The Historic Brick Block's Dirty Little Secrets can be told, now that the Deed has changed hands.
Updated: Jun 28, 2020
(Readers please note: I wrote the following story for the Johnsonburg Community Trust. The Trust released it earlier today, as a blog on their website. Since this story is of interest to a number of Megan's Desk subscribers, I've re-printed it below.)
The Deed to the Brick Block is now in the hands of the Johnsonburg Community Trust.
Since January of this year, many assumed the Johnsonburg Community Trust held the Deed to the 1890 Brick Block, in the Elk County Borough of Johnsonburg, PA. We didn’t. That process was to take months yet. Regardless, winter was upon us and the building was vulnerable to further damage from humans, other animals, and mother nature.
For those who don’t know, the massive Brick Block landed on hard times, as the result of neglect, and was for sale as a repository property. Around the turn of the new year, the borough and county taxing bodies voted to trust the Johnsonburg Community Trust with this ailing historic treasure. While the paperwork worked its way along, the Trust, through an agreement with Elk County, quickly insured and then began to secure the vacant structure against further deterioration.
Also around this time, the borough’s council made the excellent choice to remove a shanty building, which was destroying everything it touched. This haphazard structure abutted with and was causing water damage to the foundations of both the Brick Block and its next-door neighbor, the 1892 Zierden Building, soon destined to provide a coveted, community coffee shop.
Shanty in Mid-2019 Volunteer Shanty-Clear-Out Shanty Gone by 1/06/2020
The swamp, between the buildings, began airing out nicely. The Trust, however, was stuck in a tough spot. Legally permitted only to insure and secure the 45,000-square-foot Brick Block, we found our progress prevented by infestation, mountains of abandoned belongings, and decades of debris.
We exterminated and re-assessed. We covered openings to the elements. We drained the pipes and water heaters we could access. The ownership of the tons of leftover contents remained in legal limbo, as a result of the building’s repository status. It lightened our load when, from time-to-time, previous tenants returned, with authorization, to claim more of their remaining belongings. Ultimately, though, the Trust stood shackled by the mounds of contents—preventing us from accessing certain areas in need of immediate remedy and preventing us from properly assessing the situation overall.
Compounding the contents problem, we discovered organic matter left in a structure that had been without utilities for months before all of the tenants finally moved out. The remaining food and excrement sat and rotted its way through the fall of 2019. Fortunately, we came across this situation in the dead of winter, when it was about as dormant as it was likely to get. So, wearing masks and gloves, before they became commonplace for other reasons in our times, we began, quietly, to clear and clean the place well enough to proceed.
Just one example—we could empty and clean appliances, so we did, but, legally, we couldn’t simply dispose of the appliances because without the deed, we didn’t own the contents of the building. Legally, it didn’t matter that no one seemed to want the contents.
We were as law-abiding and respectful as we could be, but, still, honestly—what a mess. And, yet, that terrible mess was also a touching, physical measure of the distress experienced by those who, so recently, had been existing inside. This was a place that, in the end, provided no gas, electric, water, or sewer service. It was unreal to walk into all these remains filling-up remarkable spaces crafted with tin ceilings and magnificent, five-bricks-thick internal firewalls.
Brick-Block Craftsmanship Details, such as Transom Windows, Revealed themselves.
The world was still grand but quiet, dark, dirty, and full of secrets inside the Brick Block, when the Trust first entered the structure early in the new year. Now that the Trust has the deed in hand, though, these dirty little secrets can be told and the remaining clear-out completed out in the open.
The Brick Block is the size of 12 buildings. At $500 per dumpster, Trust directors and other volunteers have filled, to date, 9 dumpsters, totaling 42 tons of removed debris. Between dumpsters, our work parties filled approximately 100, additional trash bags.
Crew members squirreled these away, bag-by-bag—tucking them into truck beds to parcel out with their home trash collections; placing them at the curb of the Brick Block for small, weekly trash removal; and, with permission, dropping them into the dumpsters of others aiming to aid the effort.
The next phase of our Brick Block Rehabilitation Plan includes more of everything we’ve been doing--clearing, damage mitigation, cleaning, sprucing-up the exterior, planning, and fundraising. The final 3 phases of the 5-7 year plan involve rehabilitating the retail and residential units, including the 12 bay windows on the second floor.
Standing on the inside, of a now-cleared retail unit, looking out….
The Trust’s rehabilitation efforts benefit not only the Borough of Johnsonburg and Elk County but also the PAWilds and Lumber-Heritage Regions as well as state and federal goals to preserve “At-Risk” historic structures.
More stories, of our progress, are to come. In the meantime, the links below will take you to today's detailed Press Release from the Trust and show you the ways people are Pitching-In.
With gratitude from the Trust for your interest,