Cooper Building Restored to Former Glory in Downtown Altoona
On a brisk December afternoon First Frontier Pioneers Jim and Gabrielle Colombo revealed to the crowd the completion of the Cooper Building restoration on 11th Avenue in Downtown Altoona. Adorned with gold accents and revitalized architectural details complete with large window displays decorated for the holiday season everyone was transported back in time enjoying the historic model train and fixtures.
ABCD Corporation is proud to have helped play a part in bringing this building back to life through our financing programs and cooperation with the historic groups of our region. Do yourself a favor this holiday season and take a walk down 11th Avenue to see the Cooper Building and all of the other revitalization projects that are part of Altoona’s renaissance.
Complete article as published in the December 13, 2018 Altoona Mirror:
In 1998, John Rita helped paint the mural on the wall of the Saleme Insurance building next to Heritage Plaza that depicts a semi-fanciful downtown of the past, colored by wishful thinking that it could be that way again.
On Wednesday, Rita spoke at an event that helps demonstrate that such a past is on the way back for Altoona.
It was the unveiling of the facade of the Cooper building, which Rita helped restore for his cousin, Jimmy Colombo, and Colombo’s wife, Gabrielle DeRose-Colombo.
The restoration has been underway for many months, but it wasn’t visible whole, even to those who made it happen, until workers pulled a tarp from the first-floor storefront — and until Rita and the Colombos stood across the street and stared.
“Welcome to Altoona 1908,” Rita said in his remarks to a group of about 30 who had come for the unveiling, referring to the look of the building when it was first constructed as a small department store to compete with giant Gables next door — a look Rita strove to duplicate based on what remained of the building after many renovations and with the help of photos collected by local historian Michael Farrow.
It was only later Wednesday, after it was almost dark and the crowd had dispersed to another restored building that now houses the Railroad City Brewing Co. – when Christmas lights and decorations showed the Cooper building as a confection of light and brown, with its narrow-bordered, broad-glassed storefront, bay windows, Italianate columns higher still and decorative brick near the top — that the image it projected seemed capable of transporting an observer back more than a century.
“Sometimes, when you let your imagination and abilities run wild, even time travel is possible,” Rita said.
When he was a kid growing up in Altoona, Rita, 65, built a two-story “shack” in his backyard, accessorized it, then invited his brother and “my cousin Jimmy” — Colombo — inside, calling the structure his “time machine.”
The Cooper building is a better version of that time machine, said Rita, who is an artist, sculptor and art restrictionist.
He was pleased upon getting his first look at the full facade, thinking it looked “sophisticated,”Rita said.
It reminded him of New York City, he said.
He had anticipated that “moment” of full revelation, conscious that he had not so much created the design as recreated the design of another. When he started the Cooper restoration, which complies with U.S. Department of Interior requirements, he had only one poor photo of the building to assist him, although there were thousands of Gables, Rita said.
Farrow, however, managed to uncover a trove of additional Cooper photos, and those were critical in taking out much of the guesswork that otherwise would have been required, Rita said.
Without the photos, the bay windows wouldn’t be half-hexagonal and there wouldn’t have been as much evidence of the deep outdoor foyer that extends the display window space, Rita said.
Some materials used in the restoration match the originals, like tin for the ceilings, and some do not, including foam moldings for the exterior, rather than wood, which isn’t as durable, and thermal glass, which is efficient, in contrast to the original glass, Rita said.
Such substitution is permissible under the federal restoration requirements, although some purists might object, Rita indicated.
There are “gray areas” in the rules, he said.
The interior remains unfinished, pending the securing of a tenant or tenants, for whom the owners would build to suit, Colombo said. The marketing is just beginning, he said.
A restaurant, office space and apartments are a possibility, DeRose-Colombo said.
A brewery, a ravioli shop or a dairy products and crepes store are also possibilities, Colombo said.
There could be three separate business operations, one to each floor, Colombo said.
They will base their decision on tenants on what “supports downtown the best,” DeRose-Colombo said. “We’ll see what’s needed the most,” she said.
The restoration has been a “labor of love,” she said.
The work so far has cost about $250,000, according to Colombo and DeRose-Colombo.
The property at 1316 11th Ave., was originally the site of a house owned by Lloyd Cooper, who opened a novelty store on the first floor in 1890, Farrow said.
The present building was constructed in 1908, opening as Kelly & Co. Department Store, although Cooper remained the owner.
In 1920, it became Whitman’s Ladies Store; then in 1929, Lord’s Dress Shop; then in 1966, White Cross Drugstore; then in 1973, Revco drug store; then in 1994, after three years’ vacant, the Flower Shoppe, then starting in 2005, it became vacant again, according to a timeline provided by Farrow.
Between 2005 and 2017, the building became “so derelict” that many felt it needed to be razed, said Farrow, who is president of the Blair County Historical Society.
“(But) Jim saw that the bones of the building were just fine,” he said. “(His) perseverance, foresight and love of Altoona history saw his vision of restoration through.”