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Old Bethel Park School Becomes Museum, Art & Community Space With Help Of Volunteers

Bill Haberthur
Bethel Park Historical Society
The old Bethel Grade School building in Bethel Park, a suburban community south of Pittsburgh. The 1949 Port Authority trolley out front was restored by Bethel Park Historical Society volunteers in 2017.

On a Thursday night, volunteers were gathered at the old Bethel Grade School building getting their hands dirty. Some sawed wood to use for new baseboards on the first floor; others, on the second floor, pulled down old ceilings. 

A similar scene has played out three nights a week since 2016, when the Bethel Park Historical Societydecided to renovate and re-purpose the building.

It was originally built as Bethel Township High School in 1905. In 1917 it was expanded, with grant money from Congress, into Bethel Vocational School and in 1934, it became the grade school. But by the 1970s, the building had basically become a storage unit for the school district, said Bill Haberthur.

Credit Joaquin Gonzalez / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Bill Haberthur and Norreen Modery are both Bethel Park natives who volunteer with the Bethel Park Historical Society. Haberthur serves on the society's board as secretary.

"By then, Bethel Park had grown, so they had a lot more elementary schools that were being built and this building became very redundant and it was just a huge white elephant because we've got 12,000 square feet over three floors," said Haberthur. 

Haberthur, who serves on the board of the historical society, said that from 1976 onwards the building was rented out to local theater groups and artists, first under the district's ownership and, after 1996, by the historical society. But during this time, when it was rebranded as the Schoolhouse Arts Center, the building slowly fell into disrepair.

So in 2016, rather than continuing to pay the costs of maintaining the building, the historical society decided to overhaul it completely. The plan was to develop it into a space that could be used by the community for events, while continuing to rent out studio space to local artists. But there was also big new twist in the cards.

"We want to have a museum in one of the classrooms or military museum to honor the local veterans," said Haberthur. "We want to have a coal miner’s museum to honor the Cloverdale and Molinar mines which were a huge part of Bethel Park's growth."

Volunteers with the historical society have been doing what they can, within their skill sets, to aid in the renovations, but as Haberthur pointed out, there are some elements of the job that need to be done by professionals, so an important part of the effort has been to spread awareness in the community and raise funds in order to pay for the work.

Tim Moury, president of both the historical society and Bethel Park's council, said that this is where Haberthur, who worked in investor relations in New York for more than thirty years before returning to the community where he grew up, is in his element.

Credit Joaquin Gonzalez / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
A restored classroom on the first floor of the building also serves as the board room for the Bethel Park Historical Society.

"[Just] going out and telling our story, and really [saying] 'Can you help us out?' That's one thing Bill's not shy on," said Moury.

Haberthur is now retired, and said this project occupies a lot of his time. His legwork has resulted in local businesses taking on work like paint jobs and window installations, as well as providing equipment and supplies, at reduced prices or even for free.  

Haberthur also credits social media for allowing him to expand his reach with donors, especially people who grew up or used to live in Bethel Park but have now moved away.

"I can go in and take a picture of what we're doing with renovation of a room, go home at night and post it and it generates a conversation," said Haberthur.

On the back of a $1 million fundraising campaign, the historical society has been able to install a new HVAC system on the first floor of the building and has also begun renovating the rooms on that level, including one restored classroom that serves as the society's boardroom.

Haberthur said they have already been able to use the space to host a few small events like birthday parties and bridal showers.

People have also started donating old items like photographs, coal mining equipment and military gear for when the museum rooms are complete; many of these items are already on display in glass cases on the first floor. 

Credit Joaquin Gonzalez / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
This collection World War II-era pilot gear, donated to the Bethel Park Historical by the family of a local veteran, is already on display at the old school.

That all has Bethel Park resident Norreen Modery excited. She volunteers with the historical society and actually attended the grade school back in the 1950s (she also went on to become a Steelerette).

"I really loved this school. It just gives me such a good feeling to be here and to see what they’re doing with it and to be part of it," said Modery.

Haberthur said the society will work towards finishing the first floor of the building, before moving on the second floor and finally the basement. He said the next big fundraising project on the horizon will be a campaign to repave the semi-circular driveway at the front of the school with new bricks.