A good year for the arts was 1929. Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" and Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms," both novels that reflected on the First World War, were published. Tintin and Popeye were born, as were Audrey Hepburn, Max von Sydow and the Academy Awards. Cubist painters like Picasso and surrealists like Dali were all the rage. In the middle of the Modernist movement, a shining architectural example of the Art Deco style was built in Lewistown.
The Montgomery Ward Building was one of the first department stores opened by the Montgomery Ward Company, which had previously operated solely as a mail-order business. The building, located next to the Historic Mifflin County Courthouse on Monument Square, was originally two buildings with a common center wall. The right side of the building was home to Penn Central Light and Power Company, which later became known as PPL.
The retail store was located on the left side of the building and featured a wide, sweeping staircase to the ladies' clothing department on the mezzanine. Just inside the door, shoppers could descend to the lower floor, where the housewares department was located. The building's facade featured a medallion that showed a woman bearing a torch. This work is still intact and can clearly be seen from the street. Designed by Scottish-American sculptor J. Massey Rhind, the medallion is entitled Progress Lighting the Way for Commerce, and is another example of the post-war Modernist philosophy and, in particular, Art Deco, which embraced the marriage of art, industrialism, and technology.
Juniata Valley Family file photo
The Montgomery Ward Building, in Lewistown, was one of the first department stores opened by the Montgomery Ward Company, which had previously operated solely as a mail-order business. The building, located next to the historic Mifflin County Courthouse on Monument Square, was originally two buildings with a common center wall.
The contractor, W.D. Steinbach and Sons, used only local craftsmen to complete the Montgomery Ward Building. This is another source of local pride in the building. The Steinbach name is well known, as the contractor built many of the stately brick homes in Lewistown in the first part of the 20th century.
The Montgomery Ward Building was damaged in a fire in 1936, but the company renovated and soon reopened. It remained open for another 40 years, when the economic climate changed.
OK Properties, a Lancaster-based company, purchased the building in the 1980s. They had the building added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. The company also renovated the building into office space. The large staircase was replaced with a fireproof stairwell and a passenger elevator. The stairs to the basement were removed and the center wall was opened up into a generous lobby area. Visitors to the building will notice that the lobby floor slopes slightly to one side. This is partly the result of the merging of the two buildings.
Many of the original features are intact and may still be seen today. The large bay windows at the front of the building are original, as are the stained glass and the woodwork on second floor. The 1929 freight elevator is not only intact, but is in perfect working order and receives yearly inspections and maintenance to ensure that it continues to function.
Another company, Pacific Properties, bought the building in the 1990s, and Monument Square Center, LLC, acquired it in 2012.
Today the Montgomery Ward Building is experiencing a rebirth, with 90 percent of its office space occupied. The building is home to three law firms, a financial advisor, a national medical billing company, a salon, a settlement service and a state representative. The Mifflin County Model Railroad Club occupies the basement, where visitors can see an impressive display during the Ice Festival each year. United Cerebral Palsy occupies space on the first and second floors in the front on the right-hand side, while the left-hand side houses the Mifflin Juniata Arts Council and Gallery 3West.
The Arts Council takes special pride in residing in this historic example of Art Deco architecture. One if its first exhibits in 2012 was a celebration of Deco style.
The next time you happen to be in Downtown Lewistown, take a moment to look at and reflect upon the cultural and artistic history of the Montgomery Ward Building. Oh, and stop in at Gallery 3West and look around!