Loving a place

I think the Nittany Valley is a remarkable place, home to not only to Penn State, but also to special communities like State College, victorian Bellefonte, and scenic Lemont, the hamlet at Mount Nittany’s base. Michael Houtz, by the way, captured the heart of the Nittany Valley beautifully a few years ago in this early morning, fog-blanketed valley scene:

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I’ve developed a love affair with the Nittany Valley, but I’m not from there—I’m from Bucks County, near Philadelphia. The two places share some similar characteristics: historic in their own ways, filled with farms and woodlands and rivers. But Bucks County has changed dramatically since I was a child. Its population has exploded in a suburbanized, sub-division way at the expense of many beauty places. Today in Bucks County there are 1,034 people per square mile. In Centre County there are 138 people per square mile.

When I wrote Conserving Mount Nittany, one lesson was that conservation only works if people are prepared mentally and financially and communally to protect what they love. It’s why we protected Mount Nittany, but lost Hort Woods.

Too many of the farms, fields, and quiet places of the Bucks County of my youth have gone missing. I’m glad that, even as Centre County’s population grows, it remains a comparatively homelike place to capture some of the spirit of a different time among the old farms north of Philadelphia.

This is one of the reasons I think nostalgia lives in places like State College.

Goodbye, James Building

Penn State administrators plan to replace the James Building on South Burrowes Street in State College late next year. It’s a building that dates to 1920, but it’s a plain building that I think started out as a showroom for cars and I think I’ll be happy to see it replaced by something that will presumably be both more beautiful and make better use of space. Here’s the James Building from Google Street View:

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I’ve only ever set foot in there a handful of times. Once as an undergrad to meet with the editors of the Daily Collegian to talk about the threat that a Penn State student affairs administrator posed to free speech of campus media outlets, and another time or two for class or other reasons.

It’s historically interesting to me as the 1995-2003 home of The LION 90.7fm before the campus radio station moved on campus into the HUB-Robeson Center, the student union. I know a number of alumni from that era, and for their sake I’ll be a bit sorry to see this physical site of a brief era in Penn State student broadcasting history depart the scene. The campus radio station was housed one floor above the Daily Collegian, the student newspaper, and a joke from that era was something like, “Visit WKPS, Penn State’s campus station. We’re above the Daily Collegian, literally.”

It’s a building that sits at a remove from the street, and contributes to a deadness along with two other Penn State-owned buildings, two parking lots, and other unremarkable structures on this block of South Burrowes Street. I hope whatever Penn State selects to replace it will revitalize the experience of the street in this part of town, because it could really stand for improvement. Geoff Rushton with details:

The James Building in downtown State College has been home to the Daily Collegian, Penn State’s student newspaper, for the past 30 years. But it won’t be for much longer.

Penn State plans to demolish the nearly 100-year old building at 121-123 S. Burrowes St. and replace it with a new, $52.8 million building that will serve as a hub for the Invent Penn State entrepreneurial and innovation initiative.

According to a request for letters of interest from design and engineering firms, the university anticipates construction on a new building to begin in November 2019 with completion in December 2020. Development plans would require approval from State College Borough Council.

In addition to the Collegian, the James Building also houses Bellisario College of Communications administrative offices and the Media Effects Research Lab. Each of the current tenants will be relocated to a new location, Penn State spokesperson Lisa Powers said in an email, though where has yet to be decided.

“The Office of Physical Plant indicates that multiple locations have been identified for these groups to potentially move into, so the space allocations are still somewhat in flux and subject to change,” Powers said.

The new building is expected to be 99,000 to 119,000 gross square feet, and “will support the Invent Penn State initiative by developing a multi-use Innovation, Making and Learning facility that will become the cornerstone of our entrepreneurial ecosystem,” according to the letter to architectural firms.

It would “maximize the allowable buildout” of the existing site and would include an estimated 29,000 gross square feet for maker and innovation space; 6,000 gross square feet for retail; and upper levels of at least 65,000 square feet for flexible office, learning activity and other spaces. …

On-site parking will be included with the new building, as required by zoning.

According to the OPP letter, goals of the project include developing “a new building in State College that will help create a ‘hub’ of activity and enhance the existing aesthetic and character of the urban site and tie into downtown at the adjacent [University Park campus]” and “to create a well-designed, unique, destination building that functions as a center for innovation and knowledge sharing,” that will serve community businesses, start-ups and students.

The building also is expected to be highly efficient with LEED certification.

The existing 30,000 square-foot, two-story brick building was constructed in 1920 and the university says it and its infrastructure “are at the end of their useful life.”

