Celebrating a neighborhood treasure: Former Altoona church notes 25 years as cultural resource center
John Rita grew up in the looming shadow of The Second United Brethern Church, at
217 Fifth Ave. His family lived one house away — so close, that the church’s side door is visible in a photo taken during his childhood.
The photo symbolizes the interconnectedness between Rita and the building he and many others have lovingly restored to life and is now known as the Church in the Middle of the Block Cultural Resource Center with it’s mission of “Exploring community history through the Arts.”
The cultural facility will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a special program Dec. 22, organized by Rita’s cousin Chris Cook and well-known author/performer Tom Sweitzer.
No tickets will be sold or reservations taken, so Rita urges people to come early to garner one of the theater’s 150 seats.
“It is sure to be a standing-room only event,” Rita predicted.
Built in 1888 in Late Gothic Revival style, a Brethern congregation constructed the church and later merged and moved to a larger facility a few blocks away, now the Second Avenue Methodist Church. It served as a spiritual home to many denominations over the years and then stood vacant for about 15 years.
No longer a home of worship but a pigeon coop — a home for hundreds of pigeons until 1993 when the City of Altoona sold it to Rita for $1. A bargain compared to the $23,000 the City would have spent to demolish the blighted structure. “I’d never do it again,” Rita, 65, said, smiling. “When I started my hair was dark now look at me.”
But when pressed, Rita reveals he had a calling to save the church — a place which once saved souls.
“I felt my fulfillments in life hinged on saving this structure. I was aching to do it. I have so many good memories and so many people have been involved who have helped. “
It took two years before the first public performance took place in December 1995.
“We had to wear biohazard suits to come in here that first day. We removed four tons of pigeon dirt,” Rita recalled. “You could see the sky between the rafters that remained. So water had been pouring in for years. We really got to it in the nick of time.”
Then city mayor, Tom Martin said he had “no hesitation” that Rita would turn the blighted building into something significant.
“I saw immediately that John is the kind of man who accomplishes all he sets his mind to … John deserves all the accolades. He is my hero.”
Martin has attended multiple musical recitals, plays and dances at the Church in the Middle of the Block.
“It’s a real asset to the city,” Martin said. “The only better asset to the community is John himself. He is a man among men.”
It’s taken 25 years and about $250,000 but the building breathes again and continues to serve a congregation — artists, thespians, sculptors, and a ham radio operator who builds working telegraph keys.
Instead of worshippers, theater-enthusiasts use the pews in the former sanctuary-now-performance area.
“We’ve been working on it forever, but I knew then (1993) it was all about the journey,” Rita said. “There really is no finite end point.”
The upcoming anniversary celebration commemorates the Church in the Middle of the Block’s public debut in December 1995. Throughout the ensuing years, the cultural center is used regularly by Things Unseen Theatre, cofounded by Valerie Stratton and the late Jody Hesley.
Stratton and Tom Liszka serve as co-artistic directors.
“Our first production was a play based on Edgar Allan Poe stories in October of that year. Since then, we’ve presented a total of 30 shows,” Stratton said. “These are all productions that would not have happened otherwise and have provided opportunities and experience of actors, directors, tech people and playwrights. And, of course, interesting shows for theater-goers.”
The shows bring in new people to see the beautiful building.
“So many people have been totally unaware of its existence. There have been other functions … musical performances, a comedy show and even a wedding,” Stratton said.
“The intimacy of the church’s performance space continues to provide a one-of-a-kind artistic experience in a one-of-a-kind space. John Rita’s initial vision came to fruition and with each successive year he finds ways to improve upon the venue and to enhance the audience experience,” Jeanie Geist, a board member with the Allegheny Ballet Company.
This December’s anniversary has two goals, Cook said.
“It’s a celebration of the purchase and restoration of the Church in the Middle of the Block and is an opportunity to embrace diversity as the space is used by a wide range of people,” Cook said. “It’s our way to show the hope and love of Christ. It’s all inclusive and that’s why I’m passionate about it.”
The building and the people it attracted to itself has shaped him into the man he’s become, Cook said.
“When I was 13 years old John’s father Albert Michael (senior) had me begin working there and it’s really where I learned by trade, historic preservation. I started at that building and it tied the most influential people in my life all together.”
Those people were Rita’s father an accomplished carpenter Albert Michael Rita, John, and Cook’s best friend Sweitzer. Sweitzer is a nationally-recognized play write, author and champion for mentally-and-physically challenged. He co-wrote “Porches,” a show about growing up in the neighborhood surrounding the Church in the Middle of the Block.
“Albert Michael treated me like his own grandson because my grandfather died when I was young. Then, Tom noticed me helping around the place and then taught me art and historic preservation. I introduced Tom to John and Tom brought the performance piece to the building. The best memories of my life occurred there,” Cook said. “I have all these people in my life who shaped me. Uncle Albert (he and Cook’s grandmother were siblings) brought me in as a carpenter’s apprentice. Tom was one of my closest friends growing up and still is.”
It was through Sweitzer’s introduction to theater arts, that Cook found his other creative outlets as a singer, actor and director.
Cook, Sweitzer and the most recent cast of “Porches” will be performing a song from the play called “Small Town, Big Dreams,” as well as traditional Christmas music. They will be joined by many other former residents who began their creative journey at the cultural center as part of a creative youth group named for the late entertainer Tom Riley.
“We will be showcasing the talents of the ‘Porches’ cast, Christmas songs, non-Christmas songs, and lyrical ballet. It’s a holiday celebration,” Cook said. He and Rita referred to the event as a “homecoming” for both those who have performed at the center and for the neighborhood where all three men grew up.
“There’s always been a good relationship between the cultural center and the Second Avenue United Methodist Church. I attended that church. My whole life revolved around those blocks. I call it home,” Cook said.
If you go
What: The 25th Anniversary of the rebirth of The Church in the Middle of the Block. The public is welcome to attend for music, memories and merriment.
Where: 217 Fifth Ave., Altoona
When: 7 p.m. Dec. 22