same old story... nothing can ever be built without 5 years of environmental impact studies... a huge part of downtown Bellefonte will lie dormont for the forseeable future
BELLEFONTE -- Chain-link fence marks the corner of Water and High streets, surrounding a vacant lot to protect a piece of ground littered with remnants of Bellefonte history.
It's a far cry from a year ago, when the historic Bush House stood at the crossroads, a vital piece of the downtown and a key part of the borough's plans for its waterfront district.
Then came Feb. 8, 2006.
That's when fire consumed the 138-year-old hotel -- home to seven businesses -- and blanketed the downtown in ash as the owners and the community watched helplessly. Despite efforts of firefighters, the structure collapsed, leaving nothing but scraps of the building that once hosted such legendary Americans as Amelia Earhart and Thomas Edison.
The site waits for owners Kenny and Sue Kempton and local officials to determine its future. But progress is stalled by regulations that require new flood-plain mapping, the confines of the historical district and the cost of rebuilding.
"It's frustrating. It's certainly hard to see it," Kenny Kempton said. "Every season that goes by, you think of things that would be happening."
There are days when Kempton almost forgets that cold February morning. And there are nights when he dreams that part of the Bush House was saved during the fire.
"You go to work every day and this is your life ... One day it all changes. That's kind of what we've been dealing with," he said.
The waiting game
Those looking forward to seeing what will rise to replace the Bush House may have a long wait.
It could be early 2009 before flood-plain mapping of the site is complete, something Centre County planners say must be done before the site can be redeveloped. An application for a grant to pay for the flood-impact study is expected to be submitted later this year, said county environmental planner Beth Rider, with the study likely to start in 2008.
"We'd like to get better flood mapping from High Street to Lamb Street," she said. "It would need to be done for redevelopment purposes."
Kempton said he could put a building on stilts or develop another concept, but the site is a key piece of the waterfront district and must be treated as such.
"It's hard for us to make plans because we want to do the best we can for the site," he said. "I keep hearing different things, and I'm not exactly sure."
Any building project there also would undergo review by Bellefonte's Historical Architecture Review Board, which would require final approval by Bellefonte Borough Council, said Assistant Borough Manager Sue Hannegan. Hannegan also serves on the review board.
"We don't want to lose the flavor and the ambience that bring character to the streetscape," she said.
Hannegan said it may be possible for flood-plain mapping and design plans to be done concurrently, helping the project move along faster.
Every building in the town's historic district -- dating from 1795 to 1975 -- must go through the approval process that addresses concepts such as mass, scale, form, proportion of new and infill construction. It also reviews the exterior surface.
"It has to be compatible, yet different," she said. "That gives us a lot of room."
The building may have the same box-type form but, for example, may have a different kind of windows. A change such as that could give the building a new look but keep the feel of the historic district.
"Ultimately something will be built on that site. It's too valuable economically," Hannegan said. "We're looking at that as a great opportunity for the borough."
Kempton said he expects there will be a need to team up with another developer to make the site the best it can be.
"We certainly don't have the money to build a hotel by ourselves," he said.
Clearing the hurdles
Chris Exarchos, chairman of the county Board of Commissioners, said he wants to see the site redeveloped and thinks these hurdles can be overcome.
"It's sort of an empty hole in the community," he said.
The Bush House was a grand facility with a lot of history and personality, Exarchos said. Built in 1868 by Daniel Bush, it hosted weddings, anniversaries and countless parties as well as memorable guests who included Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh.
It was the second historic building in Bellefonte to be lost to fire in recent years, following the destruction of the Bellefonte Academy in July 2004.
"Hopefully we can find something compatible to replace it," Exarchos said.
The Kemptons have vowed that Schnitzels Tavern, the beloved German-cuisine restaurant in the Bush House, will be brought back to town. The restaurant, first located next to the Garman Opera House Theater, was moved to the Bush House after the Kemptons purchased the building in 1995, drawn by the outdoor seating it offered and the room for other business opportunities.
The Kemptons owned four of the seven businesses in the building: the tavern, Daniel's Bar, a bottle shop and the Bush House Hotel, with its banquet and conference facilities.
