From its humble beginnings as a soft drink factory, the former Tulip Bottling Co. has flourished into the vibrant Bottle Works Ethnic Arts Center in Johnstown’s Cambria City neighborhood.
Where glass bottles filled with brightly colored soda and marked with the distinctive tulip motif once clinked on a conveyer belt are venues for visual and performing arts.
With Cambria City’s storied ethnic neighborhood so rich with history, it was only natural for Bottle Works’ founder Rosemary Pawlowski to want to locate her newly formed ethnic arts center right in the midst of it.
“At first, people wondered why I wanted to do it,” Pawlowski said.
“I didn’t have a clue how it would materialize. I had a board, and at the end of 1992, I thought about getting a building.”
The idea for Bottle Works took root for Pawlowski during the 1889 Flood Centennial.
She worked as a volunteer with Nick Jacobs, who would become one of the founding members of Bottle Works, at the four events held throughout that year.
“People were wearing shirts stating they were proud to be Irish, Italian, German, Polish,” Pawlowski said.
“My mother was born in Italy, but no one would tell me anything. They were poor, and everyone was supposed to be 200 percent American.”
With the public’s reaction to the flood centennial and the soon-to-come National Folk Festival, Pawlowski observed that people were getting excited about their heritage.
Then Johnstown continued celebrating its ethnic heritage with its own folk fest, and Pawlowski knew residents needed a place for an ethnic celebration all year and to find out about their heritage.
“People had been ashamed to be ethnic, but now they were proud,” Pawlowski said.
“You couldn’t stop it. They were on board. Bottle Works was a mandate from the people.”
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In Cambria City
Pawlowski knew she wanted the center to be in Cambria City, so she put notes in residents’ mailboxes and had a meeting at Ace’s.
She asked them what they thought and if they would support it.
“I knew I had the support of the people, but not the financial support,” she said.
Consultants Susan Kalchik and Pat Klavuhn went to Richard Burkert, Johnstown Area Heritage Association president, to talk about the idea of an ethnic arts center, wanting to make sure whatever they did would be complimentary to the work of the heritage association.
Bottle Works’ mission
“The mission of Bottle Works is to preserve and celebrate the cultural ethnicity of the people of the region through their arts,” Pawlowski said. “We’re not archival.”
When Pawlowski went to the late Congressman John Murtha about her plans, he thought it was a great idea, and the fledgling arts center was helped along by community development block grants and other types of funding.
Pawlowski remembered that John Kriak lent his aid to the capital campaign.
“He worked with Esther Goldhaber Jacovitz, one of the Goldhabers’ four children,” Pawlowski said.
“She helped with the history.”
Kriak, president of GroupGenesis LLC, a management advisory firm, said his parish was the former St. Stephen Roman Catholic Church, and he knew the Bottle Works’ project was important to Ed and Rosemary Pawlowski.
“I worked with Rosemary and Ed,” Kriak said. “They had a vision and could really see the facility.”
Kriak was able to make telephone calls in the Johnstown community to a viable and diverse list of contributors.
He said a significant addition to Bottle Works was when the Pasquerilla family donated funding to put in the arts center’s black-box theater as a birthday gift to Dr. George Katter.
“I was associated with Crown American at the time, looking for a way to entice donors to provide support,” Kriak said.
“Frank and Sylvia Pasquerilla had a dear friend in Dr. Katter. Their friendship brought a gift to the community.
“I remember the first performance at the theater. It was the heartfelt appreciation of two families and was of importance to the community.”
Pawlowski said local contractor the late Lou Speranza embodied the spirit of community service as he rallied workers from local builders’ unions to assist in the effort to remake the bottling company.
“We now have a Spirit of Lou Speranza Award at the Artists Hall of Fame for those who dedicate their resources to the Bottle Works,” Pawlowski said.
Even after Bottle Works owned the building, it was still not in good enough shape to be opened to the public, so the first programming, a Polish Christmas, was held at nearby St. Casimir Roman Catholic Church.
Kalchik and Klavuhn continued working with programming while Pawlowski served as president of the board.
Pawlowski volunteered at Bottle Works from 1992 to 2000 and since then has served as executive director.
After closing for some extensive renovations, Bottle Works reopened in 1998 with an elevator, art gallery, a performing space that seats 100, a full kitchen, four multi-use studio classrooms and an office.
The fact that there was a Tulip Bottling Co. in Johnstown at all is a case of mistaken identity.
In 1914, Russian Jewish immigrant Jacob Goldhaber was traveling by train from Philadelphia to Youngstown, Ohio, where he had heard there was a settlement of Hungarian Jews.
He was on his way to find a new home for himself and his Hungarian wife, the former Renee Rothman, when he mistook the conductor’s announcement of Johnstown for Youngstown.
When Goldhaber walked into Cambria City, he liked what he saw, sent for his wife and set up his bottling company.
Renee Goldhaber named the new family business, which was built in 1926, after the national flower of Hungary.
Jacob Goldhaber had some knowledge of the bottling business from his father and set about developing recipes for colorful and flavorful sodas.
The business began at the Pieger building on Second Avenue before moving to the Third Avenue building that is now Bottle Works.
He later bought a Pepsi franchise and took over what is now the Art Works building and the Goenner Brewing Co.
Goldhaber attempted to keep his Tulip Bottling Co. emblem alongside the Pepsi logo, but soon had to put his tulips to rest because Pepsi would not allow it.
The bottling company was moved to Richland Township in 1977, becoming the present Pepsi plant.
Painting the mural
With cracked concrete floors, the inside of the former bottling company needed much work, but Pawlowski thought some sprucing up on the outside was in order.
She envisioned a mural depicting the mission of Bottle Works, but gave art teacher John Varmecky and his Greater Johnstown High School students carte blanche to get it done.
“The materials were donated, but I had no say in what was done,” Pawlowski said.
“They researched it, developed it and executed it.”
When Pawlowski approached Varmecky with her idea, he thought about what would be recognizable but easy to transfer to the side of the building.
Since Bottle Works would be ethnic-oriented, he knew he wanted to do patterns of world culture.
He talked with his advanced art students, who were juniors and seniors, about fabric designs.
The students drew the designs, following photographs Pawlowski provided of the wall for measurements.
“The template was 81⁄2 by 11 inches, and the kids adapted it,” Varmecky said.
When the overall design was put together, it featured stylized art in the form of a Native American bird, Eastern European floral on the bottom left, South American art on the bottom right, African on the top right and Asian on the top left.
The design was blown up in size on paper in sections, which were coated with charcoal on the back and taped to the building in sections.
“They traced over it, which deposited the charcoal on the building,” Varmecky said. “This was how Michaelangelo did the Sistine Chapel, by pattern transfer. They were like Renaissance painters.”
Once his students blew up the design during class time, they and Varmecky received three days off from school.
They had one day to get the design on the building and two days to paint it.
“The scaffolding was 4 feet away from the design, so they couldn’t see the big picture,” Varmecky said.
“Members of that class painted other murals around town, but the one at Bottle Works was the biggest and highest and the only one outside.”
Varmecky said his students loved the experience of working on a public mural that people could see and admire as they got an art history lesson on murals in the process.