I’m hopeful. Growing from the existing ~30,000 sq ft to ~100,000 sq ft or more will be a good improvement, I just hope that grace and beauty come with size. And I also hope/expect sanity to prevail and for State College Borough to waive the zoning requirement for on-site parking. There are two enormous municipal parking decks within two blocks.

In Park Forest, and nearby

A few snapshots from a beautiful summer day in State College, introducing Peter Atkinson to Penn State and the Nittany Valley for the first time.

We spent the afternoon visiting with Ben Novak and Maralyn Mazza in Park Forest Village. Maralyn will be celebrating her 91st birthday later this month. Like her husband, Paul, Maralyn has been a pillar of the State College community. She’s an incredible woman with an ageless spirit.

After visiting, Peter and I met another friend and took Hollow for a walk to Park Forest Elementary and the nearby woods. After a power nap at the Glennland Building in State College, we picked up supplies at the grocery store and grilled burgers, dogs, and corn for friends for an evening on the deck. And as the burgers were cooking, Justify became the second Triple Crown winner in my lifetime.

I don’t think days like today can be planned, exactly. They’re a gift.

Scenes leaving State College

As I was driving back to Philadelphia last Thursday morning after my “Inspiriting Mount Nittany” talk, I snapped these photos during periods of traffic slow-down along Route 322, leaving State College. I left town at 7:15. It was a beautiful, slightly damp, and slightly fog-enveloped morning:

Amazon store experience

I tried out the Amazon@StateCollege store/pickup location on Sunday. It was a neat experience. Basically, Amazon has created a really attractive, well located, and efficient version of the post office—or at least, a better version of P.O. boxes.

How did it work? I ordered a Moleskin notebook earlier in the week, and chose Amazon@StateCollege as the pickup location. Received an email on Friday that it was ready for pickup, and after a full weekend, stopped in the store on Allen Street in State College on Sunday morning. I tapped “I’m here, ready for pickup” in the Amazon email notice, and a barcode appeared on my iPhone for me to scan at the terminals in the photos below. Once I scanned it, it told me which locker contained my package and the door to that locker swung open. Picked up the package, grabbed a free Vitamin Water on the way out, and was in/out in about a minute.

When does Amazon take over the postal service?

Rathskeller’s closing

I wrote last month about the All-American Rathskeller in State College. Herlocher’s, the new owners of the Foster Building (in which the Skeller is located) failed to come to agreement on a lease renewal with Duke Gastinger, the Skeller’s owner. The Skeller, opened 1933, was the oldest bar in State College and one of the oldest in Pennylvania. It closed last night for the final time, and something new (but hopefully in its spirit) will open there on 116 Pugh Street later this year.

As sorry as I am to see this place closed, it was great to celebrate the Skeller and raise a glass this weekend with friends like Kevin Horne, Gavin Keirans, Paul Clifford, Maggie Quinn, Anthony Christina, and so many others. Scenes from the final hours:

I hope whatever comes next retains its character and spirit of times past.

Nittany Valley snowfall

BlueWhiteTV produced this calm and enchanting short film, “A Snowy Day in Happy Valley,” shot last winter. It captures some of the most beautiful spaces in town and on campus:

It would be beautiful to watch a similar video with scenes from Mount Nittany, Millbrook Marsh Nature Center, the Indian Steps, and other wilder spots in and around our valley.

When people talk about there being “something in the water up there in Happy Valley,” little vignettes like this do so much to answer why that feeling exists. That sense of a specialness of place or of a genius loci exists because there’s real community there, and real little towns with main streets, and a beautiful and coherent and aesthetically complementary campus, and a charming and architecturally layered State College borough, and wonderful little hamlets surrounding them on all sides.

Rathskeller

I was very sad to hear that the All-American Rathskeller in State College is being forced to close its doors. The Skeller is one of those places that feels like it’s been around forever, with a gritty yet lived-in, distinctive, and welcoming feeling with worn cement floors that tell the stories of generations whose paths have met there, and wooden rafters, bars, and booths that have an age and weight and even wetness whose physical aroma conveys the place’s character in a way that few establishments ever allow to develop.

Skeller feels like it’s been around forever because, in a certain sense, it has. Few if any Penn Staters or Nittany Valley people are still alive remember a Happy Valley without the Rathskeller. It’s 84 years old, and Pennsylvania’s oldest continuously operating bar. The Foster Building, which houses the Skeller, is one of the oldest structures in State College. You can see it in this 1924 photo of State College:

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The Foster Building houses the Skeller among other College Avenue businesses, was purchased by new local investors the Herlochers earlier this year:

Duke and Monica Gastinger have owned the two businesses since the 1980s, but the Rathskellar has been around since November 9, 1933, three days after the end of prohibition in the United States.

