Historic Preservation Feature is a series of articles on the efforts to save and reuse historic buildings, districts and sites in Pennsylvania.

The commemoration of America’s Bicentennial gave birth to numerous community-minded pursuits during its nationwide celebra­tion. Although many of these special endeavors were shelved when the year was over, the administrators of one at least. the Historic Registration Project in Centre County. realized that their work had just begun. Now, four years later, this unique organization is still promoting local preservation.

A combination of factors favored the project’s creation in 1976. Con­cerned citizens were already rallying to save Bellefonte’s Gamble Mill, an integral part of the community in the nineteenth century. but a candidate for demolition in 1975. To give greater validity to their effort, the citizens’ group prepared an application to list the building in the National Register of Historic Places. To their surprise, they discovered that theirs was only the third Centre County application to the Register. Prompted by this realization, they began to see the wisdom of registering other buildings before they too were threatened. At about the same time, topics for community projects were being explored to in­corporate in the county Bicentennial celebration. Through the conjunction of these two unrelated circumstances, the Historic Registration Project (HRP) was born.

Once the idea for such a project had germinated, the means to imple­ment it were explored. Under the lead­ership of a member of the Bellefonte Historic Site Commission and a mem­ber of the county Bicentennial Com­mission, and through funding by CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act), two full-time positions for a one-year project were established. According to the historic site commissioner, “Centre County’s program may have been the first time Manpower funds were employed in this manner in the country.” Up to this time registration efforts had generally been a part-time occupation of local historical groups, concerned citizens or architectural firms. With the creation of the HRP, a full-time registration agency had been estab­lished.

The project began in January 1976 with two staff members, Gregory Ramsey and Michael Halm, who pos­sessed needed skills in research, photog­raphy, architectural description and graphic design. Office space was found in the Centre County Library which, appropriately enough, is housed in one of Bellefonte’s fine old buildings, the Miles-Humes House. No better atmos­phere could have been found since, in addition to being an inspiring work area, the library held much-needed research material in its historical col­lection. Because the HRP creates his­torical records as significant by­products of its activities, it in turn anticipated contributing to the library’s collection. As with many grassroots organizations, office supply donations were secured from local groups and supplemented by a $1,000 grant from the Centre County Commissioners.

Enthusiasm ran high in those early, struggling days. The goal of the two staff members to register one hundred sites during the year-long effort was ambitious but, they would soon realize, quite unrealistic. Before the application procedure could even be considered, it was necessary to com­pile a list of potential sites through­out the county. Of course, there were the candidates which were obvious to many Centre countians, such as the Courthouse, the Miles-Humes House, Philipsburg’s Union Church and several other acknowledged county gems. But what of less publicized structures that might also serve to heighten apprecia­tion of the area’s history – homes of early settlers, gristmills, barns, and other forgotten ind us trial remnants? Was a comprehensive overview of local historic structures available? The HRP employees consulted the Pennsylvania Inventory maintained by the Pennsyl­vania Historical and Museum Commis­sion’s Office of Historic Preservation as well as the county Planning Com­mission’s Historical Reflections of Centre County, a 1970 survey. Al­though these sources sometimes con­tained little more information than a name and an occasional date, they did provide the basis for a mailing list. Letters were sent to 186 property owners outlining the HRP and the National Register and solicited re­sponses from those interested in having their properties considered. From this request and publicity about the project in local newspapers, sites were identified and the task of regis­tering properties begun. Staff mem­bers were introduced very early to the detective work that was to be a neces­sary part of their job. Soon the library’s historical collection and the county deed room were to become permanent friends.

Historical, architectural, geographic and photographic documentation was gathered first, according to Ramsey, “for the obvious candidates. We needed some winners to show that local land­marks could be registered and that we knew how to do it.” Therefore, appli­cations for several of Bellefonte’s most promising structures, among them the Courthouse (NR, Nov. 1976), the Bellefonte Academy (NR, Nov. 1976) and the Miles-Humes House (NR, Oct. 1976), were studied first. The inhospitable winter weather which had restricted research to sites closer to home was subsiding just as project workers were ready to expand their efforts into other parts of the county. By the end of the year, the one hun­dred-site goal was recognized as a pipe dream, but a most satisfactory number – twenty-six individual structures plus two historic districts – had been placed on the Pennsylvania Inventory of His­toric Places. Of these, five had already gained National Register status; the remaining twenty-three were under consideration.

