Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Lesson from Scheidt Beer

When we talk about historic preservation in Norristown, we usually focus on what we've lost: 4 of our 5 movie theaters, City Hall, both Ys, the Valley Forge Hotel, First Baptist Church, the Wonder Bread building, etc. The Norris Theater in particular has become a rallying cry, as well it should be, since the loss of it to a McDonalds--and the consequent purchase of the Norris's front facade by the foremost museum of Art Deco in the US--embodies the short-sightedness of our leaders in decades past.

Today, though, I want to remind everyone about our historic preservation victories, and the pride they still bring to Norristown. No one can deny that the Centre Theater is now a beautiful building. Back in the 1980s, it wasn't. The brickwork was dark and sooty, the masonry and stucco were dingy gray. The decorative wood trim was rotting. The mansard roof AND the dormer windows were all tar-papered over. And at street level, well, it wasn't a building you'd ever want to enter. The place was a poster child for blight. But thanks to the Doyles and all the other groups who got involved, it was brought back from the dead.

The Masonic Building on West Main (now Gaudenzia headquarters) was also dingy and broken down. Now it's stunning with its white stucco and red trim. The Cigar Factory, despite its management problems over the years, was an amazing transformation from what was there. The brickwork was so dark, it almost looked black. Its restoration, in a spot so obvious to people coming into town on Markley, was a huge improvement to Norristown's look, and at the time, to our attitude about our look. Other successes include the old grist mill on Marshall and the rolling mills building on East Main. I had the pleasure of seeing the inside of that building last month and it's simply amazing. You can see all the mill's inner workings, wonderfully restored, yet the space is now a classy-looking office building.

But the most ambitious and amazing restoration in town is one few of us remember, simply because, unless you have state taxes problems, you probably have had no reason see the result of the restoration, let alone go inside. I'm talking about the old Adam Scheidt Brewery, now known as the Stony Creek Office Center

The project restored six buildings in all. Since they're not on a street, but along Stony Creek between Marshall and Elm, you can't see all the buildings. As you're driving up Marshall, you can see the first structure, with its rounded corner entrance and cone-like cupola (photo above). This was one of the original buildings, dating from 1866. Other original buildings in the complex are a 3-story octoganal tower which served as the brewery's lab, and triangle-shaped admin offices. The PA Revenue offices are now in the 8-story Art Deco style office building, built in the 1920s, with its spectacular 3-story cylinder of glass bricks. That's the one you can see when you're stuck in traffic on Markley.

The complex had been abandoned in 1974, and restoration wasn't begun until 1984, so it had been vacant for a decade. Salvagers and vandals had knocked large holes in some of the walls to remove the copper vats. Many of the glass bricks were broken, and as the president of the rehab company said, "Every pigeon in Norristown was living in those buildings." Repurposing wasn't easy--removing the grain bins left huge holes in the floors. And in the middle of the project, President Reagan eliminated tax credits for the historic preservation.

But Windon Capital and the contractor, Driscoll, refused to give up. They not only finished the restoration, but the project was highly regarded by everyone in the industry and was written up in trade journals. Historic Preservation Magazine did a big feature article on it in 1987.

I've been to the tax offices--the inside of the structure is as well done as the outside, especially the staircase behind those glass bricks. If you get a chance, take a drive though the complex for a look at the buildings (enter off of Marshall, right across from the old mill).

Now, remember, the Scheidt Brewery had been vacant for 10 years and had huge holes in its walls. Montgomery Hospital has only been empty a little over a year, the 1930s structure is intact, and is 2 stories shorter than the tallest building of the Stony Creek complex. Changing a brewery to office space is much more difficult than making apartments out of hospital office, testing and therapy space (the patient rooms were in a newer wing).

Montgomery Hospital CAN be restored, and fairly easily compared to our past rehab projects. We shouldn't let Einstein and Elon lie to us that the building can't be saved. From our past experience in this town, we know better.

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