Chuck and Neil Herlocher — yes, those Herlochers — bought the property, which houses Spat’s Café, The Clothesline, The Apple Tree, Old Main Frame Shop, Rathskeller and Sadie’s, in June. None of the other businesses have yet announced their closing, so the fate of the property is still unclear.

“My father and I are happy to be purchasing this historic area,” Neil Herlocher told the Centre County Gazette in June. “Business there will continue as usual. There are no plans to make drastic changes to the properties, although we will do some renovations and improvements.

Jay Paterno chimed into #SavetheSkeller Twitter conversation to share another angle of the story, which is that the Foster Building was nearly purchased by national investors intent on tearing it down and building something new, as is happening so many other places in State College’s downtown:

Herlochers Save Rathskeller Location From Wrecking Ball

In July 2017 our company Cornelius LLC concluded an investment in downtown State College with a plan to buy the Foster Building. While other investors intended to raze the property, we were steadfast in our commitment to preserve the historic nature and location of this landmark building.

When we took over the property we became aware that the operators of the All American Rathskeller and Spats had been operating without a lease since 2011 and paying well below market rates. Attempts to resolve the issue were unsuccessful. Our offer to purchase the businesses were also turned down.

We understand the concern many Penn Staters and State College natives have expressed. We want to assure you that as State College residents and Penn Staters we fully understand the historic importance of that location and memories made there across decades. We are committed to maintaining the character of the location that was founded in 1933 by Pop Flood as the Rathskeller and Gardens until 1934 when Doggie Alexander named it The All-American Rathskeller.

Our goal in the coming weeks and years is that Penn Staters past and present will walk into this location and find their memories of great times past still living there. The new tenants will be the latest in a long line of owners who have maintained the proud tradition of good times and good friends meeting in this downtown State College landmark.

If it’s true that Duke and Monica Gastinger refused to sell the Rathskeller name/intellectual property after rent negotiations failed, that their out-of-lease rent was way below market etc., that’s a real shame. Not only will Happy Valley lose the oldest-bar-in-Pennsylvania distinction, but it will likely lose the physical place as an historically authentic gathering place.

Ross Lehman, 1942 graduate of Penn State who was later head of the Penn State Alumni Association, once reflected on some of the things that made a Penn State experience what it was in his Centre Daily Times column “Open House:”

If I had felt lonely and isolated in these hills it was not for long. I became part of the heart throb of Penn State, and it was a new, exciting world. I fell in love with this unique place.

The campus was, and is, something rather special. It houses the “Penn State spirit,” which is a difficult thing to define because it is composed of so many things.

Perhaps it can be called a feeling, a feeling that runs through Penn Staters when they’re away from this place and someone mentions “Penn State.” The farther we are away, in time and distance, the stronger the feeling grows.

It is a good feeling, a wanting-to-share feeling. It is full of a vision of Mount Nittany, which displays a personality of its own in all its seasonal colors, from green to gold to brown to white. It is the sound of chimes from Old Main’s clock, so surrounded by leaves that it’s hard to see; it is getting to class not by looking at the clock but by listening to it.

It is the smell of the turf at New Beaver Field after a game, and the memories of Len Krouse, Leon Gajecki, Rosey Grier, Lenny Moore, Mike Reid, Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, Todd Blackledge and Curt Warner helping to swell our fame … and the top of Mount Nittany as seen from the grandstands in autumn.

It is the quiet of Pattee Library, facing two rows of silent elms; sunlight falling gently through those elms on a misty morning; a casual chat under a white moon on the mall.

It is talk, too: a great deal of talk, here, there, all around … in fraternity and sorority bull sessions or over a hasty coffee in the Corner Room or Ye Olde College Diner, talk un-recalled except for the feeling of remembrance and the heart-tugging wanting some of youth. …

It is a dance in Rec Hall; a beer in the Rathskeller; a kiss in a secluded campus niche; the romance that bloomed into marriage; the smell of a theater; the laugh of a crowd; the blossoming of spring shrubs and the blend of maple, oak, birch and aspen colors in the fall; the ache of a night without sleep; and the sharing of a thousand other little things and incidents that honed our “Penn State spirit.”

“A beer in the Rathskeller” amidst so many other great and small points of the mystic chords of Penn State identity may seem like a small thing, but that would be to miss the fact that the greatness of Penn State is in its innumerable little greatnesses, of which the Skeller has been a remarkable part for so many generations. It’s also remarkable that, in Ross Lehman’s tribute, every other specific place he recollects remains a living part of campus and town life. It’s a testament to the fact that, as much as changes in so little time in a college town, so many of the great little things stay the same in the towns that earn legendary reputations.

