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Towering over Tamaqua

  • DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS The ABC Tamaqua High Rise soars 175 feet, higher than any other building in Schuylkill County.
    DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS The ABC Tamaqua High Rise soars 175 feet, higher than any other building in Schuylkill County.
Published January 10. 2014 01:07PM

Four decades ago, a landmark monolith rose skyward in the center of Tamaqua.

It went up slowly, a steel skeleton built beam by beam. In almost a strange way, construction noise seemed to be drowned out by the drama and scope of the project, a spectacle of huge proportions.

Since that time, it has dominated Tamaqua's skyline, commanding a prestigious role as visual anchor to the downtown and boasting impressive statistics and rugged, modern looks.

The ABC Tamaqua High Rise stands 175 feet high and reaches 15 stories over East Broad Street. It provides airplane-type views in every direction and offers the comfort of over 93,000 sq.-ft. of living space.

For 122 residents, the high rise is a community in itself.

It's also testament to a determined spirit that guided the tower's construction.

"In many ways, it's better now than it ever was," says Pat Freeh-Stefanek, affiliate director of the Alliance for Building Communities (ABC), Allentown, building owner.

"We have 117 apartments. Of those, 100 are tax credit apartments and 17 are market rate, meaning that no income rules apply," said Freeh-Stefanek, who joined the staff in 1994. She and Tony Fannock, property superintendent, are the two senior staff members in terms of tenure. Both have 20 years under the belt and their familiarity with the town and the facility is relied on daily. After all, it takes some know-how to manage a building that happens to have a seemingly-endless number of attributes and related responsibilities.

For instance, the facility includes 123 bathrooms and more than 560 windows.

Intimidating. "Sorry, I don't do windows," is the first thing a cleaning person might say.

Another oddity is that the 15-story building has a 16th floor of apartments. How can that be?

Well, there is no 13th floor. The number doesn't exist. The elevator goes directly from floor 12 to floor 14.

Tamaqua people know how to avoid bad luck.

The idea of a skyscraper in the middle of a small-town gained steam after the 1970 on-site demolition of the 1895 Tamaqua High School. The old Tamaqua High was an impressive stone structure at 222 East Broad St. It had been converted to a junior high around 1927 and ultimately abandoned at the end of the 1967-68 school year.

Site preparation work of what was officially called the "Tamaqua Hi-Rise Project" began in 1971, a component of the Section 23, US Housing Act, under President Gerald Ford.

The project was guided by the Tamaqua Leased Housing Corp., coordinated by developer Howard F. "Howie" Miller.

Miller was a local commodity, born in Palmerton. He grew up in Tamaqua and was an advocate for sports and youth activities. After graduation from Tamaqua High School, he entered the U.S. Marine Corps. After serving his country, Miller attended business school and then returned to Tamaqua to offer his talent.

Miller owned the North Central Development Corporation, responsible for introducing high-rise development for low-to-middle income residents of the coal regions. The firm operated from Shamokin and Sunbury with projects in locales throughout Pennsylvania.

In Tamaqua, the project was begun in 1971 and completed three years later.

For a time, the facility was managed by the Schuylkill County Housing Authority, but when the Section 23 lease expired in 1994, Tamaqua borough stepped in to oversee operations.

However, the borough's 1997 decision to get out of the housing business led to putting the building up for sale to eligible buyers in 1998.

That turn of events generated much interest since, over 25 years, the high rise and its residents had become and integral part of the community. Moreover, the building, at the time, was turning a handsome profit of $40,000 per year.

Miller re-emerged and served as borough consultant in reviewing bids for what was a complicated real estate transaction.

"You need to pre-qualify them before they go to the state," Miller explained at a 1999 public meeting during the bidding process. The eventual winner was the ABC firm, which, for $1.2M, purchased the facility.

ABC is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit agency. Operating since 1975, it is an affordable housing provider that adheres to regulations set by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and employs HUD-certified housing counselors.

ABC serves Lehigh, Northampton, Berks, Carbon, Monroe and Schuylkill counties.

The firm immediately undertook a massive overhaul, interior and exterior, resulting in $2M in upgrades.

"Improvements included all new windows, carpeting, new appliances, sinks, electric stoves, frost-free refrigerators, power washing of the bricks and repointing," said Freeh-Stefanek.

Since then, the high rise has become even more popular. It offers more than a place to live, but a way of life. For example, the facility employs a social services coordinator, DeAnn Breiner, who oversees activities. There is a newsletter for residents, and the high rise hosts the town's annual New Year's Eve celebration.

Over the past 40 years, hundreds of tenants have made the place home. Currently, there is a waiting list for occupancy.

Miller was delighted to see the success of the project over the ensuing 38 years.

Sadly, he passed away Oct. 6, 2012, at age 74, but not before realizing he'd made a difference in the town he loved.

In terms of memories, one of the most moving comes from somebody who never lived in the high rise and doesn't reside in the US.

Miller's daughter, Cindy, of Tervuren, Belgium, recalls her childhood in Tamaqua and being among the first to reach the top of the tower.

"When the high rise was just a shell, meaning steel beams exposed and cement floors poured, my dad took my brother and me to the top floor," said Miller.

"We stepped out of the freight elevator onto the roof and I remember the amazing views of the valley. It was quite scary as young Howie and I clung to each other.

"The openness made us feel as if we were so close to the edge. I was so proud of my father and was so in awe of the work he had done in town and in the other communities where he had put up similar buildings. To this day, whenever I drive past it, I remember my dad with such pride," Miller told the TIMES NEWS.

She said her grandmother on her father's side was one of the building's first tenants.

For Howie Miller, the Tamaqua Hi-Rise project was a crowning achievement, a manifestation of devotion to the place he called home. For him, passion aimed high, much higher than many others can imagine.

"He made sure his hometown of Tamaqua got the biggest building of all," said Miller.

Today, 40 years after its unveiling, the ABC Tamaqua High Rise reigns supreme - the tallest building in Schuylkill County and a monument to the human spirit.

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