Local developer and contractor Chris Cook has bought The Columns on 11th Avenue from the Seltzer family and soon will begin using the ornate former bank building as a banquet hall again.
It was last used that way in 2018, when the health of now-deceased family patriarch Irv Seltzer began to decline, Cook said.
Cook will need to make some minor plaster repairs and restart the plumbing and heating systems before the downtown venue can begin to host events, he said.
“(But) nothing major,” he said.
Cook hopes to provide space mainly for weddings and large-scale fundraisers like those held by the Blair County Arts Foundation at the site.
The Columns reopening can take advantage of a marketing opportunity, given that there has been no large-scale banquet venues downtown for the last couple of years, due to the closing of the Columns and of the Heritage Discovery Center, Cook said.
The Columns could also serve as a “performance space,” Cook said.
As such, it would work “in harmony” with the Mishler Theater, he said.
“We don’t want to compete,” he said.
Cook is looking for a caterer to become the “in-house” provider of food.
“Our go-to person,” he said.
The caterer would deal with clients as a “third party,” while Cook “would basically handle rental and setup,” he said.
The Columns owns the necessary chairs, tables and linens, which were part of the acquisition, he said.
Cook hopes to book events weekly.
As part of the acquisition, Cook acquired Irv Seltzer’s collection of 300 to 400 telephones, the oldest of which was made 150 years ago, Cook said.
He’ll turn most of the available space in the basement into a museum for the phones, he said.
“He’s a good guy,” Irv’s son Alex said of Cook, when discussing the plans for the museum at a recent meeting of the Greater Altoona Economic Development Corp. — an affiliate of Altoona Blair County Development Corp.
The Columns is six stories, with a 9,000-square-foot outline and total floor space of about 20,000 square feet, according to Cook.
The main interior room is four stories high.
The top two stories don’t occupy the entire outline of the roof, but comprise separate “parapet” sections, one in front and one in the back.
Those housed the former offices of The First National Bank, which closed at that location about two decades ago, Cook estimated.
Cook intends to offer those parapet rooms for rent as office spaces.
“They’re in good shape,” he said. “They basically need cleaned and repainted.”
Cook is also the owner now of the Triangle building on the 1200 block of 16th Street.
The first floor of the Triangle functions as a venue for small events like bridal showers, baby showers, birthday parties, office parties and company meetings, according to Cook.
“It’s not big enough for most weddings,” he said.
Farm to Home Catering provides food service, although clients aren’t obligated to contract with that firm, Cook said.
There is a commercial kitchen in the facility.
There are also eight apartments upstairs.
When he bought the building in January 2020 from a Chicago-based owner for about $370,000, he knew the apartments could make the property “work,” Cook said.
He wasn’t sure what he wanted for the first floor, however, where there had been a sports bar under the prior owner.
He considered “multiple ideas” including a bar or a restaurant, but didn’t want to subject the upstairs tenants to noise or parking problems and wanted “control of who’s going in and out,” he said.
In tandem with the Triangle acquisition, Cook bought the former Sheetz store on 13th Avenue at 16th Street, a couple hundred feet away, to provide parking.
It provided 40 spots.
He’s opened a surplus store in that building, C&J Home Improvement Surplus, which sells damaged and discontinued items like lighting and plumbing fixtures and blinds that are encountered by employees at C&J Cabinet Co., another business he owns.
The surplus store is open weekdays, while the events at the Triangle generally occur on weekends, so there are minimal parking conflicts, he said.
Cook tried but failed to buy the former German Reformed Church building on 12th Avenue and 15th Street, hoping to turn it into the kind of banquet center that the Columns will become again — and that the Triangle has already become.
He didn’t get the church, but it worked out anyway, observed Alex Seltzer at the GAEDC meeting.
He didn’t get the church because he was outbid by Curry Realty, which has demolished the building and will turn the ground it occupied into a parking lot for its ongoing development of the Vipond building, which Curry expects to become the workplace for about 100 professionals.
Before the demolition of the church, Cook arranged to take out the stained glass windows and woodwork, which he has in storage.
It would have been “a sin” for those to go to a landfill, said Cook, who has been doing historic restoration for 27 years, first as an employee of John Rita at Albert Michaels Gallery, then on his own behalf.
Like Curry, Cook wants to help improve the downtown, he said.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.