Fighting to preserve history

HOLLIDAYSBURG – The borough lost four buildings in its historic district in a Feb. 28 fire, but it is not alone in dealing with concerns about damage to historic buildings.

The fire led to the demolition of four buildings along Allegheny Street, and the tear down is expected to be completed by the end of this week, said borough manager Mark Schroyer.

Schroyer said the cleanup has been managed quickly because the properties’ owner, Lacey Cunningham, has been working hard to get it done fast. He said officials are “very, very grateful” for her efforts.

Schroyer said the 10-block historic district is important to the overall image of Hollidaysburg, and any loss there is unfortunate for residents and visitors.

“I think it’s a major character for the borough,” he said. “The borough is advertised as historic Hollidaysburg.”

Much like Hollidaysburg, Bellefonte – located in Centre County – places a lot of value in its Victorian history. In recent years, several historic buildings have been lost to fires, most recently in 2012 the Garman Opera House, built in 1890, and the Garman House (Hotel Do-De), which is even older.

Both buildings were razed in January after a lengthy battle between borough officials, developers and local

historians about the fate of the building.

Members of the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association sought to rebuild the damaged building and convert it into a community arts center.

Other historic buildings in Bellefonte that were damaged by fire include the Bush House – built in the late 1860s and destroyed in a 2006 fire – and the Cadillac Building, built in 1916 and razed in 2009, according to the BHCA.

Bellefonte Borough Manager Ralph Stewart said the battle over the Garman is a rare case, as typically the public accepts that there are things beyond its control.

“I think the average person, to be honest with you, feels that it’s a financial decision,” he said. “They accept what needs to be done and the reality of it.”

If a building in the historic district of Bellefonte is damaged, repairs will go through the Historic and Architectural Review Board, he said.

Hollidaysburg also has a HARB that reviews changes in its historic district. This is pretty standard procedure for municipalities that seek to protect and maintain their historic architecture, Stewart said.

It varies, though, between communities how the board will feel about modern upgrades to historic buildings, he said. The property owner’s financial means have to be taken into account, too, he said.

“There has to be give and take – you have to be fair with the property owner,” Stewart said. “When you request or require buildings to be rebuilt, sometimes it’s just not affordable, just not feasible financially.”

Much of the time, though, the financial benefits of a historic district outweigh the costs. Stewart said Bellefonte’s Victorian heritage draws a number of visitors to the borough, many of whom just want to see the decades-old buildings for themselves.

“It’s significant for the downtown. There’s no question,” Stewart said. “It is an attraction – there is a huge industry of folks who want to visit and go see and learn about a community’s history.”

The Borough of Tyrone also has a history of beautiful architecture and classical buildings, said Nancy Smith, president of the Tyrone Historical Society.

The borough, founded in 1850, has lost some of its historic structures to flooding and other issues, Smith said, but even more of a concern is the fact that many residents may not realize the history around them.

“I think people need to realize that the structures are still there and haven’t been abandoned and let go,” she said.

She listed several buildings in the downtown that were razed after significant damage, including the former YMCA building that was located on the 1000 block of Logan Avenue.

Smith said that the YMCA used to host graduations and baccalaureate events for Tyrone schools, along with basketball games and swimming in its gymnasium and pool. It closed in 2004 and was severely damaged by Hurricane Ivan shortly thereafter. It was demolished in 2011.

She said the YMCA holds memories for a number of area residents, and its history has been preserved in the society’s Tyrone History Museum.

“In our museum, we have a display about the building and the contents of the cornerstone and all of that,” Smith said.

Tyrone does not have a specific board that monitors the upkeep and repair of its historical buildings. Smith said it’s important for property owners and residents to keep the preservation of these structures in the forefront of their minds, as they could all be replaced by “some God-awful modern thing that has nothing to do with what the town stands for.”

“We want to make people aware of the significant role Tyrone played in the area,” Smith said. “There’s so much that’s still there.”

Even if buildings are kept up and maintained, in the event of some kind of natural disaster, there’s not much that can be done, Stewart said.

“It’s unfortunate, but fires happen in every community,” he said, “and most of the time, it’s not because of the age of building or construction – it’s just what I would call human error.”

Schroyer echoed the sentiment, saying that there isn’t much one can do to prepare for something like that to happen.

“No one from the borough anticipated there would be a major fire that would destroy an entire downtown block,” he said. “Obviously, it’s one of those things you can never plan for.”

Mirror Staff Writer Paige Minemyer is at 946-7535.