The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Focus on the Arts

October 28, 2012

Showcasing the past | Nonprofit's mission is economic development through heritage tourism

JOHNSTOWN — Heritage Discovery Center in the Cambria City section of Johnstown began as a brewery at the turn of the 20th century. It has been transformed into an educational museum that is all about Johnstown.

The discovery center is one of a number of venues that the Johnstown Area Heritage Association operates to promote tourism, said Richard Burkert, president and CEO of JAHA.

The brick buildings ringing an interior courtyard that now houses the center on Sixth Avenue began as the Germania Brewery Co. in 1907.

The tallest building stood five stories and contained the brew house, malting mill, keg dispensary and beer cellars.

The bottling plant was located next to the two-story brewery office, and a two-story brick building housing the cooperage and warehouse stood next to the J.W. Walters Lumber Yard at the end of the courtyard.

With the advent of prohibition, Germania Brewery sold the building and its equipment in 1919 to Louis Zang for $38,000.

Zang sold the property to the Ferguson Packing Co. for $1 shortly after he purchased it.

The property passed through several hands before the Cambria County sheriff seized the property in 1930.

In 1946, Morris Electric Supply Co. acquired the buildings, and the business continued until 1970 when it became Morris Paper Co.

JAHA purchased the buildings in 1993.

They were identified as the new home for Heritage Discovery Center because they were important historic industrial structures tied to the culture of Cambria City, a classic ethnic working-class neighborhood.

JAHA was known as Johnstown Flood Museum Association, Burkert said.

Members of the museum association voted to become known as Johnstown Area Heritage Association in 1990.

“The museum association was an amateur group that became professional,” Burkert said.

With the new name came a change in the organization’s mission.

Now, instead of focusing solely on the 1889 Johnstown Flood, the group could play a leading role in historic preservation, education and tourism development in Greater Johnstown.

“There’s more to Johnstown than the flood,” Burkert said.

“You can learn about what the real America was like with industry after the Civil War. Johnstown led America into a new age.”

With a bigger mission, JAHA could expand into the Cambria City neighborhood, which is now a National Historic District.

“It’s a good place to tell stories,” said Burkert, who came to Johnstown in 1979 to get the city ready for the 1989 flood centennial.

“The discovery center is meant to go beyond tours. We want to have fun and educate.”

After a renovation that included the first two floors, Heritage Discovery Center was opened in 2001.

The first floor exhibit at the discovery center, “America: Through Immigrant Eyes,” uses interactive media to tell the story of immigrants who arrived in Johnstown between 1880 through 1914 and the ethnic neighborhoods in which they settled.

Visitors can become one of eight immigrants as they go through the exhibit.

They will learn about their country of origin, experience being questioned at Ellis Island and arrive at a railroad station in Johnstown and see what their new life was like.

Visitors can experience the sights, sounds and smells of immigrants’ daily lives.

The first floor also features a gift shop.

“Remembrance: 125 Years of Jewish Life in Johnstown” is on display on the second floor through September.

The second-floor galleries  may be rented for parties, wedding receptions, business workshops, dinners or other special events, Burkert said.

In 2008-2009, Phase II of the building’s development was completed, and the third, fourth and fifth floors of the center were renovated.

Johnstown Children’s Museum and rooftop garden opened on the third floor in 2009.

“We took themes to develop the children’s museum based on local history, culture, native plants, fossils, clothing, sound and music,” Burkert said.

“That tells me Johnstown is a special place.”

Burkert said the bar and fixtures for the Ethnic Social Club on the fourth floor were salvaged from the 1930s-era West End Polish Citizens Club.

“The ethnic groups had their church, their homes and their clubs,” Burkert said.

“It’s an important part of Johnstown history. We have the concerts for sheer fun.”

Local musical acts play at the social club for Last Fridays.

“We all saw this as a gathering place,” Burkert said of the discovery center.

“Our goal was to make this facility bring education and be entertaining.”

And what could be more fun than ice cream?

Galliker’s Café, which is accessible from the courtyard, is named for Galliker’s Dairy Co., which has been operating in Johnstown since 1914.

The café features an authentic soda fountain that was salvaged from Linderman’s E-Lite in downtown Johnstown.

The café features a patio, which once served as a loading dock during the building’s industrial past.

The Iron & Steel Gallery featuring the “Mystery of Steel” multimedia presentation also is accessible from the courtyard.

A “Made in Johnstown” exhibit is featured on the fifth floor.

Items manufactured in Johnstown include phonographs, radiators, stoves, pottery, chairs, glass, milk products, beer and steel.

“Johnstown has a unique sense of place,” Burkert said.

“We’re all about Johnstown. When we planned the discovery center, which has 60,000 square feet, we saw an activity center, not just exhibits and educational programs.”

While visitors are drinking in Johnstown’s past, many of the city’s natives might not have taken advantage of the discovery center’s exhibits.

“Those who live in a place often take it for granted,” Burkert said.

“I always believed Johnstown’s history is special and deserves a second look. Residents should understand it and be proud.”

In addition to Heritage Discovery Center, other facilities operated by JAHA are Johns-town Flood Museum, Wagner-Ritter House & Garden and Peoples Natural Gas Park, which are part of the Johnstown Discovery Network along with the Inclined Plane, the Stone Bridge and the National Historic District of Downtown and Cambria City.

Johnstown Discovery Network is a group of attractions and historic districts that are closely related geographically and thematically, based on a plan developed 15 years ago.

JAHA also administers AmeriServ Flood City Music Festival.

“It takes a day to do the network,” Burkert said. “We have all the stories linked chronologically. We’re trying to make heritage a big attraction and market Johns-town as a network. Tourism is important to market, and Johnstown is off the beaten path.”

Visitors passing through Pennsylvania are now making a detour to Johnstown to experience the area’s history.

“JAHA’s larger mission is economic development through heritage tourism,” said Shelley Johansson, director of communications and marketing for JAHA.

“We want to use Johnstown’s nationally significant past to build its future and help with the economic revitalization of the city, especially downtown.”

JAHA’s newest venue, Peoples Natural Gas Park, is a site for performing arts.

“We hope the special events bring in out-of-town visitors and Johnstown residents,” Burkert said.

Burkert called the changing lights on the Stone Bridge “the distilled essence of what we do.”

The only outstanding project Burkert has to work on is the newly acquired train station.

“We want to turn it into a visitor contact center,” he said.

“In the future, we hope to have the Path of the Flood Trail come in and out of Johnstown and have train excursions by Amtrak from Pittsburgh.”

“It has a lot of potential. It’s a beautiful building, well designed and well built. We want to use it for special events like weddings. It needs electrical and handicapped work and new restrooms. We’ll be fundraising for it and for upgrades on the flood museum.”

Within the next couple years, Burkert plans to upgrade the flood museum in time for the 125th anniversary of the 1889 Johnstown Flood on May 31, 2014.

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