People’s Memorial: The American Legion Building

In Search of Old Shamokin, November 2020 edition. Runs last Saturday of every month in the Weekender.

Anyone who’s visited downtown Shamokin knows the Shamokin-Coal Township Public Library and the imposing edifice it calls home. But whether you’re a frequent library patron or just a passerby, there’s more to the iconic American Legion Memorial Building than meets the eye.

Located at the busy intersection of Independence and Liberty Streets on the site of the former Windsor Hotel, the American Legion Building, or Memorial Hall, was completed in 1924 as Lincoln Post No. 73’s headquarters and dedicated in memory of those who served in World War I. Drawing up the plans was noted Shamokin architect William H. Lee, the man behind the design of the Shamokin High School on Arch Street and two Victoria Theatres in Shamokin and Mount Carmel. At the time of the Legion Building’s opening, the upper floors housed the Legion’s meeting rooms and gymnasium, while the first floor contained several storefronts in what is now the library.

While the building’s commercial first floor has changed frequently over the decades, much of the facade and the former meeting rooms retain many of their original details. Perhaps most recognizable is the entrance hall on the east side of the building, with its marble staircase reminiscent of the similarly monumental foyer of Lee’s 1917 Shamokin High School. The Legion’s entrance hall features the craftsmanship of local contractors, specifically marble work by Joseph Cannistra, and tile flooring by Peter Barr and Sons, although the latter has been replaced with carpeting in modern times. Bronzework contracts were awarded to the Cooper-Nichols Company of Philadelphia. Following the perimeter of the room is the inscription: “This memorial is dedicated by a grateful people to the memory of their fellow citizens who so nobly served in the World War.”

Another notable feature is the third-floor gymnasium, a multi-purpose space which variously doubled as an auditorium, banquet hall, and ballroom. According to newspaper reports, a large sum was set aside for a special acoustic treatment to the gymnasium walls. The room remains in use today as the Shamokin Youth Basketball League gymnasium, albeit without the stage and balcony seating of the original floorplan.

Construction began with the formal laying of the cornerstone on Armistice Day, November 11, 1922. General construction was completed by the Shamokin Lumber and Construction Company. Originally, the budget was set at $125,000, with local banks covering the building loan, but by the time the structure was completed in March of 1924, costs totaled nearly $150,000–the equivalent of about $2.2 million in today’s dollars. Some accounts, possibly erroneous, place the final cost at the almost doubled figure of $250,000, or roughly $3.8 million today.

The first establishments to move into the structure were the first-floor commercial tenants, particularly those whose former stores had been lost to the Windsor Hotel fire. After some delays, the structure was formally dedicated on November 11, 1924, amid grand celebrations. According to the Shamokin Dispatch, speakers at the event included former state senator Frederic A. Godcharles; Commander Holden C. Richardson; Shamokin architect Wilson U. Jury; General C. M. Clement of Sunbury; Francis Key Smith, descendant of Francis Scott Key; and local representatives of the Allied nations, including Poland, Italy, and Great Britain.

In later years, the first floor would eventually house Wolfe’s Department Store, then the Shamokin-Coal Township Public Library, dedicated on June 24, 1966. At a time when Shamokin had recently celebrated her hundredth birthday and was looking toward the future, the opening of the large, modern library accommodations in the American Legion Building was regarded as a turning point of progress in the community. Celebrations accompanied the dedication, where State Representative Paul G. Ruane called it a “blue-ribbon day,” and described the new library as a “tribute to the people of this area and…to the future generations who support it and help it grow.”

Today, the American Legion Memorial Building continues its nearly century-long status as a cornerstone of the community by housing not only the public library, but also the military history museum and war memorial maintained by Lincoln Post No. 73; the Greater Shamokin Heritage Museum; the Lower Anthracite Model Railroad Club; and the Shamokin Youth Basketball League.

As Senator Godcharles commented at the 1924 dedication, “This grand structure that I have been delegated to accept in behalf of the American Legion post, No. 73, is the most beautiful, the most valuable, of any yet built in the country in honor of the boys who paid the supreme sacrifice. I am confident that it has been placed in the keeping of those who will honor and cherish it as long as they live.”

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