The three other businesses in the building have since relocated.
"It's not like we're dragging our feet, but our hands are tied," Kempton said. "It's just that we're definitely committed to having something good happen there."
Hannegan said she sees the Bush House someday becoming another major anchor in the waterfront district.
The district, with the American Philatelic Society at one end and the former Cerro Plant, commonly known as the silk factory, at the other, would connect a number of parks, including Talleyrand, through a series of bridges and walkways along Spring Creek.
The goal is to improve upon the area's economic opportunities by creating a waterfront area that will traverse the borough's richly historic retail and business districts.
Until the future of the Bush House site becomes clearer, the Kemptons are focusing their attention on a new venture. The sandwich and bottle shop they have been planning in College Township has morphed into a full-service restaurant to be called Olde New York.
The restaurant is not intended to replace Schnitzels but will fill a void by offering a mix of ethnic food such as Italian sausage and pasta dishes, Jewish and German deli-style sandwiches and Polish favorites such as kielbasa and pierogies, Kenny Kempton said.
It should open in March.
Hole in the community
In the meantime, the Bush House lot sits empty.
Just over a year ago, Hannegan said, she was talking with the Kemptons about how to make the Bush House more economically viable.
"I never ever considered we'd be looking at a vacant lot," she said. "It just never occurred to me that could be lost."
"It's difficult to look over there and not see the Bush House," said Chip Aikens, executive director of the Bellefonte Intervalley Area Chamber of Commerce. "It's such a big open space."
The open lot and no plans to fill it in the foreseeable future have spurred Nancy Noll, owner of The Queen Bed and Breakfast, and Kim Kowalczyk, owner of Café on the Park, to come up with a plan to beautify the area. A brainstorming session has found that people are interested in developing a mural project for the Bush House site. The project would showcase regional talent and enhance the barren site until it can be developed.
"You just have to learn to take a disaster and turn it into an opportunity," she said. "The resulting project (on the site) will bring even more people to Bellefonte than the Bush House did."
The mural project could eventually be moved to another, permanent location.
Noll said the loss of the Bush House continues to affect her business.
"It was a spiritual and emotional loss, but it was also an economic loss," she said. "They shopped when they were here and they especially stayed at B&B's."
She still fields questions from guests who arrive in town eager to visit their favorite dining establishment, only to learn that Schnitzels is gone.
"I could always count on Schnitzels for my Sunday night guests," she said. "They had a menu that you have to drive hours and hours to find a restaurant with a menu like that."
The loss of Schnitzels was significant, Aikens said. But so was the loss of Daniel's, one of the town's main nightlife options, as well as the venue the Bush House offered for weddings and large events. And then there's the history of the building that helped draw people to the region.
"It's one of the key buildings you identified Bellefonte with and it's gone," he said.
The Bush House fire has spurred the borough to pursue grant funding to help examine how some of its other notable buildings, such as the Bush Arcade, could best be outfitted with fire detection and suppression systems.
"We won't succeed unless we can find an economically feasible way to make this happen," Hannegan said. "Now we want to take it one step further and find out how we do this."
Hannegan said she only knows of two buildings in town that are now outfitted with sprinklers: the Centre County Courthouse Annex and the Brockerhoff House.
But sprinkler systems are vital to preserving the town's history -- and economic future -- in the event of fire, she said.
"The architecture of Bellefonte is its economic base," she said. "It's the combination of the buildings and stores that make it unique."
Jennifer Thomas can be reached at 231-4638.
here's a TINY photo showing the empty lot downtown
here's a few of my photos of the Bush House in the year before it burned... I had my college graduation dinner at Schnitzel's restaurant...and often visited Daniel's when in town... this building was close to my heart... no new construction will come close to the character this building had ... but something needs to fill this void in the heart of Bellefonte... I'm all for making sure everything's "environmentally sound"... but I've never understood why these impact studies have to take YEARS
this gigantic 1860s structure was still looking fresh and beautiful in 2005
outdoor seating along the stream
Here's the Bellefonte Academy... another recent loss... I never got the chance to photograph it