History of Wiltsie Performing Arts Center


In 2011, we raised the curtain on the Alice C. Wiltsie Performing Arts Center, located in the historic school fondly referred to as the “Castle.”

hhs-1925-architect-drawing-exteriorBuilt in 1926 as Hazleton High School, the Castle was the first million-dollar school constructed in Pennsylvania, but by 1998, the school was scheduled for demolition.

Hazleton Mayor Michael Marsicano held firm in refusing to grant the demolition permit and the building remained standing. 

vernTwo volunteer caretakers came forward to maintain the building and became known as the Castle Keepers. The current president of the Castle Fund Board of Directors, Tom Gabos, along with Bob Tombasco, maintained the building for six years, from 1998 to 2004, in the hopes it would someday be renovated. During that time, the Castle Keepers, along with local businessman Michael Greco, applied for a 501(c)(3) status with the intent of turning the building into a community center if it could not be renovated for use as a school once again.

Gabos and Tombasco made notes of who purchased items during an auction held before the scheduled demolition. With the help of the Greater Hazleton Historical Society, led by the late Jean Gormley, Gabos and Tombasco began a campaign to find and purchase the items sold in the hopes of someday restoring them to their original home.

ss-01-27-2007-headlinesThe grassroots effort began to grow and former Hazleton Area School Board member Gil Degenhart led the movement of a group of community members called the “Save the Castle Committee.”

Architect Vern McKissick of McKissick Associates was hired by the Hazleton Area School District in 2003 and renovations on the building began.

In January 2007, the building was rededicated as Hazleton Elementary/Middle School. While many pieces of the castle were lost forever, many of them have returned to the Castle, thanks to Vern McKissick. He purchased the entire collection of auctioned items found by the historical society and put them back in the Castle.

maddon-educatorsWith restoration complete, Hazleton Elementary/Middle School is once again a magnificent building. The brickwork on the exterior building was repointed, decorative tablet inserts and the diamond fencing on the exterior were restored, and towers at the main entrance were rebuilt to replace the originals.

The original marble floor in the main corridor of the building was cleaned and polished, light fixtures similar in style to the originals were added, the original wood floors were refinished and the classroom wooden doors and transoms duplicated the originals.

Although the school was renovated, there was no money left to finish the auditorium.

groupThree Hazleton Area School Board directors, Elaine Maddon Curry, Steve Hahn and Carmella Yenkevich, spearheaded a movement to turn the unfinished auditorium into a community arts center. In 2007, the Castle Fund was established.

Members of the community were asked to help raise money to assist in finishing the project in order to make the auditorium a community arts center and a treasure for the entire community to enjoy.

Well-respected local educators were approached to join the effort. Former Hazleton High School principal Rocco Mussoline, former Hazleton Area High School principal Francis Libonati and former Hazleton High School teacher and theater arts teacher Robert Shanno agreed to co-chair the project. Gil Degenhart, Jean Gormley and Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon, a Hazleton native, were asked to serve as honorary chairmen.

A board of community members was formed that included current President Tom Gabos; Alice Kender was named the lead contact; Anthony Cusatis, treasurer, and Anthony M. Dixon, legal counsel. The late Ray Saul wrote columns in the Standard-Speaker supporting the venture, and the list of volunteers goes on and on.

maddon-dec-31-2008-a01 a_frontThe first monetary donation toward the project came from Dr. Stanley Yamulla, a member of Hazleton High School’s Class of 1937. Through Regional Community Relations Director Martha M. Herron, PPL gave the first grant. Then came grants from the First Federal Charitable Foundation, Sordoni Construction, Inc. and the CAN DO Community Foundation. Community members and graduates of the former high school sponsored seats, class after class raised money and Joe Maddon, newly crowned American League manager of the year and honorary chairman, hosted a party at the Castle for the community to celebrate and to raise money for the auditorium. More than $68,000 was brought in as a result of the event. Fundraisers were held, T-shirts sold and pancakes flipped.


In 2009, naming rights came through a $100,000 donation from the late Alice Callaway Wiltsie’s nephew, Allan Werst. A donation was also given by her son, Dr. John Wiltsie.  The committee raised more than $600,000 and in 2010, two major grants were received: $300,000 in federal funding from the Department of Education, which was secured by then-Congressman Paul Kanjorski, and a $1 million Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant through then-State Representative Todd Eachus.

The restored auditorium features the original wall sconces and ceiling lights underneath the balcony. The main curtain, which is an Austrian drape, is Hazleton blue and was specially created for the auditorium. Gold leaf paint, donated by United Gilsonite Laboratories in Scranton, decorates the proscenium arch. The lattice work around the stage was repainted and the exit signs are the original framed signs. All the colors selected by Bob Shanno are similar to those used when the auditorium was first built. The orchestra pit has been opened and two of the walls’ shields are original, as are the magnificent oak doors at the front of the auditorium.

Because of many community members’ support, passion and commitment, the entire region will now have a performing arts center second to none. 

Raise the curtain, and let the show begin!


Contact Us

Alice C. Wiltsie
Performing Arts Center
700 North Wyoming Street
Hazleton, PA 18201
Directions from Google Maps

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