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Saving a landmark from the wrecking ball

Published June 19. 2010 09:00AM

Summit Hill has had its share of problems in the past with buildings that were left to decay far too long and absentee landlords that refused to take care of them. There are still some scattered throughout the borough that need more attention than they are probably receiving.

One of the biggest problems the borough had for years was the old St. Phillip's Episcopal Church that died from neglect over a period of decades until it was torn down almost five years ago.

It's hard to lose old buildings like that, but sometimes it is necessary. People come to the Summit Hill Historical Society Museum and ask about our old buildings. Unfortunately, this borough has not had good fortune when it comes to the preservation of our old important landmark buildings. Our original armory was burned out and torn down for the second borough building and that building after years of neglect and age was torn down and replaced with the new fire company.

The Switchback was sold for scrap and its buildings were razed. All that is left in Summit Hill is a road bed, some pits, several spikes and the fence near the station's original location on Ludlow Street. The Eagle Hotel was lost to a fire as was the beloved Ginter school building both of which also had to be demolished as well.

There are not many buildings in town that rise to the idea of preservation anymore, but there still are a few left that come close. Our churches were once the center of family life and culture in the community. They were safe havens in an unsafe world.

No one ever expected what has been happening in the past several years. Churches are closing left and right and becoming white elephants with absentee landlords, very large and powerful absentee landlords.

There are two buildings in Summit Hill right now that are church buildings that have lost congregations. St. Stanislaus' Church, a beautiful brick building on the corner of Market and Hazard Street lost its congregation to a merger with St. Joseph's Church and St. Paul's United Church of Christ also lost its most of its congregation and stopped holding weekly services in 2007.

While I'm not sure of the fate of St. Stan's Church though, I do know the fate of St. Paul's church. After it closed the church board members met with the conference and asked if the building could be used to continue on in the capacity of a community building or mission to the local area.

Two years of negotiating and planning led to the formation of the Summit Hill Heritage Center. Its board of seven volunteers have spent hours and hours formulating a plan to help the building continue to serve the community, and I am one of those board members.

Unlike St. Stan's or St. Phillip's, St. Paul's has been more than just a church for the last 145 years. It has been a home to the Boy Scouts in Summit Hill for many decades. It has served as a home for a still active quilting guild. Today it is also the home for the Summit Hill Food Pantry.

The Food Pantry is a vital part of the community especially for the one hundred forty plus families it serves each month. Without the pantry, many people would be in much more dire straits than they are now.

The main reason for the Heritage Center Board attempting to save this building is to provide a home for the pantry as long as possible. This is not a get rich quick scheme or a commercial venture but one of service to the community. Not only do we want to house the pantry to help those in need, but we want to give back to the region by providing cultural, educational and entertainment opportunities.

To do so, we need the support of not only Summit Hill, but the entire Panther Valley, Tamaqua and Jim Thorpe areas. We are planning to provide programs that will benefit everyone and not just the people of our hometown.

With that said though, I have heard unfortunate stories that I find annoying and upsetting. We do not wish to nor have we held ourselves out to be in competition with any other organization or facility in the borough. We are volunteers trying to desperately save a building that if it fails will bring down the values of several homes in the immediate area surrounding it. We do not want another St. Philip's church problem.

We also wish that people who have questions about what is happening and why or who have concerns would simply talk to us instead of beating us up in public outside of our presence or without the ability for us to explain what we are doing.

We want this building to be a positive experience for those who visit it or choose to support it. We want to enlighten, educate and entertain and know that while we are doing so, we are saving one more iconic landmark from a wrecking ball or neglect.

This isn't a commercial labor but rather a labor of service to our community and our neighbors, and if that is a problem for some who feel threatened for some odd reason, than my pity goes out to them.

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