Historical Buildings: A Look At State College’s History Through Architecture
The State College community is one rich with history, and this history spans to our town’s architecture, too. The buildings we pass each day on our walk to campus or work don’t just house our favorite bars and clothing stores; each captures an era rich in history, holding memories of the people who ate in, walked by, got a haircut at, or lived in each building. These unique pieces of architecture tell the stories of State College.
Hotel State College
The famous Hotel State College, visibly placed at the intersection of College Avenue and Allen Street across from the Allen St. Gates, has welcomed new visitors to State College for over 100 years. Its prominent location downtown made it a first stop for all who came to Happy Valley long before it earned that name. The hotel was built in its early rudimentary form in 1857 by Bernard McClain, and in the 1860s rooms began to be rented out, although the hotel wasn’t officially established as “The Agricultural College Hotel” until 1864. Many firsts for State College took place in this building, including the then-“village’s” first telephone and first telegraph, which were installed in 1885. In 1906, the establishment was renamed The Nittany Inn, and two more stories were added, turning it into the four-story brick building we know today. The well-loved Corner Room restaurant joined the building in 1926 when new owners took over the hotel, and the term “The Corner” was first used to describe the location around that same time.
Today, Hotel State College is the lesser-known part of “The Corner.” The Corner Room restaurant occupies the lower level of this building, with Zeno’s nestled down in its basement, attracting townies and undergrad hipsters for craft brews and live folk music. On the second floor is the Allen Street Grill, complete with its porch-like overlook of Allen St. which was converted from an open porch that was a part of the early Nittany Inn.
The Dale Building
The Dale Building, located at the intersection of West College Avenue and Fraser Street, was built in 1914 by C.E. Henry for Peter Hoffer Dale, M.D. It was home to a number of State College’s many small mom-and-pop grocery stores, under names like “State College Co-operative Association,” “William McEachren Grocery & Dry Goods,” “Struble’s Grocery & Meat Market,” “Struble’s Clover Farm Stores,” and “Slagle & McFlincey’s Clover Farm Stores.” Starting in the 1950s, other types of tenants occupied the space of the Dale Building, including a television store called Keystone Television, Waite’s Bakery, Cheap Thrills Clothing, a campaign office for John Anderson for President, and New Morning Health Foods.
Today, the Dale Building continues to rent out its four one-bedroom furnished apartments to students through Associated Realty Property Management, and houses The Nittany Quill and CommonPlaces on its lower level.
Nittany Theatre Building
The Nittany Theatre Building occupied businesses true to its name for the first 70 years of its existence. A number of movie theaters occupied the two-level theater including The Nittany Theatre from 1914 to 1972, and then The Garden Theatre from 1973 to 1984. As the Nittany Theatre, the movie house was fairly obscure, known for western films, cliffhangers, European art films, and even x-rated features. The Garden Theatre was a bit more mainstream, showing the original Star Wars premiere in 1977.
Once the silver screens vacated the Nittany Theatre Building, other businesses set up shop in the space. Today, the storefront is occupied by M&T Bank.
The Crabtree Building was built in 1924 to take over an unoccupied lot as a space for Crabtrees Jewelers, the watchmaking and engraving business of Samuel P. Crabtree that had recently expanded from Tyrone into the State College community. Crabtrees Jewelers was an important community staple — community members set their watches to the clocks in the windows (synchronized with Greenwich Time via Western Union), and the jewelry store even supplied flatware to The Corner Room and china to The Nittany Lion Inn. The original structure was six feet further from the street than it is today, as the Art Deco-inspired granite that adorns the front of the building we know today was added in 1946.
Aurum Goldsmiths occupies the maroon Crabtree Building today, after its 1994 opening by master goldsmith John C. Mason.
The Smith Building is home to State College’s longest continually-operating barbershop, which is still open for haircuts daily. Smith’s Barber Shoppe opened in 1925, after George Smith’s original wooden barbershop in the same location suffered fire damage in 1924. In conjunction with State College architect P. Boyd Kapp, Smith redesigned the new shop with an arched entryway, twisted columns, curved green roof tiles, and other aesthetic details making it stand out from surrounding downtown buildings. On the second floor of this new building, George Smith’s wife, Freida, ran Smith’s Power Puff Beauty Shoppe, succeeded by Alice & Don Hairdressers, which occupied the space from 1948 until 1954.
Today, the Smith Building is home to Rinaldo’s Barber Shop. A barber in Smith’s Barber Shoppe, Dick DiRinaldo bought the shop in 1953 to open his own, and in 1975 DiRinaldo bought the whole building. Throughout the years, each owner has maintained the original barber chairs from 1919, as well as mirrors, cabinetry, the tiled floor, and original sinks. The antique shop cash register remained as a usable fixture in the store until 1997, when it was retired due to repairs required that no one knew how to complete.
