Home & Garden

This old house: Bellefonte landmarks preserve the past

The Valentine House, owned by Michael and Tara Immel, is located at 105 E. Curtin St. in Bellefonte.
The Valentine House, owned by Michael and Tara Immel, is located at 105 E. Curtin St. in Bellefonte.

If you build it, they will come — even if it takes a century or two.

The 2016 Old House Fair in Bellefonte opens on April 29, commencing a two-day celebration of the region’s historic architecture that will feature experts in the fields of period landscaping, old house restoration and historic architectural styles.

Sponsored by the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association, the American Philatelic Society and the Centre County Historical Society, the event aims to build enthusiasm for Bellefonte’s historic buildings — and what better way to do that than to take a deeper look at how local residents have repurposed other aging buildings within the community?

Below, those who have restored some Bellefonte landmarks answer questions about how they preserved the past. Answers have been edited for space and clarity.

Ted Conklin, owner of the William Thomas House, known as the Wren’s Nest

Age: The earliest part of the building (the back part) was built before 1785 and represents the first permanent settlement in the Nittany Valley ... The front part of the house was built across the years 1834-35. It is a modest version of the grand style Georgian structures of the era, with a center hall and staircase. One side of this portion of the home had a two-story addition of bay windows probably in the 1880s.

Recent renovations included an attached carriage house, which serves as a garage and woodshop, completed in 1990, and a two-story service addition completed across three years, 2006-09.

Path to renovation: When I purchased the building in 1969, the rear portion had been gutted by fire, leaving only a partial roof on the back half of the building. (The town of Bellefonte planned to demolish it.)

The house had been an apartment house with seven units, so I had to tear out the debris from seven families and the compartmentalized larger rooms they inhabited ... (In the 1970s) I stabilized the building with temporary roofing and shored up the structure by adding steel posts to support the structure, leveling or replacing floors, straightening and stabilizing the collapsing masonry walls, adding windows, adding doors and so forth. All of the areas charred by the fire were sandblasted to remove the char. ... I created a small living space, remaking one of the old apartments left in the building, so that I could rent it while I attended college and then live in it while I continued working on the house.

The major renovation took place around 2000, with renovations in the back part of the house, the older part, one room at a time. ... The building has been fully renovated now. Most of the materials I used were repurposed from other old buildings.

Why did you take this on: I was in high school. The building was for sale, and I understood it was being considered for demolition. I noted that even though the building was in the dirtiest location in Bellefonte (because of the lime company operations), with heavy truck traffic behind it, the front part facing the stream provided a park-like setting.

I appreciated the possibility the building afforded. Its location and state of disrepair (not just from the fire but the neglect of the previous owners) made it affordable for me to purchase, so I found a way to purchase it, with my father’s help. I wanted to make the property my home. I have lived here all of my adult life.

What is it now?: A single-family residence.

Future plans: For the long term, the building will do best as a single-family home or perhaps as a bed-and-breakfast.

Nancy Noll, owner of The Queen, A Victorian Bed-and-Breakfast

Age: It was built in 1885.

Past life: (It was) believed to have been built by Anne Orvis Keller from Philipsburg, the niece of J. Orvis Keller Conference Center fame.

(It was) believed to have been “updated” in the 1940s when the pocket doors were replaced with glass paneled French doors. The staircase was altered and some built-ins were added.

The subsequent owner in the 1950s attempted to turn it into a five-unit apartment house by removing much of the original woodwork and doors and chopping the large rooms into smaller ones. Six of the original eight fireplaces were removed along with two of the four chimneys. Demolition took place in virtually every room with little attention to the historic detail of the home.

Path to renovation: When our family first saw the house in 1975, she looked like a haunted lady rather than a painted lady. Paint was peeling, the radiators were in a pile of rubble in the side yard, the stonework was falling from the turret and side porch, there were no steps to the front porch, windows were broken and the lawn was littered with four foot tall maple trees ... After much negotiating with ... at Mount Nittany Savings and Loan (banks had local autonomy back then), we began our never-ending adventure ... Forty years later, hundreds of thousands of dollars and hundreds of pounds of sweat, we still have two rooms to go.