From the project’s inception, fund­ing has been precarious. Until Decem­ber 1976, there was no assurance that the HRP would be continued after the Bicentennial ended. Reacting to this lack of job security, the staff operated at full tilt, hoping to accomplish var­ious goals before year’s end. Only with the support of the local government, which recognized the project’s value to the county, did funding through CETA again become a reality.

With financial resources committed for at least another year, the HRP was able to map out ideas for future regis­tration tasks. By March 1977, money was made available for two long-re­quested staff members and by June another three positions we re added. With a work force of seven represent­ing a variety of backgrounds and talents, work was divided according to special interest areas, including graphics and mapmaking, geography, architec­ture, photography and historical re­search.

As the Historic Registration Project continued, new involvements devel­oped. While preparing National Regis­ter forms remained important, the project added a new educational di­mension. An invitation to lecture at a Pennsylvania State University historic preservation course in spring 1977 stimulated the development of an ex­tensive slide collection. Armed with these slides, HRP members were able to present the ideas of preservation to all who were interested. Requests were received from diverse groups, due in part to an inherent interest in local history. Support from the local news media also helped to spread the preser­vation message to an extensive cross section of Centre countians.

The 1977 involvement with Penn State’s preservation course was a boon to the HRP in another way-it fur­nished a ready source of volunteers to help in various research topics, for which the students in turn earned academic credit. This mutually benefi­cial arrangement provided training and education for the students and relieved some of the registration project work­load. Through these volunteers, man­power was also available to work on historic-district applications. Previous­ly undocumented districts, such as Lemont (NR, June 1979) and Mill­heim (proposed district), presented a time-consuming and almost overwhelm­ing task. Deed research, architectural descriptions and photographic docu­mentation were necessary for all his­toric structures within a district, some of which included over two hundred buildings. With volunteer help, the districts could be subdivided among students and methodically surveyed.

Perhaps without realizing it, the office was becoming, during the sec­ond year, the local authority on pres­ervation as it accumulated information from many sources. As a result, the project added another role as a clear­inghouse of information. Staff mem­bers began lending support and exper­tise to groups, both within the county and in other areas, who were interested in similar ideas.

Today. after four years of contin­ued operation, the HRP’s list of involvements has in no way diminished. What originally started as a one-year undertaking has become recognized as an open-ended project – not a frivolous or extraneous activity, but a solid part of the historical. architectural and planning community. No one is more surprised than the HRP members themselves. According to Ramsey, “At that time (1976), in no way did I anticipate that the project would be more than just filling out application forms, that it would extend into an education and clearinghouse activity and would somehow become impor­tant to the county in a broad sense.”

Statistics easily support the project’s impact on registrations. In 1975, Centre County was one of forty-four counties in Pennsylvania which had fewer than four registered sites. By mid-1979, thirty registrations had been completed, elevating its standing to seventh among the state’s sixty. seven counties, exceeded only by large metropolitan counties, such as Bucks and Chester.

More difficult to measure, but equally important, is the impact of the organization’s less tangible activi­ties. The program has assisted in the unification of the county historically. Ramsey has elaborated on this idea. “It seems that in Centre County, as probably in many other places, people living in one community are perhaps aware of their own heritage, yet if they go across the county to another town, they are not really familiar with its history. So the project fulfills a real need to do things together and repre­sent the historical environment of Centre County from east to west, top to bottom.”

Educational projects, such as slide shows, do more than simply provide data and historical facts. People are introduced to another world and educated to really look at and enjoy their architectural heritage. Again, a county-wide emphasis is maintained by gearing slide shows to a variety of historical and architectural appetites-­that of the area resident completely unacquainted with preservation, of U1e grammar school child or of a member of a community historical group.

It is just possible that the Historic Registration Project represents an idea whose time has come. Plans that might not even have been considered ten or twenty years ago are now being suc­cessfully carried out. Buildings once seen as run down or standing in the way of “progress” are now often looked upon as targets for renovation. not demolition. Various restoration and adaptive-reuse projects undertaken in the past few years in Centre County may be the most visible indications of a growing appreciation for the area’s older structures and an increasing in­terest in the goals of preservation.

