- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—Creeping vines and peeling paint hide the once-majestic home, even as crumbling floors and shaky stairways threaten the structure with deep ties to Johnstown’s past.

The Ludwig House, at 662 Main St., was built in the 1880s by wine and spirits king John Ludwig.

Clara Barton used the home following the 1889 flood to organize relief efforts, and the Ludwig House welcomed flood refugees and provided food to victims by the hundreds, historical writings show.

More recently, Pauline H.L. Gordon Mortuary was located there. When Gordon died in 2003, the local NAACP called her funeral parlor Johnstown’s oldest business under African-American ownership.

In recent years, the Ludwig House — now owned by Johnstown Area Heritage Association — has fallen prey to looters in search of copper and squatters seeking temporary lodging.

The home looks more likely to collapse under its own weight than be restored as a museum or office in downtown Johnstown.

“It’s an eyesore, and that’s a shame because it’s a part of history,” said Mike Migut, who operates Valley Printing across the street at 667 Main.

“It’s in rough shape. It needs some tender-loving care, that’s for sure,” Migut said. “I don’t know how much more you can let it go before there’s nothing you can do with it.”

Lisa Incardona and her brother, Joe, were raised there. Their mother, Mary Clare Ludwig Incardona, was born there.

The Incardona family founded InCo Beverage. Mary Clare, Lisa and Joe now live in Memphis, Tennessee. The siblings were in Johnstown recently for company meetings, and sat down with The Tribune-Democrat at the Holiday Inn to discuss the state of their former home.

“I would do anything to help restore it,” Lisa Incardona said, “not just because it was my family’s house, but also because it does have all of those historic connections.

“I go see it every time I’m here. I know what’s happened to it physically. I think maybe I’m the only one who can stand to look at it, but somebody has to keep an eye on it.”

And if there were a movement to save the Ludwig House?

“I would be part of the fundraising board,” Lisa Incardona said, raising her hand for emphasis.

‘Cherish the memories’

The Ludwig House has two strikes against it now.

It is behind other projects on JAHA’s work list, its rehabilitation lower in priority than millions in upgrades being done at the Johnstown Flood Museum and the train station.

In addition, funding streams have dried up since JAHA took ownership of the structure more than a decade ago.

“My goal was to get it into good order — to put a preservation covenant on it and resell it,” JAHA President Richard Burkert said. “The recession is what killed us. Before that, we had some real prospects here.

“And we’ve had some other pressing projects — Peoples Natural Gas Park, the flood museum, the train station, the Heritage Discovery Center.”

Burkert said the house has been broken into repeatedly. Someone smashed in the walls to steal copper wire.

There’s no electricity, no heat and no money to correct those problems.

“The building is basically in sound condition, but it’s going to take a major investment,” Burkert said. “Just stabilizing the place is going to take $50,000, and we’ve never been in a position to do that.”

He added: “Really, you would probably have to do what they did at Bedford Springs, which is to tear it apart, fix it up, get rid of the lead paint and put it back together.”

Mary Clare Ludwig Incardona said a nephew visited from California over the July 4 weekend and stopped to see the house. He found the front door unlocked, but went no further than the foyer — where a historic designation marker once posted in front of the building was leaning against the wall.

The marker, issued by the state to proclaim Barton’s ties to the house, fell victim in 2003 to a runaway truck careening into the city from Frankstown Road.

The metal sign is now in two pieces — symbolic of the home’s decline and uncertain future.

“As you might guess, the old house is dear to all of us,” she said. “Five generations of us spent at least a part of our lives there, and we cherish the memories.”

The state of the house “has always been a heartbreak to my mom,” Lisa Incardona said. “In its day, it was a mansion.”

Burkert summarized the situation: “The house and funding sources went downhill at the same time.”

‘The great flood’

The 1907 book “History of Cambria County” by Henry Wilson Storey describes John Ludwig’s immigration from Germany to the United States, where he first settled in Baltimore and took up the trade of coopering — barrel-making. He moved to Johnstown after a year, and resettled in Scalp Level, where he continued to work making barrels.

Ludwig also worked at Cambria Iron Works, Storey writes, before purchasing a wholesale liquor business on Johnstown’s Washington Street in 1874. It became the successful Ludwig & Sons Wine and Spirits.

“He tried to make barrels, but quickly found out there was more money in making the stuff that went into the barrels,” Joe Incardona said of his ancestor.

John Ludwig built the house on Main Street and moved his family there in April 1883, Storey wrote.

The Ludwig House became a hub of activity after the flood hit in May 1889, eventually claiming more than 2,000 lives.

Storey tells it this way: “During the great flood which caused such devastation in Johnstown and its vicinity, Mr. Ludwig’s house had but seven inches of water on the first floor. The day following the flood, he threw open his home to others less fortunate than himself, feeding many hundreds of people and giving shelter to 75 persons every night.”

Storey also chronicles a harrowing escape from the wine and spirits store by George William Ludwig, John’s grandson, and others working there.

Upon hearing that a dam had given way, George Ludwig and others “immediately rushed to the upper floor where the water followed them so rapidly they were penned in a room without any means of exit.”

They tried to use a metal bar to break out, when suddenly a section of the building gave way.