Why did you take this on?: When I peeped in the windows, I didn’t see the crumbled plaster on the floor. I saw a finely attired butler and ladies in ball gowns. I knew she could be beautiful again.

What is it now?: Today, we proudly welcome guests from all over the world to take a step back in time and enjoy the grandeur of the Victorian era along with modern amenities of comfort and convenience.

Future plans: Finish those two rooms and someday pass a thriving business on to another young couple before I move to my two-bedroom condo I rarely see.

Ken Martin, executive director of the American Philatelic Society, on the Match Factory

Age (Year built): The bulk of the “Match Factory complex” that is listed on the historic registry was built between 1899 and 1922. A block warehouse was added in the early 1960s and the American Philatelic Society built a connector between the old and new sections of the complex in 2003-2004.

Past life: It operated as a match factory from March 1900 until June 30, 1947. From 1947 through 1996 the buildings were used by (Claster and Sons). After 1996 the buildings were acquired to start a microbrewery, but that project fell through. The American Philatelic Research Library closed on the property in 2002 and has since spent about $16 million renovating the 100,000 square feet.

Path to renovation: The renovation has been done in about 10 phases. In general, renovation for tenants has been financed by debt, and renovation for our own use has been financed from the sale of our previous building and donations from our membership.

Why did you take this on: It was a controversial decision, but our board ultimately decided that this was preferable to another addition to our Oakwood Avenue building.

What is it now?: With the completion of our permanent library space about a month away, all 100,000 square feet within the complex will have been renovated. Parking precludes using the current library space that will become available for additional tenants so we hope to convert that space to a museum, volunteer space and storage. We hope the virtual completion of the building and the gradual reduction of debt will allow us to pursue other ideas such as acquiring a railway mail car and completing a path connecting Talleyrand Park and Masullo Park featuring historical markers related to significant events for the hobby of stamp collecting such as the issue of the first postage stamp, the Pony Express, beginning of airmail service, etc.

Future plans: We want the complex to become even more of a destination for our members, community events and tourists.

Michael and Tara Immel, owners of the Valentine House

Age: The house was built in 1870 by the Robert Valentine family.

Past life: The house was originally a single-family home. Sometime in its history it was converted into seven apartments. In September 2008, the home suffered a damaging fire and was slated to be demolished.

Path to renovation: We purchased the property a month after it burned and began the clean up and restoration process. Cleaning up was the first challenge we faced — ridding the house of all of the debris was a huge endeavor. ... Once the house was empty, we were able to see what could be saved, such as original pocket doors, the front entry doors, marble and slate fireplace mantels and part of the staircase. We were also able to see where all of the original rooms were located and discovered that the home originally had an observation tower, which we were able to rebuild. We also had to remove all of the waterlogged horsehair plaster from the house, have mold remediation completed, and essentially start from scratch. This allowed us to install new wiring, plumbing, insulation and air conditioning and heating systems.

The house was chopped up when it was converted to apartments, so once the plaster and some walls were removed we could see the original floor plan. We did not completely adhere to the entire original floor plan but did locate the majority of the rooms in their original spaces. Our idea was to try to retain the character and grandeur of the home while incorporating modern amenities. We repurposed many of the rooms into more useful spaces for our family. ... We also added amenities, such as large closets, cabinets under the mansard roof windows on the third floor, a sauna, large walk-in showers, 11 gas fireplaces, a Brazilian cherry spiral staircase to the tower and a dumbwaiter to the upper floors.

Why did you take this on?: We had a vision for what it could become when restored to its original grandeur. As with all of our properties, including our three current rental buildings in Bellefonte, we have the ability to look past the aesthetics and see the potential in each one. We know that if we have a plan, the financial ability and sweat equity, we can save these historic properties and preserve them for future generations.

What is it now?: It is now a single-family home.

Future plans: We love our house and we’re thinking that we’ll stay in the house for a little longer and then possibly sell it.

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready


What: 2016 Old House Fair

When: 1-8 p.m. April 29 and 9 a.m.-6 p.m. April 30

Where: American Philatelic Society, 100 Match Factory Place, Bellefonte

Info: CentreHistory.org/OHF. Register for April 29 events by April 25.