Before the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) stretched between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, a system of railroads, canals and inclined planes across the Alleghenies, known as the Main Line of Public Works, linked the eastern and western sections of the state. The system was time consuming and inefficient, if not entirely useless during the winter freeze and spring floods. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania was rapidly being usurped by New York state and its Erie Canal as America’s pathway to the West.
The State Canal Commission looked to compete with a cross-state train route for which their engineer, Charles L. Schlatter, identified three possible routes. Understandably, when the founders of the PRR approached the State legislature in 1846 to build the railroad, the latter passed an act incorporating the Pennsylvania Railroad Company and granted its charter. John Edgar Thomson, Chief Engineer of the new company, then selected Schlatter’s central or Juniata-Conemaugh River route. Because Thomson’s scheme maximized use of the low grades over the majority of the route west with a short, but steep climb over the mountains, he needed additional engine power to be available at a convenient location. The point at which the water grade ended and the mountain passage began was Robinson’s Ridge, the present site of Altoona, located 117 miles east of Pittsburgh and 235 miles west of Philadelphia. Here, beginning in 1849, the PRR built a facility for housing and repairing the additional motive power ― it also spurred the development of a city.
West of town the challenge of carrying the Pennsylvania Railroad Mainline over the rugged Allegheny Mountains was met with the design and construction of “The Horseshoe Curve” in 1854. The huge lop connects one side of the valley with the other and was carved from the rugged mountainside entirely by men using picks, shovels and horses. To this day, the curve is considered to be an engineering marvel. Spending so much time digging out the curve it was natural that Altoona would become the major supplying town to the railroad industry, and for several years Altoona was the greatest railroad town in America.
Altoona was incorporated as a borough on February 6, 1854, and as a city under legislation approved on April 3, 1867, and February 8, 1868. The town grew rapidly in the late 19th century, its population approximately 2,000 in 1854, 10,000 in 1870, and 20,000 in 1880. In the early 20th century, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Altoona Works complex alone employed, at its peak, approximately 15,000 people and covered three miles in length, 218 acres of yards and 37 acres of indoor workshop floor space in 122 buildings.
Live by the railroad, die by the railroad; Altoona declined in tandem with the abandonment of rail passenger service in America after World War II. Our walking tour will concentrate on the downtown area and visit financial sites, cultural sites, residential sites, sacred sites and, of course, the remnants of the largest railroad shops America has ever seen...
1208 12th Avenue
Born in Lancaster in 1862, Isaac Charles Mishler was the son of a carriage builder-turned-businessman whose family, Swiss-German in origin, arrived in Pennsylvania more than a century before. Had young Isaac accomplished nothing else in what grew into a relatively long life, this alone would have warranted a footnote in the annals of commerce: As a teenager, Mishler became the first employee of the first Woolworth’s when Frank Woolworth, who wasn’t all that much older, hired him to work in his first 5-and-10-cent store, in downtown Lancaster. In time, that store grew into the nationwide chain that made Woolworth a retailing legend. Mishler didn’t stay long, though, for he heard the whistle of opportunity blowing from the west - in Altoona. Mishler quickly found work in one of the railroad’s repair shops, but within a few years, barely in his twenties, he was operating a successful downtown cigar store. He next invested in local semi-professional and minor league baseball before becoming a partner in Altoona’s Eleventh Avenue Opera House in 1893. A year later he took over two theaters in nearby Johnstown. Within a decade, his domain had spread to include theaters in Allentown, Trenton, and Paterson. By creating a thriving, if small, vaudeville circuit, Mishler had become one of Altoona’s most successful businessmen. In 1905, Mishler put together plans for a state-of-the-art theater on Twelfth Avenue, around the corner from his opera house, to present what he called “high-class standard productions in perfect manner to audiences safely housed in comfort and pleasing surroundings.” And, indeed, when the Mishler Theatre opened on Feb. 15, 1906, it was a Beaux Arts masterpiece - costing nearly $120,000 that Mishler personally financed - which soon lured not just the day’s top vaudeville performers, but the kinds of tonier music and theatrical productions that rarely traveled to smaller cities. Its external façade was made of red brick and Indiana limestone balustrade, twelve doors, and four circular windows flanked by statues of two Muses: Terpsichore and Melponome. The lavish interior, built of marble and ornamental plaster, boasted gilt ceilings and chandeliers, and a massive stage, eighty-four feet wide and forty-two feet deep. Seating 1,900 patrons on three levels, the Mishler also offered an early version of air conditioning to keep patrons cool in the summer, and modern safety features that included twenty exits, sprinklers, and a fire-proof curtain. Despite these precautions, it burned down just nine months later, when high winds swept a fire from an adjacent building into the belly of the theater. Mishler was devastated - but rebuilt and for the next two decades, his theater, that could hold its head with any cousin from the flashier environs of Broadway, attracted top talent from vaudeville, the legitimate stage, opera, the concert hall, and the lecture circuit. He was also an early champion of the movies; shows as varied as Lyman Howe’s travelogues and D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation played the Mishler, and for Griffith’s Way Down East, Mishler, always insisting on the best, brought in a twenty-piece orchestra. And, true to his civic-minded ideals, Mishler regularly opened his theater to local theatricals, charity fund-raisers, and political meetings, as well. Mishler’s legacy lives on in the theater that still carries his name. Through several incarnations - and one close call with the wrecking ball in the 1960s - it continues to thrive, under the auspices of the Blair Country Arts Federation and local cultural organizations. In 1973, the Mishler Theatre was entered onto the National Register of Historic Places.
