An architectural rendering of Old Main

Taking steps so that Topton’s Old Main is no longer ‘old’

Topton, Pa.    Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A ‘typhoid epidemic had taken their parents, brothers and a sister, leaving 5- and 6-year-old Sallie and Clair Carl pretty much alone in the world of 1897.

Fortunately for the two youngsters from Kutztown, Pennsylvania, a children’s home had been chartered the year before in the nearby town of Topton and its iconic Old Main building begun earlier in the year of the epidemic. Sallie and Clair, in fact, became the Topton Orphans Home’s first charges.

Little did those children probably understand that the building then taking shape, the building that would soon shelter them, would continue in that role for the next 77 years, serving as one of several quarters on the Topton campus housing more than 1,600 children and youths until shifts in society changed the way such care is delivered.

And while service to at-risk children and youths—a heritage now maintained by Diakon—has continued uninterrupted through a variety of newer programs and Old Main’s first floor has continued to house offices for The Lutheran Home at Topton senior living community, several Diakon Ministry Support staff members and the local public library, the building’s expansive second floor has been unused for decades, a ghost of its former self.

But not for much longer.

Diakon recently announced plans to renovate and refurbish Old Main, creating a “Center for Permanency” in part of the second floor. “This news not only represents potential expansion of our adoption and foster care services, but also underscores our commitment to the Topton location,” says Mark Pile, Diakon president/CEO.

The $8.2 million renovation project is set to begin the fall of 2016. The work will entail renovation of the second floor of the building, installation of an elevator and completion of various exterior refurbishment efforts. While structurally sound, the 32,122-square-foot building needs extensive repairs, particularly to the second floor. The project should be completed by late 2017.

Project seed money comes from a significant bequest by the Helen Palmer Estate.

“All of the work will be done with care and respect for the building’s historical character and appearance. Such steps as renovation or replacement of exterior porches, window replacements or refurbishment, introduction of new heating and air-conditioning systems and upgrading of electrical and other systems will help to preserve Old Main’s underlying structure and ensure use of the building long into the future,” says Pile.

Here are key aspects of the project:

  • The renovation of the second floor of Old Main will provide much-needed space for the Diakon Adoption & Foster Care program, which is currently housed in cramped, energy-inefficient buildings on campus.
  • The work will create a “center for permanency” related to adoption and foster care. The center will include space for training of adoption and foster care staff and support groups for parents as well as family-style areas helpful in the process of transitioning children and youth into foster and adoptive families. The project also will provide more-efficient storage of adoption and related records.
  • Although Diakon continues to focus on home- and community-based services as well as “virtual” locations for staff members, there are significant advantages to having this style of permanency-focused center, which will provide areas for family visitation, a kitchen for family meal preparation, a family resource center and, for staff and external groups, a moderate-scale conference and training area.
  • In addition, the project will involve relocation of Diakon Ministry Support offices from the Medical Arts Building on the Luther Crest campus in Allentown to the second floor of Old Main. This step will have a positive financial impact on the organization in terms of lease and related costs.

The Brandywine Community Library, the historic Putz train layout and some offices for The Lutheran Home at Topton senior living community and other Diakon staff members occupy the first floor of the building. The installation of new mechanical and other systems in the building will allow these organizational- and community-focused activities to remain in the building.

“We are very pleased to announce this project because without this planned infusion of capital—without a re-infusion of purpose for the building—Old Main would most likely continue to deteriorate,” says Pile. 

Seed money for the overall project comes from a significant bequest by the Helen Palmer Estate, received last year. However, additional funds are needed to complete the project, inclusive of both outside financing and donor support.

A related fundraising “Forever Campaign” will have two key goals:

  • To “Ensure the Future” by helping to create the welcoming “Center for Permanency” within Old Main for Diakon Adoption & Foster Care—and the families the program serves, with an ultimate focus on enhancing and expanding these important services.
  • To “Honor the Past” by renovating the second floor of Old Main and restoring other parts of the historic building in line with longer-term efforts to protect critical aspects of Diakon’s nearly 150-year history of service to children, youth, families and older adults.

The renovation, Pile adds, lays the groundwork for a potential later project designed to display the history of orphanages in Pennsylvania with a particular focus on The Lutheran Home at Topton and the Tressler Orphans Home, the two children’s homes on which the Diakon legacy was founded. Whether that project moves forward later would depend on availability of funding, including donor support.

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