Members of the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association say their fight to save the Garman Opera House building is not over, even as a developer moves forward with plans to demolish the site for housing and commercial space.
BHCA members plan to plead their case Tuesday to the Bellefonte Historical Architecture Review Board, then to Bellefonte Borough Council and even to state appeals courts if necessary.
Association representatives were on High Street on Friday morning, greeting individuals joining developer Ara Kervandjian for a tour of the Garman designed to show that the structure — damaged in the Hotel Do De fire in September 2012 — should be torn down.
“Everybody thinks it’s over,” BHCA member Joseph Griffin said during a meeting Thursday at the CDT. “Everybody thinks we’ve lost. Everybody thinks the Garman is going to be torn down.”
Karen Arnold, an attorney formerly with the Centre County district attorney’s office, described the situation succinctly:
“Once you get rid of the Garman, then there’s no more talk about saving the Garman.”
Decisions by the courts and the Bellefonte Industrial Development Authority have not dimmed the spirits of the preservationists, who have outlined a plan to stabilize the Garman site, put on a new roof and eventually name an executive director and launch a capital campaign.
In the BHCA’s concept, the Garman’s interior would be remodeled starting in 2015 and events scheduled there a year later — perhaps in time for the town’s traditional Victorian Christmas celebration.
BHCA President Keith Koch said his group has raised about $260,000 and offered to put a roof on the Garman this fall to preserve the structure at least in the short term, realizing the wrecking ball could arrive some day anyway.
“We can’t understand why the borough and the IDA would rather have that building gone,” Koch said.
As it stands now, Kervandjian has until February to knock down the Garman and at least plant grass on the site.
His redevelopment plan calls for the Do De also to be razed and a large multiuse structure to take their place alongside the county courthouse.
“What’s the urgency here?” Arnold said. “If someone can’t explain that, then there’s a problem.”
Griffin’s argument is a philosophical one: Why would a town that prides itself on its Victorian heritage not seek out every means for preserving a local landmark?
Beyond that, Griffin said, the Garman is a federally registered historic site and is therefore protected from demolition except when no other option exists.
The Garman dates to 1890 and once saw the top stars of vaudeville perform on its stage.
Griffin pointed to empty spaces where the Bush House and Bellefonte Academy once stood as evidence that tearing down one structure does not always lead quickly to something new and useful rising in its place.
“We have a checkered history” in terms of protecting historic buildings, Griffin said.
BHCA’s flier touts two Bellefonte revitalization success stories: The Gamble Mill and the Match Factory.
“If you think the Garman is too far gone to save … remember these buildings,” the flier reads.
Griffin said he doesn’t know if the review board will recommend to Borough Council that the Garman should come down, but fears that “demolition seems to be something driving our borough.”
He wondered: “How can they approve the demolition of an historical building in the historic district?”
The preservation group is swimming against the tide of perception that the Garman would become like many other saved theaters: an underused money pit. Before being damaged in the Do De fire, the Garman was not in operation due to financial challenges.
“It has been said to me that since the Garman hasn’t made money for decades, what makes me think we can succeed,” Griffin said.
Koch said the Garman is structurally sound, despite perceptions of some who toured the site Friday.
And he points to the building’s assets that most community theaters don’t have: a restaurant, a banquet hall, three 2-bedroom apartments and 13 motel-like rooms — all potential sources of revenue.
The members of BHCA pledged to continue the quest as long as the Garman is standing.
“I honestly believe we can pull this off,” Koch said.
Griffin added: “I’m not confident that we’ll be successful, but sentiment is shifting our way.”
Chip Minemyer is the executive editor of the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4640. Follow him on Twitter @MinemyerChip.