WALK WEST TOWARDS 13TH STREET.
First Methodist Episcopal Church
1208 13th Street, at northeast corner of 12th Avenue
Built of rough-faced Hummelstown brownstone with smooth-faced brownstone accents, the First Methodist Episcopal Church and its adjoining rectory were designed by M. R. Brown of New York City in 1905. The well-preserved building boasts more than seventy memorial windows and one of the largest congregations in the city that was first organized in 1851, with a membership of thirty-seven. Its first church, also on this site, was a two-story, Gothic Revival-style building constructed of red brick, the building material of choice for five other downtown churches. The massive stone church holds its corner stoutly, albeit without its 115-foot high steel steeple that was removed in 1940, due to leaks it developed when it was struck by lightning in 1936.
TURN LEFT ON 13TH STREET AND WALK DOWN THE HILL TO 11TH AVENUE. TURN RIGHT.
1306-10 11th Avenue
Built in 1937, this Art Moderne style department store was constructed on a steel frame faced with concrete. The upper floors are divided into three bays separated by streamlined pilasters.
TURN AND WALK EAST ON 11TH AVENUE.
Central Trust Company Building
1210-12 11th Avenue
The Pittsburgh architectural firm of Robinson & Winkler blended elements of Richardsonian Romanesque and Beaux arts styles to create this white, glazed brick building with brownstone trim in 1906. It was constructed by P.W. Finn, one of Altoona’s busiest contractors. The Central Trust Company traced its origins to the altoona Bank, a private bank established in 1872. In 1875 the firm constructed a three-story brick bank on this site. In 1901 the Central Trust Company organized and operated as the clearing house for Altoona’s seven banking institutions.
1214-1218 11th Avenue
Jacob Brett was born in Lithuania in 1876 and came to America at an early age. He arrived in Altoona in 1891 and could be seen peddling wares around the countryside. By 1898 he had accumulated enough capital to establish his own general merchandise store in Vintondale. In 1908 Brett made the move to Altoona and engaged in a wholesale clothing partnership. The firm dissolved in 1914 and Brett started his own store, specializing in women’s ready-to-wear clothing. In 1922 Brett purchased the former residence of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s general superintendent here for $155,000. He demolished the house and built his store, the only example of pure Sullivanesque architecture in Altoona; that is, creating a high-rise in the form of a classical column with defined base, shaft and capital. Julian Millard, who began his practice in Hollidaysburg, just south of Altoona, in 1907, designed the Brett Building and it was one of his final commissions before being named supervising architect for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Jacob Brett remained in daily control of his business until 1962 and died in 1964 at the age of 87.
First National Bank of Altoona
1206 11th Avenue
The second headquarters of a bank established in 1863, the First National Bank of Altoona was described as a “magnificent temple of finance” when it opened in 1926. Architect John A. Dempwolf s monumental, temple-front design well suited Altoona’s prosperous commercial streetscape of the 1920s, and was frankly intended to evoke the wealth and stability of the Roman imperial era that inspired its form. The bank’s Neoclassical exterior is complemented by a virtually unaltered interior featuring two murals depicting a century of progress in the transportation industry.
