Many steps crunched. Some squished.
About 50 local residents Friday walked through the interior of the ravaged historic Garman Opera House, inspecting the damage caused by years of disuse and a fire a year ago that destroyed the neighboring Hotel Do De.
Wearing dust masks and respirators, they saw floors littered with plaster flakes and chips and, in spots, soggy insulation.
Mold and fungi blackened the walls and leather booths of the former Italian restaurant in the dingy basement. Ragged plaster strips, warped ceiling panels and loose wires dangled upstairs in the lobby.
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In the theater itself, plaster covered the red seats like snow. Backs were gone from some. The dusty air smelled of rot.
Carpet, wallpaper and paint peeled away from mold-dotted walls, exposing bricks. The grand proscenium appeared unscathed, but the rolled-up movie screen tilted across the stage, resting amid a clutter of debris.
The tours came at the invitation of State College developer Ara Kervandjian, who wants to raze the Garman and the Do De and build a combined 3-story structure with 21 apartments for workforce housing. His design calls for an entrance marquee similar to the present one.
His Progress Development Group also proposes to develop another 11 apartments in the nearby fire-damaged Cadillac Building.
Friday’s walk-throughs were the latest wrinkle in the ongoing struggle over the Garman’s fate.
On Sept. 24, Kervandjian asked the Bellefonte Historic Architecture Review Board to recommend a demolition order to the Bellefonte Borough Council. But HARB tabled its decision until its meeting on Tuesday.
The Bellefonte Industrial Development Authority controversially voted for Kervandjian’s development plan, dubbed the Bellefonte Mews, over the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association’s proposal to restore the theater into a community arts center.
Under the Abandoned and Blighted Properties Conservatorship Act, or Act 135, the IDA took control of the Garman and Do De.
The day before Kervandjian’s demolition request, the BHCA filed an injunction to delay his plans in hopes of an appeals process. A decision is pending.
In turn, the developer organized the tours, saying they were meant “to allow the community ... to see what the Garman has become, what it is and why we’re trying to take these efforts to move forward.”
Before the tours, he described his plan for the Garman as “simply turning a page in its history and having it re-emerge.”
“We appreciate trying to save something, but it’s so far gone ... The memory is there, but (our plan) is just a better use of what we see is our vision,” he said.
BHCA members and supporters, who handed out pamphlets Friday and wore “Save the Garman” T-shirts, imagine a different future.
Unlike the Do De, the Garman — which had been closed since it fell into bankruptcy in 2008 — was ruled salvageable.
BHCA, which says it has raised about $260,000 in donations and pledges, seeks to stave off demolition, install a new roof, mothball the building and continue to raise more restoration funds. Its long-term plan includes seeking state tax credits that support historic restoration and applying for arts grants.
Theater supporters point to the Match Factory and the Gamble Mill as examples of formerly dilapidated buildings threatened by the wrecking ball only to be restored into thriving community fixtures.
“I believe we can do exactly the same thing with the Garman,” BHCA member Joanne Tosti-Vasey said.
Kervandjian has until February 2014 to raze the Garman and Do De. Before the IDA approved his plan, he said he would try to preserve the Garman’s facade if it was economically feasible.
But last week, in requesting the green light for demolition, he said the project would cost $500,000 and be too expensive.
That rankled BHCA members, who contend that Kervandjian’s financing isn’t as solid as he has claimed. They say Act 135 requires that a developer have all funding in place.
Kervandjian hopes for Pennsylvania Housing Finance Association tax credits and federal grants, critical components of his plan.
“We’re looking forward to getting moving ahead as soon as we can, and get this project built hopefully by the end of next year, assuming our financing comes through,” he said.
If it does not, he said, his company would switch to an alternate plan of building a mixed retail and office building with one floor of apartments. The exterior brick facade would be the same as the one for the workforce housing design.
BHCA members say they’re not against workforce housing but that it could be built in many locations other than the historic downtown.
“The place would really come alive if we built an arts center here, I’m convinced,” BHCA member Mary Vollero said. “Housing is important but they don’t need to knock down historic buildings to do it.”
During Friday’s tours, Progress Development Group project manager Troy Knecht said the collapsed third floor and other unsafe areas were not opened to the public. He said it would cost more than $1 million just to shore up exterior walls, compared to about $250,000 for a demolition.
The BHCA maintains Act 135 states that restoration should be the goal whenever it can be accomplished. And they think that’s the case with the Garman.
BHCA President Keith Koch said the tours, rather than proving Kervandjian’s point that the Garman is too damaged and unstable to save, demonstrated the opposite: that the building is basically solid.
“No one in their right mind would invite people into a building that’s going to collapse on them,” Koch said.
Tour participants had to sign liability wavers to enter the building.
Gary Hoover signed. He said has a lot of experience with old and damaged buildings from past stints working for a gas and oil company and as a building rehabilitation specialist in Williamsport.
“I’ve seen it all, the good, bad and ugly of buildings, and I can recognize what’s superficial, I think, and what isn’t,” he said, speaking as a citizen and not as the executive director of the Bellefonte Intervalley Area Chamber of Commerce.
“The roof is gone; we expected that. And the side walls have mold. There’s a lot of mold everywhere. But again, that’s what you would expect. Most of that’s going to be torn out anyway, but I think it’s superficial.”
From what he could see, he said, much of the Garman’s basic structure — the walls, steel girders, plastic piping, heating duct insulation — looked solid. He said he thinks the ruined plaster and other features could be repaired.
“I think the building can be restored,” Hoover said. “Anything can be fixed. It’s just a matter of money.”
He said an arts center would be a “tremendous boon to Bellefonte.”
“It would bring in a lot of tourism and money into the town, and increase the general prosperity,” he said. “That’s what I would really like to see.”