Tyrone's oldest building

Built in 1855 by the United Brethren congregation, the building on the corner of Washington Avenue and 12th Street is the oldest known building in Tyrone. It was used as a church and then as a "hospital" during the Civil War. Later, it became a theatrical-artist studio, storage facility, woodworking shop, and flea market. It is presently empty. The old, two-story frame structure holds a distinction not evident from its plain, unassuming appearance. The structure is purported to be one of a very few Civil War hospital buildings still in existence. It was not a house or a barn that happened to be in close proximity to the site of a battle and was temporarily pressed into service as a facility to treat the wounded soldiers. Instead, it reportedly was a full-time hospital dedicated to the sole purpose of treating wounded Union soldiers coming from the front.

The structure was built in 1855 by the United Brethren Church. It was dedicated in 1856, and worship services were held on the second floor in the congregation room. The first level was unfinished, having only a dirt floor.

A substantial crawl space was dug out under the building for no apparent purpose. The Brethren Church was active in the Abolition Movement, and many Brethren churches and homes served as stops on the Underground Railroad, assisting runaway slaves heading to freedom in the North or Canada. The unexplained space under the church certainly fires the imagination and suggests usage as a stop on the Underground Railroad, but the theory is substantiated by nothing more than local lore. No written documentation has ever been found.

Financial difficulties within the congregation made it impossible to complete both floors and even made it necessary for the church to sell half its interest in the building to the local Baptist congregation for $600. This served only as a temporary solution since the Brethren congregation could not keep up the payments on their half of the debt, and their share was sold to creditors in 1858. Over the next five years, Pastor J. Walker organized a fund drive within the congregation, and they repurchased their share in the building in 1863.

But the Brethrens seemed fated not to worship in the building. Early in 1864, the U.S. government took possession of the structure and converted it into a barracks for cavalry troops. Because it was situated directly beside a section of the Pennsylvania Railroad, it could provide a welcome stop for troops traveling along that line. The unfinished first floor was used to stable the horses, while the soldiers occupied the finished meeting room upstairs.

The spring of 1864 marked the beginning of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign in Virginia. From May of that year until April of 1865, the Union and the Confederate armies were locked in almost constant contact as Grant sought to wear down Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

Casualties were staggering — especially for the Union. In the battles of the Wilderness, Spottsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor, Grant's army sustained casualties of over 60,000 men — more men, in fact, than Lee had in his entire army when the campaign began.

The high casualty rates in the Union army directly affected the old Brethren church in Tyrone. Grant needed every available man at the front to replace his losses, so there was no further need for a barracks there. But the building was not yet through providing a home for soldiers. When the healthy troops departed for action at the front, their places immediately were taken by those wounded in battle.

The extreme casualties of the summer offensive had taxed the resources of the Medical Corps to the breaking point. Hospitals were so overcrowded that wounded soldiers were forced to lie outside on the grounds of hospitals because there was no room inside.
The old church became one of many solutions to help with the overflow of the main hospitals. Many wounded troops in field hospitals healed sufficiently to be moved from those sites, but had not yet recovered to the point that they could return home. Those requiring additional medical attention could receive it at a site such as Tyrone while, at the same time, vacating bed space at the field hospitals for the incoming wounded who were arriving daily.

For nearly a year, the old church stopped being a place of comfort for the soul and became a place of comfort for the torn and mangled bodies of wounded Union soldiers. Records from this period are almost non-existent, but it appears that the soldiers who were sent to Tyrone for their convalescence were men originally from the surrounding area. This would make it easier for family and friends to visit and help care for them.

When building owner, Joe Anderson, was renovating the property and removing wall boards installed in the meeting room, he came across inscriptions written on the walls. Several of the patients had scrawled their names and units as a sort of testimonial to the time they spent there.
The surrender of Robert E. Lee's army on April 9, 1965 signaled an end to the fighting in the East. No further casualties would come in from the front, and the Tyrone Soldiers' Hospital no longer would be needed. Without ceremony or fanfare, the military vacated the premises and returned ownership to the Brethren Church.

Military usage was hard on the building, however, with approximately $600 in damage done by the troops. (The estimate takes on a new perspective, considering the entire property was appraised at $1200 in 1863.) The congregation unsuccessfully appealed to the federal government for financial compensation to repair the damage. Eventually, they raised the money through private solicitations, completed the renovations, and re-occupied the building in 1866. The congregation worshipped there for the next twenty-one years — until they moved to a new building in 1887 — while still retaining ownership of the old church.

In 1891, the structure was sold to the F. W. Wise Co., Scenic Artists, Decorators and Theatrical Architects. The Wise Co. specialized in interior artwork and frescoes for both public and private buildings. Theaters and churches served as the company's largest supporters, and examples of its work still can be seen in several Blair County churches. The company selected the site due to the high ceilings in the meeting room, which were perfectly suited to suspend large panels for painting.

For the next two decades, the building was occupied by a troop of artists, and the structure that had — at various times — brought comfort to the soul and body now housed the creation of art that brought similar comfort to the spirit. An example of the kind of work done during that period is still visible on a mural on the first floor.

When the Wise Co. fell on hard times in the early 1900s, so did the old church. It was eventually sold but never again attained any measure of importance in Tyrone. It was used primarily as a warehouse.

Today [in 2002], the building is for sale. Because it is situated on commercially zoned property adjacent to the downtown area, its future is less than promising. The value of the property, for most potential purchasers, is in the land itself. The drafty, old frame building likely will be torn down by a developer.
Efforts are underway to preserve the structure. It is hoped that some group or some individual steps in before a rare link to our own American history is lost forever.
— Condensed from an article by Robert P. Broadwater in the August 2002 issue of State College Magazine. Reproduced here with the author's permission.