February 27 – JOHNSTOWN, Pennsylvania – The former Roman Catholic St. Columba’s Church finds new life as it transforms into a performing arts venue.
St. Columba was one of Johnstown’s English-speaking parishes.
Founded by Irish immigrants in 1882, St. Columba is a combination church and school that survived the Johnstown flood of 1889 and still stands at Chestnut Street and 10th Avenue in the Cambria City section of the city .
The current building on Broad Street was constructed between 1913 and 1915.
The church was one of three that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown closed in July 2009, following a consolidation of five parishes in Cambria City.
In 2011, 1901 Church Inc. purchased all three buildings and re-opened one as Grand Halle on Broad Street, sold a second and is now in the planning stages of repurposing St. Columba.
“We are working on continuing a dramatic arts theater in the building and reopening Columba to the public for the first time since it closed,” said Dave Hurst, project manager for The Steeples Project, which is sponsored by 1901 Church Inc.
He said that with the Grand Halle on Broad Street fully operational, the Steeples Project is now able to focus its time and attention on the Columba Theater Project.
“Over the past 10 years, our main efforts have been to stabilize the structure and fix any immediate issues that we have had to deal with, such as the ceiling, the paint falling off the wall, and the tree that was in the steeple, so we’ve been dealing with those things, but that’s been the extent of our physical development efforts to date,” Hurst said.
“We’ve done a tremendous amount of planning and design for formal adaptive reuse, and that’s basically what we’re gearing up to get into in a more focused way now.”
In 2017, The Steeples Project commissioned a feasibility study of the theater concept, using a 10-person consulting team comprising three architects, a structural engineer, three theater design professionals, two theater marketers and an economic development specialist.
“It was about considering what was going to be needed to make it a professional quality theater for the dramatic arts, but also doing it in a way that preserved all of the original character and defining characteristics of this space,” Hurst noted.
The study concluded that the concept was feasible and capable of generating an annual economic impact of $2.7 million supporting 52 jobs.
“It can attract visitors and can be another cultural asset for the community, so there’s a lot of potential for this project,” Hurst said.
250 seat theater
The proposed 250-seat theater would be home to locally inspired, professionally produced historical dramas; a home stage for local theater companies, allowing them to offer other productions throughout the year; and a center for other performing arts.
“The concept is that when people walk in here, they’ll be able to see all of the character-defining features of this space,” Hurst said.
“They will be able to see the painting, the stained glass, the carved wood of the organ case, the beautiful woodwork of the choir loft and the confessionals.”
“But then, at show time, some switches will be flipped, the lights will go on and off, and all of that will go away, and people will be in a very efficient theater space where good theater can be performed. “
Plans also call for incorporating the adjacent former parsonage of the church, making the facility a theater complex with an infill building alongside.
Hurst said the overall cost of the project is around $8 million, with the majority of funding coming from public grants or foundations.
“Phase 1 is specifically the development of space in theater, and it’s a $4 million project,” he said.
“We’re two-thirds through the design, and we still have a design phase that we hope to do this year, and that’s the build document.”
The second phase is to develop the infill and house side of the project.
“The filler building is where the lobby will be, and the concessions, ticket office, cost room, auxiliary cloakroom, green room and corporate offices will all be in the house,” said Hurst.
“This is a $3 million project.”
An additional cost of $1 million includes rebuilding the roof and restoring the theater’s stained glass windows, as well as work on the roof of the old presbytery.
Hurst said the project comes at a high price because it’s designed to professional standards.
“We have a group called Theater Consultants Collaborative, which is part of our design team, and they have hundreds of theater development credits and they really know this stuff and how to design an effective theater space that meets the standards. of theater companies today,” he said.
“We have an acoustic architect whose responsibilities will be to keep exterior noise outside and get rid of low-level ambient noise inside, so a lot of infrastructure will need to be designed to eliminate all of that.”
Hurst said no date was set for the project’s completion.
“My hope is and what I’m working towards is that the construction document phase of the design will be completed within a year,” he said.
“Once the construction documents are complete, this project will be ready to go and ready for tenders.”
In order for the community to learn more about the Columba Theater Project, Waking Columba Weekend will be held March 12-13 at the theater, 916 Broad St.
“It’s going to be a big weekend with two main elements,” Hurst said.
At 7:30 p.m. on March 12, the Waking Columba Celebration will take place and will feature the Band of Brothers Shakespeare Company.
The evening will begin with attendees outside the building entering to the sound of a lone bagpiper – while carrying tealights, bringing the light inside.
“It’s going to be magical,” said Laura Gordon, artistic director of Band of Brothers Shakespeare Company.
“We’re going to have an assortment of Irish entertainment. It’ll be solemn in the first half and then participatory in the second half, where we’ll get everyone dancing.”
A cash bar will be available.
Gordon said the plan is to make the Columba Theater Project the headquarters of the Band of Brothers Shakespeare Company.
“Eventually, we would like to do shows here,” she said.
“I look forward to educating actors and audiences, where we can do workshops, plays and activities with the kids. It’s a start and an opportunity that will go into the future.”
From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on March 13, the Ancient Order of Hibernians will co-host an Irish Brunch which will be served by Green Gables Restaurant and will include eggs, sausages, mushrooms, beans and potatoes, as well nothing but Irish coffee and mimosas.
Brunch will be served to the sound of live music from the Irish Pretenders.
Neil Brett, a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which is the largest and oldest Irish Catholic organization in America, said that in the future the group plans to present Irish arts in theatre.
“St. Columba was the Irish parish, and you can see a lot of things that bind the Irish community in Johnstown are still visible in that building, and that’s great,” he said.
“With the Hibernians, one of our main aims is to promote and preserve Irish culture, and this ranges from art and music to dance, literature and history.”
The events are supported in part by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.
Proceeds will go to the Columba Theater Project.
The cost is $35 for the Waking Columbia Celebration.
Tickets for the Irish Brunch are $22 and must be purchased by 5 p.m. Wednesday. A combined ticket for both events is available for $50.
To purchase tickets, call 814-254-4033 or visit www.columbaproject.org.