“They jumped on some passing debris just as the front portion of their building collapsed,” Storey wrote.

George Ludwig survived that experience, but died of pulmonary disease in 1904.

‘Formidable character’

The Incardona siblings, now in their 50s, recall a house of their childhood that boasted a full mahogany staircase, three porches, chandeliers and leaded glass in the foyer — among many amenities.

“You could tell that in its day it was a magnificent house,” Joe Incardona said.

Mary Clare Ludwig Incardona said there were sconces throughout the home that linked to its gaslight-era beginnings.

“It was such a marvelous house to play in,” Ludwig Incardona said.

She recalled a closet under a stairway that proved a great spot for hide-and-seek, and said the kitchen had four doors on one wall — leading to the basement, a pantry, a step-in cupboard and a hall to the dining room.

And the site survived all three major Johnstown floods.

Joe Incardona said he often heard tales that the Ludwig House was one of the few residential buildings — perhaps the only one — left standing after the torrent of 1889.

“Because it sits on high ground, it has been virtually untouched by the floods — high and dry,” Mary Clare Ludwig Incardona said.

She noted that out of necessity, that end of Main Street was home to city hall, the post office and the police station following the 1889 disaster.

Also of significance is the role of Pauline Gordon in the home’s history.

The Ludwig-Incardona clan sold her the house in the summer of 1974, and she moved her mortuary — founded in 1946 — there to serve Johnstown for three more decades.

Gordon died in March 2003 at the age of 83.

In news reports at the time of her death, she was described as “feisty” and “self-assured.” Gordon was known for her elaborate hats, and for moving throughout the downtown carrying her small dog.

In addition to being a mortician, Gordon served as a city alderman, a tax assessor and a traffic court magistrate. She even worked as a bail bondswoman.

“She was one impressive woman,” Burkert said. “She was a formidable character.”

‘Very strong women’

The spot also is linked to the 1889 flood relief efforts of the fledgling American Red Cross under Clara Barton, whose organization reportedly supplied food, clothing and other items to 25,000 people in the calamity’s wake.

“It did get passed down through our family that when (Barton) did arrive — and this was in the weeks of a devastating scene — she used the dining room of the house as her headquarters,” Lisa Incardona said.

Burkert said researchers have never confirmed Barton’s time at the Ludwig House, although they believe the stories to be true.

Author David McCullough wrote in his 1968 book “The Johnstown Flood” that Barton “set up headquarters inside an abandoned railroad car and, using a packing box for a desk, began issuing orders.” McCullough does not mention the Ludwig House.

In May 1977 — just two months before the most recent devastating flood hit Johnstown — The Tribune-Democrat explored the Ludwig House’s ties to Barton. A picture by newspaper photographer Merle Agnello showed the front of the house then — clean and recently painted, and with vines climbing its exterior walls.

Reporter Sandra Reabuck noted that it was believed Barton worked out of the house for at least a portion of the five-month period she was in Johnstown in 1889, and that the house “served for a time as a temporary morgue.”

Gordon, interviewed for Reabuck’s story, said she was told by the Ludwig family that Barton “set up her desk right here in the front room.”

The Ludwigs donated a desk to the flood museum when they sold the home to Gordon. Burkert said the desk is in JAHA’s possession, but may actually trace its roots to the temporary post office that was set up across the street from the house.

“We’ve got a lot of research on Clara Barton,” he said. “I’m still waiting to find a photograph of her on the porch, and I’m not expecting to find one.

“She was at the height of her influence when she was here and when she left Johnstown. But it seems no photographers thought to shoot her, even though there were hundreds of them here.”

But Burkert said the family’s oral history is enough for him to put Barton and the Ludwig House together in Johnstown lore.

“This was the first natural disaster that the newly formed American Red Cross responded to,” Joe Incardona said. “One would hope that would have some significance.”

Pairing Barton and Gordon gives the Ludwig home added preservation value, Burkert said.

“The story of that house is the story of two very strong women,” he said.

‘Fell through the cracks’

But is that all enough to save the Ludwig House?

Burkert said JAHA can’t do it alone.

“This is one of those buildings that is important historically and architecturally interesting,” Burkert said. “But it’s raining in the train station right now. I do have to balance this against our other projects.

“JAHA would be excited to work with somebody — anybody. Our concern was if it went on the market, somebody might get a hold of it who didn’t really care about the historical aspects of the house. Unfortunately, the group that does have it doesn’t have any money to do something with it.”

Count Migut among those who would like to see the house saved.

“It’s not a bad-looking building, really,” he said. “It would be a shame if it goes the way of everything else — a parking lot. I wish it could be restored to its glory days, or at least improved.”

Add the Incardona family to that list.

“It would be our hope that bringing to light the fascinating history of the house might spur some action to save it,” Joe Incardona said.

Burkert said several possible uses for the Ludwig House have been tossed about — an NAACP museum, perhaps. But so far, money and ideas have never come together.

So the house sits on Main Street in a sinking state of neglect and disrepair.

“I wake up early some mornings and think about that building,” Burkert said. “Something needs to happen there. We’ve been pretty successful over the years with similar projects. Unfortunately, that one just fell through the cracks. But the house is still fixable.”

Chip Minemyer is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5091. Follow him on Twitter @MinemyerChip.

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