The Letizell Building sits at the intersection of College Ave. and Allen St., opposite The Corner Room and Hotel State College. State College architect P. Boyd Kapp designed the building, which was constructed in 1925, with its unique arched windows. These windows became a recognizable trademark of each business that occupied this space: The Athletic Store (“The A Store”) owned by Harry A. Leitzell, which operated until 1971 on the College Avenue side of the building, and Graham’s, which existed on the Allen Street side of the retail space until 1988. The A Store sold sports supplies and textbooks to students, as well as class rings delivered through Crum and Gladys Jenkins. Graham’s was a newsstand, tobacco, and sweets shop that attracted many Penn State coaches and athletes as customers, earning it the nickname “Graham A.C.” (Athletic Club). Graham’s was a bustling community center, supporting the Alpha Fire Company though an annual raffle and a Fourth of July carnival that drew large crowds looking to win the big prize: the new car parked in front of the store.
Moyer’s Jewelers filled the storefront that long belonged to The A Store and Graham’s back in 1975. The famous archways have been filled in with stucco, but are still prominent features of the building, showcasing the store’s jewelry in display windows.
The Foster/Gentzel Building
Built in 1894, the Foster/Gentzel Building is home to a number of State College firsts. It was the town’s first apartment building, the first building in town to convert from a wooden sidewalk to a concrete one, and it housed the first post office, the first children’s clothing store, and the oldest continually operating bar in State College. These were the days when incoming mail to State College arrived via wagon from the train station in Lemont. In 1913, Perry Homer Gentzel bought the Foster Building from original owner William LeFebre Foster, and it became the Gentzel Building, which housed a number of children’s clothing stores from 1929 on.
In 1933, C.C. “Doggie” Alexander’s All-American Rathskeller opened in the basement of the building, and in 1987, Spats Cafe & Speakeasy opened, following Campus Restaurant (1946 – 1973) and The Old Main Restaurant.
The Breon-Stover Building was constructed in 1926 in a Spanish Colonial Revival style, replacing a burnt-down building that existed before it. Home to the Penn State Photo Shop, the photography business of W.W. Smith existed here for three generations on this site, as it was passed down from him to various successors. This photo business was the official La Vie photographer from 1928 to 1969, and the official State College High School yearbook portrait photographer from 1916 until 1967. The photography business continued in the basement of the Breon-Stover building even after it was sold in 1964 to a different owner, although the owners of the shop closed the studio in 1972.
A number of retailers have occupied the storefronts of Breon-Stover over the years. Kranich’s Jewelers opened in the new divided storefronts in 1976, and remains there today. Alongside it are The Shoe Box and P2P, a computer repair shop. The Gaff, which still exists in the back part of Breon-Stover, joined the building in 1972 as it replaced the large photography studio that had been there before.
The Glennland Building
The Glennland building opened in 1933, boasting itself as State College’s largest apartment building with 40 units, and as the tallest building in town at the time, with its claim to fame being the first residential elevator in State College. The Glennland Building had a pool in its basement that was used for both recreational and university events — many Penn State men were required to swim its length to graduate. The building also housed a number of commercial retailers, including WMAJ, State College’s first radio station. Sadly, the Glennland Building pool was closed in 1968 and the space was converted to offices. However, the colorful tiles from the pool remain as decoration in many of the office spaces today.
Today, the Glennland Building continues to rent apartments to long-term residents and graduate students, and houses a number of commercial offices including the American Red Cross and some dental offices.
Memorial Field began as a natural recessed amphitheater, and was capitalized on by the State College community. After the town called for a public playground in the early 1910s, the State College School Board bought what was known as “the sink hole” in 1914. The area was leveled in 1916 to allow an even field for people to play baseball. In 1926, a running track was laid down (paid for by the Rotary Club), and in 1933, old bleacher seating from Beaver Field was installed. As Works Progress Administration funds rolled in after the Great Depression, more renovations on the field took place, and eventually in 1937, grandstand seating and floodlights were installed and the first official football game was played in Memorial Field against Claysburg.
Today, Memorial Field is over 4,000 square feet and is the competition home to State College’s football, soccer, field hockey, and lacrosse teams.
Nittany Avenue Elementary School
The Nittany Avenue Elementary School opened in 1924 amidst mounting pressure on the Frazier Street School, which required the addition of a second elementary school for the area. The school was the final addition to the “central school area” of State College that contained the Frazier Street School (1887), the high school (1914), and the in-progress Memorial Field. It remained a fifth and sixth grade school for many years, until it closed in 1964.
In 1965, Nittany Avenue Elementary School became the administrative building for the State College Area School District.
Though the people who have lived much of this history no longer remain to tell their stories, the places they lived, worked, and relaxed will continue to recount their history for generations to come.
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About the Author
A visit from Pat Freiermuth and “We Want Drew” chants highlighted another busy Saturday in Happy Valley.
A visit from Pat Freiermuth and “We Want Drew” chants highlighted another busy Saturday in Happy Valley.
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