HGAC Restores Historic Building to Former Glory
The Corporal Johnston H. Skelly Post No.9, Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) Hall, locally referred to as the G.A.R. Hall, serves as a successful example of the restoration and adaptive reuse of Gettysburg's oldest standing church building that continues to serve the modern community. People of the Methodist Episcopal faith in the Gettysburg area built the structure as their second house of worship, on East Middle Street during the second decade of the 19th century.
Owned and restored by HGAC, the Historic Preservation Society of Gettysburg-Adams County, the G.A.R. building is an example of adaptive reuse of an historic building. It now serves as HGAC's headquarters.
History of The Grand Army of The Republic Hall
1822 to Present
Begun in the spring of 1822, the congregants consecrated their church building in November of that year. At the time, Methodism was still a young and somewhat obscure Christain denomination and prided itself in paying more attention than any other church to area African Americans. In Gettysburg, blacks were welcome within its fold, and church membership was substantial, although attendance later declined when the black community decided in the 1840's to start their own African Methodist Episcopal congregation. In 1863, during and after the Battle of Gettysburg, most public and church buildings were pressed into service for one use or another. College and seminary buildings, as well as many homes, were converted to hospitals to care for the wounded and dying. The Methodist Church was no exception.
After the war, membership of the Methodist Church grew considerably, and by 1871 the congregation felt the need for a larger structure. Upon completion of the new church in February 1874 on the opposite side of East Middle Street closer to Baltimore Street, the Methodists put the old church and graveyard lot up for sale. Due to national financial depression, nine years passed before the Methodists found a buyer--a group of local Union Civil War veterans who belonged to the Grand Army of the Republic, a national veteran's organization.
In 1867, Gettysburg Civil War veterans organized the local post - Corporal Johnston H. Skelly Post No. 9 of the G.A.R. - named for a Gettysburg resident and member of Company F, 87th Pennsylvania Volunteers who had been at the Battle of Winchester on June 13, 1863. In 1872, the state G.A.R. officers came to town and arranged a grand encampment on the battlefield.
New G.A.R. post members were energetically recruited. By 1880, membership had grown to the point where the group felt they could afford to buy a Post home. The empty Methodist Church seemed appropriate for their needs, and in March of 1880 the Post 9 trustees purchased it for $600.The ranks of its members then grew to represent one of the more powerful influences in Gettysburg, with a great many of the borough leaders becoming members of the Post.
By 1888, the Post had added a dining room and kitchen to the rear of the building. By 1890, nationally, the G.A.R. had well over 400,000 members and until 1900 it was forced to be reckoned with in local, state and national politics. The G.A.R. maintained a powerful lobby for the Republican Party in Washington, which, among other things, provided assistance for veterans and education in patriotism to young Americans.
During World War I, the U.S. Army established at Gettysburg, Camp Colt, one of the first training camps for its fledgling tank corps, commanded by Dwight D. Eisenhower. As a result of the devastating Spanish influenza epidemic in 1918, the army officials used the G.A.R. Hall to house the coffins of its men who had succumbed to the virus and awaited shipment home.
Well before the end of World War I, the ranks of Gettysburg G.A.R. members had rapidly thinned. By 1930, membership had shrunk to only six, and these few remaining survivors voted unanimously to turn over their assets to an auxiliary organization, Sons of Union Veterans (S.U.V.C.W.), Gettysburg Camp 112, with the condition that they retain the name of Corporal J.H. Skelly Post 9 of G.A.R. As time passed, the SUVCW local membership, like its predecessor, dwindled to just a few. The G.A.R. Hall was left to its own devices as the SUVCW trustees found their organization financially unable to provide for its upkeep.
In November of 1988, Historic Gettsyburg-Adams County, Inc. (HGAC), also known as the Historic Preservation Society of Gettysburg-Adams County, established in 1975, agreed to acquire and restore the G.A.R. property Since it was the oldest standing church building in Gettysburg, the HGAC board of directors decided to restore some features of the original church structure, such as the contour of the altar area, the choir loft and the cemetery in the rear of the building. Over the next two years, HGAC members worked diligently to achieve a level of restoration that would preserve the charm of the original 1822 structure while respectfully displaying significant artifacts to retain features and the appearance of the traditional G.A.R. meeting place. Due to the deteriorated condition of the walls in the sanctuary, new walls were installed on which folk art murals were painted that depicted historic scenes throughout Adams County. By reinforcing crumbling walls, uncovering the balcony in the main room, adding a new roof and an attractive serviceable lower meeting hall, HGAC assured the building would remain standing to provide service to many generations to come.