Johnstown’s history is shining brighter as old buildings see new investment and activity downtown.
The Grand Army of the Republic, the nation’s first veterans organization made solely of Union Civil War veterans, built a three-story meeting place in 1893 after the first Johnstown flood.
After the second flood in 1977, attorneys bought the building at 132 Locust St. and installed drop ceilings, hiding much of the original architecture.
The attorneys gradually left, so Chris Beisel and Barry Gallagher, a local real estate broker, formed a partnership to purchase the site in 2008.
Now, they’ve decided to open the first floor to potential small business retail and the second floor as apartments.
“With all the new businesses coming in; with all the people interested again in being downtown, it gives us the ability to really showcase what we have here,” Gallagher said.
Through success of retail and residential leases, Beisel and Gallagher hope to afford a restoration the GAR’s original meeting room on the third floor of the Locust Street building.
The meeting room still has ritualistic and symbolic vestiges of its original use. There are platforms of different levels where members would sit according to their rank on the battlefield, and the windows are colored blue, red and yellow for infantry, artillery and cavalry.
Relief sculptures of cannons and rifles decorate the exterior. The group was concerned with homeless veterans, widows and lobbying for soldiers’ pensions.
“As you can tell by the facade of the building outside, they wanted everybody in town to know this was their building,” Beisel said.
But few people today do, Gallagher said.
The retail space could be ready for a tenant by spring, he said.
“A lot of the buildings here, they are all important pieces of this town’s history,” he said.
Johnstown’s population has been in decline since 1920, when the residents of the city peaked at 67,000.
There were a couple dozen theaters in downtown at the time. The State Theater of Johnstown alone had 1,500 seats.
Today, a theater that size could seat 8% of the city’s population.
Although a majority of the seats are gone, the theater’s balcony has been kept, with 400 seats.
Theater operator Eric Reighard said it has the largest indoor high-definition screen in Johnstown, and he has plans for three more screening rooms, adding 70 seats each.
With further plans for a jazz club and restaurant two stories below the theater – an actual past location of a Prohibition-era speakeasy, Reighard said – the State Theater is on track to be a transformational asset to Main Street again.
Reighard and his wife, Amanda, have been working on raising funds to take over the theater since 2020, after they moved back to town from Baltimore.
“Especially now, post-COVID, people are looking for experiential sorts of products and services,” he said. “This area has some of the most scenic, most beautiful, most historic places. It’s the same with this theater: it has a rich history, and on top of that, if you throw on some of the best technology and things Johnstown has not been historically known for, that can be a big draw to people outside of the region.”
The 2004 Richland High School graduate hopes to begin construction in the summer, if the nonprofit he and his wife started can hit the fundraising mark by that time.
Clara Barton House
The historic house where American Red Cross founder Clara Barton made the headquarters for the organization’s first emergency relief effort during Johnstown’s 1889 flood is also getting stabilized.
Initial work, including roof repairs, is slated for completion in December, funded in part by corporate donors in Johnstown.
“Johnstown is a generous community,” said Bob Eyer, treasurer of the nonprofit Clara Barton House & Gardens.
“We want to preserve the history of the house to demonstrate the resiliency of the city of Johnstown,” he said. “Within two months of the flood, the steel mills were back up and running. This building certainly gives us the opportunity to show that same resiliency.”
The nonprofit’s members plan to raise enough funding to build Airbnb rooms at the former Ludwig House – in hopes of becoming an income-producing tourist destination – with a catering service for guests and a museum to honor Clara Barton.
“There’s a lot of hope and progress in the downtown area,” Eyer said. “In addition to this project, there is a lot of private development going on and the goal is to create activity and people downtown and increase the tax base that will help the city, county and school district.”