By TOM LAVIS
The run-down Liberty Theatre in Nanty Glo Borough is a diamond in the rough. But it's about to get a polishing that will make it one of the crown jewels of Cambria County history.
The theater, built in 1920, is in the midst of a $1.2 million renovation project that will transform the two-story structure into the Liberty Museum.
Once complete, the museum will be the centerpiece for the Nant-Y-Glo Tri-Area Museum and Historical Society, a group intent on preserving the historic structure to house thousands of artifacts that made the Blacklick Valley region great.
"We bought the building in 2006, and it's the last of five theaters in Nanty Glo," said Jim Toth of Loretto, society treasurer and project manager. "The region's economy was built on the sweat and blood of people working in the coal, lumber and farming industries, and we need to preserve that heritage and this historical landmark."
Once historical structures are lost, there is no recovering the past, he said.
"Our mission is to preserve and transform the former Liberty Theatre building into a museum to showcase how people in Nanty Glo, Vintondale Borough and Blacklick and Jackson townships lived and worked," Toth said.
The structure at 1051 Shoemaker St. originally was called the Grand Theatre. It was last used as a community center.
Volunteers have been busy cleaning out the building and recycling everything from old appliances and light fixtures to paneling in order to begin the ground work of refurbishing the theater.
The Liberty Museum will house the history of the Blacklick Valley in one location, with each township and borough having an equal right to offer input.
A designated space in the main gallery will tell a different story pertaining to each municipality.
"We need to teach our youth about the heydays of this region," Toth said.
Committee member Rich McDowell of Jackson Township said that thousands of artifacts have been collected.
Since forming in 2000, the society has accumulated an overwhelming number of historically significant items to add to its permanent collection, such as original coal-mining tools and paraphernalia, thousands of photographs and an antique piano.
Although the collecting of artifacts will continue, McDowell said the time has come for the society to properly catalog, store and display its holdings, which now are stored in various locations.
"We have them at society members' houses, the Nanty Glo Public Library and an old building in Jackson Township," McDowell said.
None of these locations offers a properly controlled environment, which is necessary in preserving such treasures. Creation of a museum will solve that problem.
The society's plans include partitioning the former theater's large main area into two floors.
The ground floor will have an exhibition area, a multimedia room, a small meeting room, kitchenette and a gift shop.
The second floor will not be open to the public. The space will be used to catalog, archive and do preservation work.
"We want to highlight historical photographs, artifacts and private collections," McDowell said.
Toth agreed, saying that many residents in the area have private collections but no place to exhibit them.
"We want to give them a secure place where they can share their items with the public,"' Toth said.
Part of that collection is the prized photographs taken in 1943 by Life magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, who visited Nanty Glo for several days to capture images of the townspeople.
The photos, which are valued at about $40,000, were featured in an Indiana University of Pennsylvania exhibition in 2005 titled "Life in the Valley: Streams of Coal."
The photos focus on labor and industry, family life, schools and social activities, to name a few.
"John Dropcho of Indiana is an IUP professor who curated the exhibition, and he also is a committee member," Toth said.
The museum also hopes to offer various media presentations such as video, newspapers, books and oral testimonies to educate visitors and instill a sense of pride in the area's history.
"We are installing movable panels that will allow us to change exhibition areas as often as we change displays," McDowell said. "Along with industrial heritage, we will focus on local sports heroes, community bands and other aspects of the region."'
During Phase I of the project, the theater's facade will be transformed to its original appearance.
"The museum will look as if it has its four original doors across the front, but in reality, a few will be display windows," Toth said.
The building also houses the Miners Community Food Pantry, which serves hundreds of families in the area. The pantry will remain and continue to operate the enterprise rent free.
Toth said the response from residents of each municipality has been outstanding.
While the cost of the project exceeds $1 million, Toth is relying on the society's status as a not-for-profit organization to attract volunteer labor and donated materials.
"Once our business plan is complete, we will start applying for grant money," Toth said. "People already have come forward to offer help and we have issued them a receipt for their tax-deductible contribution."
To volunteer or donate money or materials, people are asked to call Toth at 472-6381 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.