Preserving Pennsylania: A Journey Through the Last 20 Years, Part 13

Preservation Pennsylvania has released their “Pennsylvania At-Risk: Twenty-Year Retrospective of Pennsylvania’s Endangered Historic Properties, Where Are They Now” edition. It’s a fascinating look at preservation in action and we’ll be posting a look at each property in a series of posts over the next several months.

Preservation Pennsylvania established the annual Pennsylvania At Risk list in 1992, making us the first statewide preservation organization in the United States to have an annual roster of endangered historic properties. Since 1992, we have listed and worked to preserve more than 200 endangered historic resources, including individual buildings, historic districts and thematic resources statewide. For 2012, as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of our organization, we are presenting a 20-year retrospective edition of Pennsylvania At Risk. In this issue, we revisit some of the amazing historic places across the Commonwealth, some of which have been rescued from extinction through preservation and rehabilitation efforts, and others that still need our help.

Approximately 18% of Pennsylvania’s At Risk properties have been lost, having been demolished or substantially altered. Another 32% have been saved or are in a condition or situation where the identified threat no longer poses a problem for the historic property. Approximately 50% of the 201 At Risk resources remain in danger, or we have not been able to confirm their current status as either saved or lost.

By monitoring these properties over the past 20 years and working with individuals and organizations trying to preserve them, we have learned many valuable lessons. Those lessons are called out throughout this publication.

• SAVED! •

2006 — Gruber Wagon Works, Berks County

 Berks County

Located in Bern Township, Berks County, the National Historic Landmark Gruber Wagon Works is the most complete surviving example of a rare late 19th/early 20th century wagon manufacturing facility of its kind in the nation. The building and its contents represent rural wagon manufacturing, which was essential to the transportation needs of the Commonwealth’s agrarian and early industrial economy. The facility reached peak production in the 1920s, when 20 men worked six days each week to produce 100 vehicles each year. Manufacturing ended at the Gruber Wagon Works in the 1950s, but the facility continued to be used as a maintenance shop into the 1970s.

Gruber Wagon Works clearly illustrates that nothing is ever truly saved, and that ongoing maintenance is critical to sustaining historic properties. The historic property had to be moved in 1976 to protect it from the Army Corps of Engineers’ Blue Marsh Lake Project, which flooded 22,000 acres, including the original site of the wagon works. They dismantled and moved the building to safety and restored it, giving it to Berks County with the requirement that they maintain it in perpetuity as a public museum. The moved building was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1977, and the restoration received an award from Preservation Pennsylvania in 1981. Gruber Wagon Works was opened as a museum in 1982.  After operating as a museum located in a public park for more than 20 years, in 2004, the National Park Service considered the property to be an endangered landmark.

In 2006, it was placed on Preservation Pennsylvania’s Pennsylvania At Risk list after an inspection found that, in addition to needing paint and window repairs, the historic property was in severe structural distress, likely with major concealed decay. The frame of the wood building was wracking. There was significant damage from animals and from water infiltration caused by improper roof drainage. In 2007, the Berks County Parks & Recreation Department received a planning grant from the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (PHMC) to help fund a condition assessment, which identified existing problems and probable causes, provided prioritized treatment recommendations with cost estimates, and a cyclical maintenance plan. A follow-up construction grants from PHMC in 2008 kick-started the construction, which was made possible by additional support from several other sources, both public and private.

Taking place in 2010-2011, the project focused on improving roof and site drainage, repairing and replacing structural elements, siding, windows and doors, as necessary, and improving handicap accessibility. At the completion of this project in September 2011, Gruber Wagon Works was again a shining example of a significant historic site that is available to the public as a museum. It received another preservation award 30 years after its first. With a cyclical maintenance plan in place now, Gruber Wagon Works is likely to be sustained for many years to come.