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Punxsutawney group forecasts Weather Center will draw visitors

| Sunday, Jan. 28, 2001

For 25 years, John Hallman worked as a mail superintendent at the Punxsutawney post office. Now he and a group of supporters own the building.

Hallman, who is mayor of the Jefferson County community that calls itself 'The Weather Capital of the World,' purchased the 1914 building with a bid of $40,000 after a new post office was built.

Punxsutawney will again be in the news on Feb. 2, Groundhog Day, as the world-famous woodchuck gives his yearly weather prediction of whether winter will last another six weeks. Thousands of shivering onlookers are expected to gather for the mid-winter celebration on Gobbler's Knob.

To strengthen Punxsutawney's title as 'Weather Capital,' plans are being made to turn the post office into the Weather Center. The building, constructed in 1914 for $58,800, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

One of the organizers, the Rev. Tim Spence of Marchand, said it will be a unique facility emphasizing educational displays on predicting weather.

Plans depend on future funding, however. The group hopes to have funding procured and displays in place in time for the center to open next year on what is hoped will be a memorable date for the community, 02-02-02.

TOURS OFFERED
Tours of the post office will be offered during a three-day open house, 2-8 p.m. Feb. 1, 7 a.m.- 4 p.m. Feb. 2, and 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. Feb. 3.

A crew of inmates from the Jefferson County Jail have been scraping off old paint and doing other chores, preparing for the tours. 'They've been here for a week, doing a beautiful job, and it's free,' Hallman said. Some Boy Scouts have also helped to clean the building.

Mock 'stock certificates,' souvenirs that give the public the chance to 'own' a share in the center, will be sold during the event.

Hallman said he was inspired to buy the post office, where his father worked before him, because he couldn't stand the thought of it being torn down. 'It's such a lovely building. I didn't want to see it bulldozed and replaced by a parking lot,' Hallman said.

Congressman John Peterson of the 66th District encouraged him.

Hallman said at least two higher bids fell through before his was accepted.

PROGNOSTICATION CENTER
The idea for a weather museum has been around for more than 15 years, according to Marlene Lellock, executive director of the Punxsutawney Chamber of Commerce. Spurred on by their mayor's vision, the group has been meeting monthly since July and is now formally incorporated.

The mission of the center is to educate individuals and groups about the science of weather prediction in a relaxing setting while it enhances Punxsutawney's playful claim as the world's prognostication headquarters.

Hallman said Weather Center organizers take the subject seriously, however, and have been in touch with Pittsburgh's Carnegie Science Center and Accuweather, a weather forecasting service headquartered in State College.

At the same time Hallman was pursuing the building, Lellock said another group of people were envisioning ways to increase tourism through the local tourist organization, Northwest Pennsylvania Great Outdoors.

'They were looking for a year-round attraction. It all seems to have come together at one time,' Lellock said, adding until now the majority of visitors to town have come on Groundhog Day and for a few other woodchuck-related events sprinkled throughout the year.

WEATHER CRACKLING DISPLAYS
Hallman said when Indiana architect Tom Harley first viewed the structure he was 'like a kid on Christmas morning. He couldn't believe this building.'

Harley said he sees great potential for the center.

'It's quite amazing, how much of the building is still there,' said Harley, who was the architect for the James M. Stewart Museum and for renovations at the Indiana County Historical and Genealogical Society's Clark House.

'All that room, height, natural light, the elegant foyer, it's phenomenal for weather-crackling displays and multimedia,' Harley said. 'It's a pretty neat concept.'

Harley hopes the building's architectural features like gingerbread trim, now hidden by a dropped ceiling in the foyer, can again be exposed for public enjoyment.

One feature that will be sure to attract the younger set is a winding, dark, narrow secret catwalk above what were mail rooms, where for years supervisors spied upon employees to see if they properly handled the mail.

Hallman pointed to a slender wooden door in the postmaster's private bathroom that provided one entrance to the catwalk.

Another vintage attraction is a massive wooden writing desk in the center of the foyer, where gas lamps still grace the walls.

FLOOD OF '36
Indiana pharmacist Brian Curry thinks turning the old post office into a weather center is a promising idea. His father, Ted Curry, was postmaster while Brian Curry was growing up.

He said his father recalled water almost reaching the top step of the outside of the post office during the Flood of 1936. 'Dad had to spend the night there,' Brian Curry said.

His cousin, Tom Curry, a retired art teacher, has painted some temporary scenic murals in the postal lobby for the upcoming open house.

A variety of other Groundhog Day events will be held at various locations in Punxsutawney, Thursday through Sunday. Lellock said all events planned for the week will proceed regardless of cold or snow.

'The only thing that will stop us is ice or a major storm,' she said.

Among a multitude of activities, the mayor will preside over 10 weddings in 'Phil's Wedding Chapel,' temporarily located the town's Civic Complex.

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