Capturing College Avenue

A section of Chuck Fong’s College Avenue photo mural

As we planned the 50th Arts Festival last year, I wanted to mark the occasion in a permanent way. Festivals are impermanent, and although they provide audiences with great experiences, they usually don’t leave much behind. Fifty years of festivals demanded a different approach.

Since the Arts Festival is a quintessential State College and Penn State “thing”, I hit upon the idea of updating the College Avenue photo mural that hangs outside the State College Borough Council Chambers. It’s almost as old as the Festival, so the time seemed right to take a look at College Avenue again. College Avenue, with student oriented businesses on one side of the street and academic buildings on the other, is where town meets gown. It’s a quintessential State College and Penn State place.

The original photo mural was shot in November and December 1972 by two Penn State students, Ed Joella and D. Ryan Hixenbaugh, for a Journalism 260 class taught by Ed Leos. It’s a remarkable document of what State College used to look like.

As someone who’s lived in State College for a VERY long time, I can remember (OK, vaguely) when College Avenue looked the way it did in the 1973 photo mural. I remember the Campus Restaurant, the Cathaum Theatre, and the cheap eats place, Frugal MacDougal. I remember the flared trousers, bell-bottomed jeans, and what long hair looked like before the invention of “product”. My mother had a Dodge Dart like the one immortalized at the right end of the mural, though my mother’s was the more stylish convertible model.

I asked photographer Chuck Fong, whom I see at Starbucks almost every Wednesday, if he was interested in the project. His studio is in downtown so he was more than familiar with the site. I’d seen his exhibit about diners and diner culture at the Bellefonte Museum of Art so I knew he had the artistic and technical chops to make it happen.

As Chuck said:

More than three decades ago, upon viewing only a small reproduction of Hixenbaugh and Joella’s photographic masterpiece, my reaction was one of awe and admiration. When Rick asked me if I were interested in creating the current version of this 1970s’ tour de force, without blinking, I said yes!

I didn’t want to capture an endless throng of twenty somethings wearing PSU clothing en route to an athletic event. I wanted to show the current diverse College Ave. My sixty prints include the Sunday quietude, souvenir shoppers, high end vehicles and even the homeless. Without the aid of a tripod I patrolled the street throughout various times of day and also in questionable weather. Quite often I recorded the same view multiple times. Even up to the very moment of the delivery of the final prints, I wanted to tweak it even more and substitute different photos.

Chuck shot the project in early 2016. Photographing buildings in winter ensures that leaves on trees and shrubs don’t get in the way of the architecture. Chuck’s a perfectionist and took lots of photos, wanting to get the images just right.

The advent of digital photography made his task a lot easier than that of Ryan and Ed. In the film era, the photo that came out of the darkroom wasn’t always the shot the photographer expected to see. In the digital era, you can preview a photo right on your camera. If it’s not quite right you can shoot again until you get the image you want. You can make a good shot even better with the judicious application of photo editing software. Sure, photos could be reshot and retouched in the film era, but the process was more difficult and time consuming.

After Chuck shot the mural, it was time for John McQueary and his staff at State College Framing Company to massage the finished product into simple black frames. However, no framing job is simple when the art is thirty-two feet long! John and crew did a great job: the finished product looks beautiful.

When you take a look at the new mural, you’ll see that the Campus Restaurant is gone. So is the Cathaum Theatre. Frugal MacDougal’s cheap hamburgers have gone the way of Brigadoon, and Dodge Darts have been replaced with less utilitarian and more exotic rides. But while stores, cars, and the people don’t look as they did in 1973, the bones of the College Avenue streetscape haven’t changed that much. Sure, there are some new buildings, but older structures still predominate.

The Festival has had a similar evolution since its early days. What artists sell has changed, popular music has changed, and what people wear to the festival isn’t anything like it was in the late 1960s. But the bones remain the same: artists selling their wares on town and campus streets; banners flying overhead. There’s lots of free outdoor music. Everyone has chance to enjoy the company of thousands of their closest friends.

Before Chuck’s mural moves to a permanent location, you can see it in the lobby of the State College Municipal Building. It’s there through the month of April. The lobby is open from 8:00 am to 10:00 pm, Monday through Friday, and Saturday 8:00 am to noon. Ryan Hixenbaugh and Ed Joella’s mural hangs on the third floor, outside the Borough Council Chambers. Stop by to see it Monday through Friday from during the business day and on Monday evenings during Borough Council meetings.

About Rick Bryant

Rick Bryant has served as the Executive Director of the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts since 2005. Active in the State College community, he has served on many boards including the State College Board of Health, and the Board of Deacons of State College Presbyterian Church. He currently serves as the chair of the State College Design Review Board.

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