Downtown State College is experiencing a once in a century (or more) “reset” of a lot of its built environment. Over the past century a general agglomeration of mostly local investors purchased downtown properties like old homes, low-slung storefronts, etc., and made little business empires of them. Now, as they die or their families re-assess their holdings, many are selling to national developers who are building what for a downtown like State College are much larger mega-developments of six or eight or twelve story mix-used structures. A great deal of local ownership is vanishing, and that’s a shame to the degree that it makes local businesspeople less accountable to local people, and to the extent that State College becomes aesthetically, architecturally, and culturally more derivative of other college towns due to the “cookie cutter” building mentality of taking what might have worked in College Station or Ann Arbor and plopping it on a piece of land, heedless of the harmony or complementarity of surrounding structures. What conservationists can do is add their voices to the choir singing for as much of the old, time-worn authentic characteristics of past places to be re-incarnated in the new skins of the new buildings to come as is possible.

All things considered, I’m cautiously optimistic that the Herlocher’s local purchase of the Foster Building will achieve some degree of good conservation, although it’s a tragedy for the distinctiveness of State College to lose the Skeller in the process.

I reflected a few years ago on what “nostalgia” really means by asking “Where nostalgia lives” in a practical sense:

When I walk down College Avenue and sit on that stone bench, I’m sitting in a place where my grandfather sat at one point nearly 70 years ago. I’m sitting in a place where my cousin sat nearly 20 years ago. And maybe my children or theirs will sit there at some point.

We’re so socially, economically, and physically mobile today that most of us don’t have fixed, solid places like this to root our experiences. Where is the family farm that’s been with us for generations? Where is the tree in the yard planted decades ago? Where is the room in the house where your great grandmother once softly sang as the leaves of that tree rustled in twilight?

We lack these things. We move. We die. And thousands of experiences and stories are fragmented as a result. It becomes difficult to remember what we’re doing here.

In the context of the reality of this daily life, college towns and the little places they contain like College Avenue’s stone bench tell us what we don’t have. We probably won’t recover most of the beautiful little experiences of yesterday’s America, but at least in our college towns we are often presented with some of the life we’ve lost and reminded we can have it again, even if just for a pleasant visit.

When I had lunch with Onward State’s David Abruzzese in May earlier this year, we sat in what might literally have been the same booth at the Skeller where my grandfather might have sat in 1946 when he arrived as a freshman, or in 1947 when he was struggling to memorize his Greek poetry, or in 1950 when he would have been celebrating commencement:

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Pop looms large in my childhood memories as a source of wisdom and gentle love, and though he’s been dead nearly 17 years now, losing a place like the Skeller rips away one of the last physical places in the world where I can go and spend some time with memory of him, where I feel particularly connected, as if time might evaporate and his younger self might walk through those cellar doors to sit down with me for a bit, one more time.

And it rips away a physical place where I might bring my own son or daughter one day, sharing a similar experience, and looking into the twinkling eyes of uncertain youth to share the reassuring words that the sands of time and veil of death that covers ancestors, friends, and communities seemingly long separated isn’t always so thick in every place—that in certain places the sands of time pass ever more slowly, giving us a chance to savor what might otherwise be a quotidian moment in the most delicious and heartening way with someone we love, and with whom we’ll share a small place in the vast universe to return together in spirit.

To lose the Skeller, for a town to lose that sort of place? It really hurts.

Beaver & Pugh

Lexi Shimkonis reported on one of State College’s latest downtown developments earlier this year, which will be the demolition of this utilitarian building that I snapped a photo of during Homecoming last week:

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It was a beautiful Friday afternoon when I snapped that photo at the intersection of Beaver Avenue and Pugh Street, and it’s striking to me both because it captures that building in likely the best possible light, and also because it’s one of those photos that actually presents a scene far better than the architectural rendering of what’s to come presents things:

But I am excited about this new building, which will probably start construction sometime next year. It’s the sort of building that is an improvement of what’s there precisely because it doesn’t try to do anything other than improve the corner where it will be, and aesthetically complement the height and only modestly ornamented style that characterizes so much of State College’s downtown.

The rendering of what’s to come probably doesn’t really convey how incredibly tall it will look when standing on the downward-sloping Pugh Street when compared to the stumpy little three story building it replaces.

College Avenue scenes

As Homecoming recedes in the mirror, Christmas and the wider holiday and holy season approaches. As I was walking along College Avenue this morning before leaving town, I noticed State College Borough crews hoisting the Christmas Tree at the Allen Street Gate. Christmas wreaths had already been placed earlier in the morning on the lamp posts lining College and Beaver Avenues. A somewhat less chilly, and certainly more festive-feeling, day after a frigid Homecoming experience. Autumn will soon give way to winter, but in the meantime I’ll enjoy both seasons and start thinking about ways this Christmas can be marked without allowing the hollow sentimentality or secular-type materialism to evaporate Advent’s essential mystery.