A prime example is Bellefonte’s South Ward School (NR. Feb. 1978). The structure, an excellent example of a Victorian eclectic public building, had outlived its usefulness to the com­munity by the 1960s and was nearing a fate of demolition in 1977. Interest shown in the building by the HRP played a part in the borough’s eventual decision not co destroy it, but to seek a buyer who would be willing to reno­vate the structure and preserve its exterior.

Not far from the school, the Brockerhoff Hotel (NR, April 1977) sat in need of restoration. This grand building, a hub of activity in late nineteenth-century Bellefonte, had elic­ited negative feelings from many area residents in recent years because of its neglected exterior appearance. The hotel’s owner authorized the HRP to prepare a National Register application for the structure. The owner later applied for and received a matching grant from the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service to restore the exterior. Since registration is an es­sential component of the grants pro­gram, the HRP helped to initiate the restoration project which began in July 1979.

The hotel’s original owner. Henry Brockerhoff, had a]so owned a large brick mill on the outskirts of Belle­fonte. When Mr. and Mrs. Nuri Mohsenin moved to the county some twenty years ago they were immediately taken with the mill’s appear­ance, “especially its simple lines.” The couple had been interested in the preservation and renovation of buildings which had once served a viable community function, and in 1976 they were able to purchase the mill building. Their long-range plans in­clude renovating it into loft-type apartments, leaving as much open space as possible in order to retain the integrity of the interior. A National Register application was prepared by the HRP in 1978 for the mill and within one year it was accepted. This designation has made it possible for the Mohsenins to explore grants op­portunities which otherwise would not have been available to them.

The atmosphere in which these projects have been undertaken is quite different from that of previous dec­ades. Within the last twenty-five years, two of Bellefonte’s fine Georgian structures. one of them listed in the Historic American Buildings Survey, were torn down so that a fast-food restaurant and a gas station could be erected. If the issue were at hand today. it is quite likely that the build­ings would not be removed without serious attempts to save them, for there is an unmistakable atmosphere of “preservation-mindedness” begin­ning to take hold.

The HRP sees in its future other activities which may further encourage an awareness of preservation through­out the county. Staff members hope to place an increased emphasis on educating the public through addition­al slide shows, photo exhibits and slide/cassette packages which can be used independently by community groups of different age and interest levels. The HRP plans also to provide readily accessible reference materials on such subjects as preservation funding. prep­aration of National Register applica­tion forms and the “bricks-and-mortar” issues of renovation and adaptive re­use. In addition to its continuing registration function. the project feels that through these added tasks, preser­vation will touch a large number of countians, not only those who live within a historic district or who own a well-known structure.

Ramsey has stressed one factor which plays an important role in determining future work. “Since we are CETA-based and therefore never sure of funding, we need to get our material permanent so that what we do here can be a model and a widely accessible information source.” Several approaches are being taken to fulfill this need. The HRP is focusing atten­tion on organizing its materials for tJ1e permanent library collection so that its research and documentation activities will be available to the gen­eral public long after the project has ended. A book about county sites, based on the past four years’ research, has been prepared and will be pub­lished early in 1980. Through these measures, the project can be assured that its work will remain within easy reach of interested individuals.

The Historic Registration Project can only speculate at this point as to its long-range effects. In county plan­ning, for example, National Register designations and descriptive informa­tion articulated in the application forms may play an important role in the future. The historic districts which have been designated can provide a basis for creating municipal zoning districts. Projects which make use of federal funds may also be involved, for if a National Register site is to be in any way affected by such a project, an Environmental Impact Statement will be required. In this respect, the results of HRP work will be acknowl­edged for years to come.

The project’s greatest success may one day lie in its role as a model for the development of similar programs. The Centre County organization has proven itself to be a viable and neces­sary part of the present-day commun­ity. Hopefully, it will serve as an impetus to other counties which have no organized registration activities but which recognize their value and time­liness.

 

The Historic Registration Project wel­comes any questions regarding its pro­grams. Inquiries should be addressed to the HRP, Centre County Library, Bellefonte 16823.

 

Sylvia Carson received her M.L.S. at Western Michigan University and served as Assistant Coordinator of the Histor­ic Registration Project.

 

Martha Birchenall also holds an M.L.S., from the University of North Carolina, and formerly served as a Research Assistant with the Historic Registra­tion Project. Currently both authors are librarians at the Pennsylvania State University.