Historic California building site of vibrant arts scene

G.C. Murphy's once occupied the historic California building

G.C. Murphy’s once occupied the historic California building

In the past few years, California has lost several historic structures including The Savage Hotel and The Hollywood Theatre. With so much history rapidly disappearing, it’s comforting to realize one of the town’s architectural wonders will turn the big 1-1-1 this year.

In 1904, the building now home to Dollar General and Jozart Center for the Arts was constructed. Owned by Jones and Laughlin Company, the building housed The Pittsburgh Mercantile department store.

Nicknamed “The Company Store” by residents, The Pittsburgh Mercantile was described in a 1914 advertisement as “the best equipped and most modern department store in the Monongahela Valley, carrying the best quality merchandise at the fairest prices.”

“It was an all-purpose store which carried clothes and food,” said Pat Cowen, Secretary for the California Area Historical Society. “All the coal miners and their families shopped there and paid in Scrip, a form of credit at the time.”

In 1949, a new tenant occupied the building, G.C. Murphy’s department store. Changes to the exterior included the addition of an awning and gold letters spelling out G.C. Murphy Co. 5 & 10 store. Colorful displays filled the windows.

The store had hardwood floors and two floors of goods. Where Dollar General now sits was actually the store’s second floor, while items such as toys and hardware could be found on the lower level. The space now occupied by Jozart Center for the Arts was used only for storage.

Murphy’s remained the building’s principal occupant until 1985 when, due to economic realities and the changing of the times, all of the area stores bearing the name of Murphy’s closed.

The building wouldn’t stay empty for long, however. In 1986, Ernie Miller opened a hardware store there. He’d previously occupied space across the street, now the site of Campy’s Pizza. He used the ground and lower levels while keeping the upstairs as storage space. Miller stayed in the building until 1986.

In 1999, another five and dime store opened for business in the building, Dollar General.

A year later, artists and entrepreneurs Joe “Bish” Morosky and Jay Paroda moved into the second floor of the building and opened Jozart Studios, a gathering place for musicians and artists. They also used the space to operate a graphic design business, making signs and business cards among other items. Several of the signs you see in the California area were created by the talented duo.

In 2009, Morosky reminisced about the condition of the building when he and Paroda first began occupying the upstairs space.

“There were holes cut in the floor every eighteen feet, about a foot wide, and almost the length of the building,” Morosky said. “They had apparently insulated the ceiling downstairs through the floor and the wood was gone, so we pulled up the floor boards where our offices are and used those to repair the studio floor.”

“There was no access to the second floor except through Dollar General until we had a lock put on the side door,” Morosky said. “There was no electricity, water or sewage, plumbing and  the windows were all caulked shut. We built the offices and the wall behind the stage to separate the studio from the downstairs heating and air unit.”

Over the course of the next ten years, Morosky and Paroda continued to  improve the upstairs space. They added offices, a fully equipped stage with a sound and light system, a “coffee shop” area where they offered exotic coffee and tea blends and plenty of comfortable seating for people to gather. And gather they surely did.

The first regular “event” held at Jozart Studios was a weekly open mic night, hosted by Peter Wright. This event would endure – and flourish – for the decade Jozart Studios occupied the upstairs space. More than a few generations of musicians and performers would find their voice on the Jozart stage.

Other events included concerts such as performances by local favorite Dave Pahanish.

Jozart Studios would also host a number of other significant events including several visual arts exhibits, two California Area Cultural Arts Expositions, jointly produced by the local school district and Liberty Rose, Inc., a performance by the American Wind Symphony, the Peer Amid Arts Experience – a weekly venue for poets and musicians that ran from 2002-2003 – and the Absu horror film festival featuring John Russo, where Fred Vogel (Toetag) screened the horror classic August Underground.

64 Crayons, a bookstore and writers/theatrical group, would share space with Jozart Studios for many years, during which the stage was the scene of several plays and other theatrical performances.

In 2010, Paroda and Morosky decided to shutter Jozart Studios, but their spirit and vision inspired a group of their regular patrons to keep the place open. A board of directors was elected from a group of volunteers and a non-profit was formed, Jozart Center for the Arts.

“We still offer many of the same events Jozart Studios did,” said Carla Anderton, president of the board since 2010. “We’re still the same place, in the same space. I like to think we’ve built upon their wonderful legacy and expanded our offerings. We now have a monthly Wine and Line that’s very popular, for example, and we’re proud to host talented musicians like Billy Price, Tony Janflone, Jr., and The Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers. And Dave Pahanish still plays here, to the delight of many.”

The building still boasts many relics from its’ storied past. The large windows of Jozart Center for the Arts are original to the structure. The pillars inside Dollar General are also remnants of the early 20th century.

If you look closely at the Dollar General sign out front, you can still see part of a faded label that reads “Ernie” on the left and a faded “Murphy Co.” is visible as well.

“One of the things I love most about this place is its’ rich history,” Anderton said. “There are people who suspect it might be haunted, and I wouldn’t be surprised. I’ve got a lot of memories of Jozart from the past 15 years. I can only imagine what stories could be told about the people who were in this building during its’ first 95 years of existence.”
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Story by Chuck Brutz for Pennsylvania Bridges

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