The slush-slow pace of winter’s gray blunts the brightest optimism born of a new year. People dressed in layers wonder when spring will arrive. Despite calendar and equinox, the anticipation calls for input from a groundhog.
Each February, visitors trek to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and join locals gathering at Gobbler’s Knob to witness the annual Groundhog Day ceremonies and whether Punxsutawney Phil will see his shadow, meaning six more weeks of winter.
Known as the Weather Capital of the World, Punxsutawney is home to another weather-related attraction that punctuates a downtown corner in a landmark edifice, the former post office. There, the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center delivers a package of cultural vitality to residents and tourists year-round.
Formed as a not-for-profit institution, the Weather Discovery Center’s mission is to provide distinctive, interactive learning opportunities about the ways of predicting and studying weather through exhibits and educational programs. Their charm is noticeable in the marketing by, among others, the state’s official tourism website VisitPA.org, as well as the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors Visitors Bureau and the Punxsutawney Chamber of Commerce.
The Weather Discovery Center has multigenerational appeal. Their programming is primarily for children in grades kindergarten through sixth. They just wrapped up Winter Wonders, by teaching the science of ice and snow to school kids over winter break. The exhibits at the Weather Discovery Center, though, display information for avid learners of all ages.
“We are adding two new exhibits this year—both will educate about types of precipitation,” says Marlene Lellock, director of the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center. “The design team from Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh will create, build and install them.”
Such is the reach and draw of this energetic, ambassadorial institution. They’re even beginning to offer adult programs, like classes for serving as weather spotters for the National Weather Service.
Teaching the young remains their focus. “Our programming for Boy and Girl Scouts has dramatically expanded,” adds Lellock. “We now offer Boy Scout merit badge programs and Girl Scout Journey programs 10 months out of the year.”
One highlight at the Weather Discovery Center during the February 2nd holiday is the induction of the newest member to the Meteorologist Hall of Fame. As their website shares:
Each Groundhog Day, the Weather Discovery Center honors individuals who have advanced the knowledge of weather science, climatology, and meteorology. As Hall of Fame members, they help to represent and promote the mission of the Weather Discovery Center, which is to help visitors explore and understand the science behind weather phenomena.
Historic Atmosphere Shelters Discoveries
Completed in 1914, the United States Post Office became the first standalone federal building in the borough. Investment led by the coal mining industry helped to attract factories and workers in the early 20th century. Together, Punxsutawney and its neighboring communities were commandeering economic growth through railroads and industrial development. A dedicated building for postal services became a necessity, and signaled the strengths of Punxsutawney’s commerce, transportation and population within the Commonwealth.
“Many post offices have operated for decades as the civic core of their communities.” These are the words of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) in their 2014 report to Congress entitled, Preserving Historic Post Offices. The report arose in the wake of an increased rate of decommissions and dispositions. The ACHP is the independent federal agency that advises the President and Congress on national historic preservation policy.
A centralized location played a key role for postal facilities, as noted in a study for the Pennsylvania State Museum’s exhibit, A Common Canvas, about cities in Pennsylvania with post office murals created during the New Deal. “Until the 1950s, post office buildings were typically located in the center of towns, making them a quintessential feature of the Main Street America.”
In a social climate of core civics and quintessential features, the 1914 post office building in Punxsutawney was no exception.
The Neoclassical architecture was unique for Punxsutawney and expressed in a full-height portico with classical columns, announcing the main entrance on the symmetrical front façade. The two-story building on a raised foundation rests twelve steps above the public right of way. The multi-light windows and high ceilings invited natural light into the main wing’s public area and the sorting room wing. This post office was easily postcard material.
With publicity about weather prognostications every February in the public’s consciousness, the puzzle for decades in Punxsutawney had been how leadership would put together a weather museum. Fortuitously, albeit bittersweet, the real estate piece came in the shape of a vacant, red brick post office. In 1998, post office operations moved across Mahoning Creek to a new facility on the east end of town.
Sometimes it’s about striking when the iron is hot. In 2000, with the property still available, local leaders acquired it from the federal government first, and had the patience to convene a planning committee to conceptualize a museum second. They couldn’t build new with the same materials this high-quality and size of a building for the amount spent to construct it nine decades earlier.
“We are always sure to point out that the original building cost a total of $58,000 to construct—the cost of the average high-end automobile today,” notes Lellock.
The planning committee had the elasticity to revise the museum concept into an interactive weather center, and got the property listed on the National Register of Historic Places. To fund some of the exterior restoration and accessibility work, the fledging center received a matching grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Similar to what it did for the area starting 105 years ago, the building hosts a valuable resource in downtown Punxsutawney.
“Locating the Weather Discovery Center in a historic, former post office building was beneficial to both the community of Punxsutawney and to the Discovery Center,” says Lellock.
“We saved a piece of the town’s history that surely would have been lost, and have put it to good use.”