Work crews began demolishing the Garman Theatre in Bellefonte on Saturday, negating a preservationist group’s last-ditch attempts to save the historic building that was badly damaged by a fire.
A handful of residents stood along High Street in below-freezing temperatures to watch a part of the landscape fall.
“It’s the gem of our community and a piece of history that we don’t get to have anymore,” said 29-year Bellefonte resident Joanne Tosti-Vasey.
She added that she was able to save nine paintings from the theater entrance in hopes of having them displayed by the borough.
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“I’ve seen the transformation from when it was a vaudeville theater to a warehouse, and the changes it took on,” Tosti-Vasey said. “This helped make what Victorian Bellefonte is.”
By noon Saturday, about a quarter of the building was demolished. Workers with Earthmovers Unlimited, of Kylertown, said demolition began just before 9 a.m. Saturday and continued through the day, and will continue all day on Sunday.
Bill Comly, superintendent of Bellefonte Public Works, confirmed that a water service line leak in the adjacent Hotel Do De cracked due to heavy machinery used in the demolition. By the end of the workday Saturday, it was repaired.
Construction workers said the last wall of the Do De was the first to be leveled on Saturday morning, followed by the roof and upper level of the theater. Demolition of the Do De began at the end of December.
Workers could not provide any additional details concerning when the entire project would be completed, but they said demolition could be done as soon as Sunday night.
Bellefonte resident Charles Neff said he stood on East High Street for about three hours Saturday morning while the building was under demolition. The road was closed at South Allegheny Street.
“I heard it on the scanner and headed down to see it for myself,” Neff said. “I’ve lived in the area for about five years and used to go to the Do De for a beer. I actually remember the fire pretty well. Now it’s just amazing that this place is gone.”
A major fire damaged the Hotel Do De and Garman Theatre in September 2012. A 2009 blaze damaged the Cadillac Building at the corner of Allegheny and Bishop streets.
The properties’ owner, developer Ara Kervandjian, plans to build 32 apartments with the Garman space, the Hotel Do De lot next door and the nearby Cadillac Building property.
Borough Manager Ralph Stewart said Kervandjian has an agreement with the Bellefonte Industrial Development Authority to demolish the property no later than February. The next step is for Kervandjian to then resubmit a request for funding for the new structure.
“We’re not sure what phase will be done first,” Stewart said. “That’s in the hands of the owner. The borough has little oversight at this point, but at some point, hopefully in the near future, we hope to hear of future plans that will be submitted.”
Stewart said he is looking forward to seeing plans and new renderings of the property.
“From what we know so far, the renderings are acceptable with the new structure fit,” Stewart said.
Stewart said the Cadillac Building would be restored to its former glory.
“It’s about rehabilitation,” Stewart said. “The Cadillac Building will be rehabilitated. It’s a historical building designed by the first woman architect in Pennsylvania, and we felt that was certainly a benefit to restore it.”
Stewart said the Cadillac Building would be used for offices related to the housing project, while the upper level of the building will be made into apartments.
“We should see rendering soon, and (the structure) will be restored to what it looked look prior to the fire,” Stewart said. “We’re keeping that piece of history.”
The Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association lost two appeals in lower courts to save the Garman property. The BHCA then last week filed an appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court seeking an expedited hearing to challenge a lower court’s decision that upheld the IDA’s approval of replacing the theater with apartments.
However, errors in the association’s appeal further delayed any chances for saving the downtown landmark.
The BHCA wanted to restore the Garman and create a regional arts center.
“The Garman has been vacant for a number of years, but before it meant a place where people could gather as multiuse facility,” said BHCA President Keith Koch. “It’s been in town for more than 110 years. Before there was TV, it brought in celebrities for entertainment.”
More than 1,700 people signed a petition in hopes to save the Garman, including 700 Bellefonte residents and 17 downtown business owners, Koch said
“For half a year we’ve tried to bring the borough to its senses by saving it and they did not wish to save the historic building that even though it was not completely destroyed by way of fire,” Koch said.
Koch said while the courts can’t save the Garman, the group’s appeal focuses on the future.
“Now we’re appealing on borough procedures so this won’t happen again,” Koch said. “You can’t save the building, but that’s not the point. We want borough leaders with their actions to do what they say to preserve the town. It’s called Victorian Bellefonte, but like this, we’re not sure for how long.”
The BHCA will continue regular programming, and Koch said that the group is surprised, yet glad, the Cadillac Building is being saved.