Much of the residential and commercial stock on Elmwood Avenue has been altered to extend storefront space or to provide display windows. Traces of the Stick style and Queen Anne origins of the structures can still be glimpsed above the boxy additions. All is not lost, however. A walk down the commercial Elmwood Avenue is a temptation to buy a bit of Sandwich glass, a gothic chair, or a piece of Indiana Jaquard. On Elmwood Avenue, antique and curio shops rule.
Take time to stop at No. 111 Elmwood, the home of the Allentown Community Center for the last 16 years. Constructed in 1910, the graceful English Gothic structure was built to house the Assembly Hall of the Open Brethren Church. By the time the Empire State Ballet Company moved into the structure, it was badly deteriorated and, when the Allentown Association took the building over in 1971, there was a serious question as to whether it could be saved at all. Today, every original feature remains or has been restored, from the crenellated parapet, to the steeply arched windows, to the buttressed double doors. On any day, the lawns are alive with the sounds of children, dance classes awaken dreams, lectures and films nourish the spirit, and programs for the elderly re-affirm that all of life can be productive.
Start at Allen Street, walk down Elmwood Avenue to Virginia Street, and it’s like walking into another world. A few years ago, a demonstration project of the Allentown Association undertook the exterior restoration of this block of modest vernacular Italianate houses and cottages, which abound in Eastlake-style details and jigsaw-gingerbread.
A shabby rooming house at No. 65 Elmwood became a shop for fine antiques, and one of the most charming painted ladies in town. The barber at No. 57 Elmwood should wear a red garter on his arm and affect a waxed mustache to match the turn-of-the-century look of his shop, a residence to which the store front was added about that time. At No. 45 Elmwood is the house restored by the Allentown Association as its headquarters, and which now houses the Junior League. Most of the restored homes are private residences, though, like the neat workman’s cottage at No. 46 Elmwood, which is an Italianatestyle structure on a doll’s house scale, covered by a simple gabled roof and elliptical head windows with scalloped trim. A pediment over the porch covers the simple entryway. Playful colors and a child-like aura of innocent fantasy inhabit this block of Elmwood.
Walk further south, past the small triangular park at Virginia Street until you come to St. Mary’s Square at the corner of Edward and Elmwood, a salvage project of a wholly different order.
One-hundred fifty-four years ago, the pioneering St. Mary’s School for the Deaf moved into the massive Federal-style building. It was a time when the deaf and the blind were most often consigned to lunatic asylums and the notion that the deaf could be trained to communicate and function as an integral part of society was a revolution.
When the school moved to larger quarters, the Elmwood Avenue structure became housing and remained fairly stable until the post-war disinvestment cycle. By 1982 the building was nearly abandoned, the constant target of vandalism and criminal activity, and a prime target for demoliton.
The Allentown Association spearheaded an effort which joined private resources to public funds for a complete restoration of the exterior and an interior renovation which created condominium-ownership opportunities for low and moderate income families. The building, with its graceful porches and its solidity of mass, now stands as a welcoming sentinel at the southern end of the Allentown Historic District.
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