1200-1204 11th Avenue, at northwest corner of 12th Street
The Silverman Building is the most elaborate office building on 11th Avenue. Dating to 1924-25, the steel-framed structure is faced with white glazed terra cotta in a Neoclassical design. The building, constructed for local real estate entrepreneurs Jacob and Isaac Silverman, was erected on a site that had been owned and occupied by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company since 1851. Later known as the Black and Yon Building, this is historically Altoona’s most prestigious business address.
U.S. Post Office
1201 11th Avenue
The monumental, Neoclassical U.S. Post Office, constructed on the site of the Logan House Hotel in 1931, exhibits the flat ornamentation and hard-edged, geometric lines of the Art Deco style. The oldest and most distinguished hotel in town, the four-story brick Logan House was heralded as a luxury hotel when it was constructed by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1855. By the late 1910s, however, the hotel was considered less than first class because it lacked the conveniences of modern plumbing; it was finally demolished in 1931 to make way for the new U.S. post office.
TURN RIGHT ON 12TH STREET AND WALK DOWN TO THE RAILROAD YARD.
Railroaders Memorial Museum
1300 Ninth Avenue
For more than a century Altoona was one of the most important rail facilities in the United States. The city was home to the Altoona Pennsylvania Railroad’s repair and maintenance shops, its locomotive construction facility, and its test department. Altoona’s location at the foot of the Allegheny front and its proximity to the Horseshoe Curve route over the mountains made the city a key location in the Altoona Pennsylvania Railroad’s operations. The Altoona Pennsylvania Railroad’s contribution to the nation’s transportation infrastructure, and to production standardization, marks it as one of the most important contributors to America’s industrial revolution. By the 1920s, the Altoona railroad works employed 15,000 workers, and by 1945 the Pennsylvania Railroad’s facilities at Altoona had become the world’s largest rail shop complex. The Railroaders Memorial Museum is dedicated to revealing, interpreting, commemorating and celebrating the significant contributions of Railroaders and their families to American life and industry.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO DOWNTOWN AND WALK UP 12TH STREET. TURN RIGHT ON 12TH AVENUE.
Altoona Trust Company
1128-1130 12th Avenue, at northeast corner of 12th Street
The city’s fifth bank, Altoona Trust Company was founded in April 1901 by a group of prominent businessmen from Hollidaysburg, Altoona, and Pittsburgh. After leasing temporary offices in the Blumenthal Building at 1128 11th Avenue, this building, designed by Mowbray and Uffinger of New York, opened on New Year’s Day, 1903. January 1, 1903. It was the firstClassical Revival-style building in downtown Altoona. The U-shaped, five-story building introduced new materials - gray brick, limestone and terra cotta - to the predominantly red-brick cityscape and was the first downtown office building to boast an electric elevator. The offices were regarded as some of the most prestigious in the city; several major coal mining companies, that established headquarters here. The Altoona Trust Company was one of three local financial institutions to survive the Depression.
Texas Hot Dogs
1122 12th Avenue
When Peter George opened Texas Hot Wieners in 1918 buttermilk sold for a nickel a glass and a hot dog with everything -- chili, brown mustard and onions -- sold for just 10 cents. The location has changed a few times but the family business is in its third generation. Almost as famous as the tube steaks is the birch beer dispensed from an old barrel dating to the 1930s that maintains a perfect 38-degree temperature. Barack Obama stopped in for a Texas Hot Dog while campaigning for president in 2008.
Lincoln Deposit and Trust Company
1108-1110 12th Avenue
Built in 1917, this Neoclassical vault is fronted by four granite Ionic columns and topped by a cornice and tall parapet. The ornament in the door surround and cornice includes egg-and-dart, acanthus leaves and guilloche. It was later the home of the Royal Order of Moose, which installed four bowling alleys in the basement, and then the Frohsinn Singing Society.
George Rudisill House
1115 12th Avenue
Altoona architects Louis Beezer and Michael J. Beezer were prolific apostles for the Queen Anne style around town until they moved to Pittsburgh in 1899. Examples of their work include the Frederick and Lisette Ball House at 707 Lexington Avenue and the George Rudisill House here. The house features contrasting limestone quoining and splayed lintels. A Flemish gable with paired Gothic windows is separated by a terra cotta inset with its 1895 date plaque.
TURN LEFT ON 11THAVENUE AND TURN RIGHT ON LEXINGTON AVENUE.
