Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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Centre County Historical Society Eyes Expansion

The Centre County Historical Society is looking to grow with the potential acquisition of a nearby property that would allow the organization to expand its offerings.

CCHS is hoping to acquire the Esber property, 1011 E. College Ave., adjacent to the organization’s headquarters at the historic Centre Furnace Mansion, 1001 E. College Ave., Executive Director Mary Sorensen told the Centre County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.

Commissioners unanimously approved a letter of support for CCHS’s application for a $6.5 million grant from America250PA’s infrastructure improvement program. The funding would be used to convert the Esber property grounds and the building that houses Esber Home and Rugs to a Center for Cultural and Historical Preservation.

“This sits at the confluence of Penn State University and State College, and so it’s at a perfect area for this,” Sorensen said. “It also gives us an opportunity to expand our programming and what we do at the Centre County Historical Society and create the surrounding landscape into more of a park-like accessible area that would provide more of a campus field to those that are coming into town.”

America250PA is the commonwealth’s chapter of a national celebration for the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026. A bipartisan Infrastructure Improvements and Projects Committee led by state legislators is evaluating proposals for initiatives that preserve or showcase Pennsylvania history ahead of the Semiquincentennial.

The grant “would accommodate not only the rehabilitation of the [Esber] building but also landscape work and interpretation that would need to be done — trails and so forth,” Sorensen said. The facility would serve as a visitor, museum and event space.

“I feel it’s an apt location for us to move forward with something like this,” Sorensen added. “That property would have been of course Centre Furnace lands back in the day.”

The Centre Furnace Mansion site, which has served as home to CCHS since the late 1970s, was pivotal to the 18th Century beginnings of the iron industry in Centre County and the 19th Century founding of Penn State. It was the Centre Furnace ironmaster’s home and was recently recognized with a historical marker for its role as “the birthplace of Penn State.”

Roger Williams, CCHS president, called the proposal a “moonshot” for the organization.

“It would be a game-changer for us and, we believe, Centre County,” Williams said. “It would allow us to do a lot more in terms of contributing to the fast-growing Centre County tourism economy. It would enable us to provide a much higher level of service to Centre Countians and others that we serve. It would change everything for us.”

Commissioner Amber Concepcion said the America250PA celebration and the associated grant funding are an opportunity “to pull together around preserving our shared history and what makes Pennsylvania unique and the United States unique.”

“I think we’ve got really great stories to tell here about the role of Centre County in the history of Pennsylvania and the United States as a whole, and this will just improve our opportunity to share that story,” Concepcion said.

Commissioners also approved letters of support for applications for grants to restore rail service for excursions to Curtin Village near Milesburg and to provide connectivity among the county’s historical sites along and near the Nittany and Bald Eagle Railroad.

“It’s important that we maintain a real understanding and appreciation of our history, and all three projects are very good,” Commissioner Steve Dershem said. “I think it can’t be [overstated] that this area has so much rich history that we need to not only preserve but also market to future generations.”