Bellwood, Farrow added.
Robinson relocated to and worked in Pittsburgh from 1901 to 1904 and 1906, and designed among others, the St. Andrews Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Steel City.
He returned to Altoona for one year in 1905 before moving the following year to Virginia, where he lived until he died at the age of 65 in 1932, but not before designing the master plan and many buildings at James Madison University, the College of William and Mary, the University of Richmond, dozens of high schools in the region and more.
But that last year in Altoona — 1905 — might have represented Robinson’s crowning achievement here: His iconic design of the Altoona High School made of brownstone from Hummelstown.
Farrow said the tile-roof building had two interesting architectural features.
It “had a dome that was made of glass panels surmounted by a clock,” he said. “The light would shine down to the basement through circular wells or cuts made into the floor. The wells were as large as the dome. You could stand on each floor and look over the railing around the well to the floor above or below.
“Also, there was a swimming pool under the front steps.”
The building stood until the early 1970s when a $14 million project to refurbish the high school began with officials determining the brownstone building was not structurally sound and they had it razed.
“The brownstone was tragically torn down, and to many, it was the symbol of academia in Altoona and so many residents went to high school there,” DeFrancesco said. “Architecture is defined by culture, but a culture could also be defined by architecture.”
A brick annex — today called Building B — was built in the 1920s adjacent to that original building and it now is targeted for demolition as the Altoona Area School District looks to build a new school on the property.
“The aesthetics of the proposed new high school don’t give Altoona the classic identity that the old high school presented with (Robinson’s) classic architecture, which is a true treasure to any community,” DeFrancesco said. “The proposed high school is super modern, has a lot of glass, a lot of steel. It almost looks like a prison or an airport and there’s nothing to indicate that you’re not standing in front of a big building in Texas or California. It doesn’t promote the classic identity of this community.
“As a historian, I try to advocate for what would be culturally appropriate to match the culture and heritage of the community.”
The Baker Mansion exhibit will have a model of the Robinson-designed original brownstone school, on loan from the high school’s alumni association, in addition to large photographs of 40 of Robinson’s buildings.
DeFrancesco said the exhibit not only points out the community’s classic architectural history, it reveals a history of former famous residents.
“I think it’s one of the better kept secrets, unfortunately, that there is a connection” to Custer, he said. “Some very famous people resided in Altoona for a short stint. Robinson, Andrew Carnegie, and other prominent people that we have forgotten they lived here.”
DeFrancesco added that other current exhibits at the museum feature Gable’s Department Store, World War I, the Logan House Hotel, as well as period furnishings and the ornate mansion that was completed in 1849.
Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.
If you go
What: Heritage Holidays guided tours
Where: Baker Mansion History Museum, 3419 Oak Lane, Altoona
When: Dec. 6-23, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Fridays. Tree lighting on Friday at 5 p.m.
Admission: $10, $7 for students 12 and younger, free for children younger than 3
More info: www.BlairHistory.org/events, (814) 942-3916