Lexington Avenue, from 11th Street to 8th Street
By the second decade of the twentieth century Lexington Avenue was counted among the finest residential neighborhoods in Altoona. While architect-designed Italianate and Second Empire mansions were interspersed all along the avenue, most of the houses were more modest frame and brick-veneered dwellings, the homes of artisans, mechanics, and clerks. The houses, mostly from the 1870s and 1880s, are in various states of repair.
TURN LEFT ON 8TH STREET. TURN LEFT ON HOWARD AVENUE.
Howard Avenue Armory
1000 Howard Avenue
The brick veneered Howard Avenue Armory was completed in two stages; the first in 1922, the second in 1931. It features battlements, a canted corner entrance with cast stone caps and a keystone. The building was faced with a wrecking ball in 1983 before it was saved for a second life as an athletic club.
TURN LEFT ON 11TH STREET. TURN RIGHT ON 14TH AVENUE.
1108-1110 14th Avenue
This 2 1/2-story, four-bay brick double residence dates to around 1860. The Victorian first floor porch is constructed with chamfered posts and jig-sawn brackets.
1109 14th Avenue
From 1870 this brick Gothic Revival house is dominated by a central cross gable. The Queen Anne porch has chamfered posts, turned balustrade, incised brackets and pendants.
Altoona Bible Institute
1111 14th Avenue
The Altoona Bible Institute began its teaching ministry in 1934. There is no tuition charged and no entrance requirements. After World War II the organization purchased this 1885 Queen Anne-style brick house. Constructed on a rusticated stone base the house is dominated by a corner turret with a slate-shingled roof. It is fronted by a porch with paired, fluted Ionic columns.
TURN LEFT ON 12TH STREET.
First United Presbyterian Church
southeast corner of 14th Avenue and 12th Street
This Romanesque Revival-style church constructed of rock-faced sandstone ashlar quarried in southern Cambria County was built in 1898 on designs by Pittsburgh architect William J. East. It follows a Greek cross plan with transepts of equal length with a three-story lantern tower over the crossing.
TURN RIGHT ON 13TH AVENUE.
Altoona City Hall
1200 13th Avenue
The first building on this site was erected for the Vigilant Steam Fire Engine Company in 1870, two years after Altoona was chartered as a city. Funds for construction were raised through private subscriptions and contributions from members of the company. The engine house’s 75-foot corner tower, which served as a hose lookout, was a landmark on the late nineteenth-century skyline. When the building was razed in 1925 to make way for this Beaux Arts city hall, the o!d clock and the bell, which for years sounded the general fire alarm, were donated to the Blair County Historical Society, where they remain today. Construction of the new city hall commenced with a ground-breaking ceremony on June 22, 1925, and the building was occupied on November 11, 1927. Altoona architects Frederic Shollar and Frank Hersh designed the building with a Rockport gray granite foundation, a rusticated Indiana limestone first floor and Flemish bond buff brick on the second and third floors. However, to cut expenses, they decided to continue incorporating the various municipal functions under one roof, in contrast with the nationwide trend toward more specialized structures for each branch of local government. To this day, the police department, jail, courts, city treasurer, and mayor share the building.
Tom and Joe’s
1201 13th Avenue
Tom & Joe’s was founded by Tom Batrus and brother Joe in December 1933. Joe sold out in the late 1940s and Tom continued to run the business under the name Tom & Joes. With more than 75 years in Altoona, the diner is now in the third generation of the family. The one-story brick veneer diner sports brick lintels, limestone sill and metal awnings.
Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament
1301 13th Avenue
Few towns can boast of as impressive a landmark as the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament at the peak of Gospel Hill. St. John’s Roman Catholic Church was established on this site in 1854 with the founding parish including many families who were employed in the construction of the Allegheny Portage Railroad and the Staple Bend tunnel. The first church was a small frame building, which was replaced in 1871 by a Gothic Revival-style, two-story, brick structure with twin spires rising 200 feet. Several private residences, as well as the landmark St. John’s Convent building, had to be demolished to make way for the construction effort, which commenced September 17, 1924. The original plans calling for a $1 million structure were halted in 1931 due to the hardships of the Depression. Still, the unfinished building was dedicated on September 7, 1931, before a crowd of 5,000. Construction resumed again in 1959. As a result, the cathedral’s exterior represents a stark, academic, interpretation of Italy’s early Renaissance cathedrals, while its interior, embellished with a modern blend of aluminum, glass and marble, is clearly a product of 1959-60.
TURN LEFT ON 13TH STREET. TURN LEFT ON 12TH AVENUE AND WALK ONE BLOCK TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.