Itinerary: Bethlehem, Pa.
A Pennsylvania town builds on colonial history and industrial heritage.
By Dennis Hockman | From Preservation | Oct. 1, 2013
In 1937, Bethlehem, Pa., officials urged chambers of commerce throughout the United States to recognize the town as “Christmas City.” As part of this promotion, a large wooden star was erected on the top of Bethlehem’s South Mountain. Replaced with a 250-bulb steel star in 1967, the symbol now shines through every season, welcoming visitors to the Lehigh Valley year-round.
But Bethlehem is much more than “Christmas City,” and to discover more about its history and architecture, Preservation checked in with three locals:
- Curtis “Hank” Barnette: chairman emeritus of Bethlehem Steel Corp., trustee of Moravian College, and board member of the National Museum of Industrial History.
- Rocco Damato: chief executive officer of A. L. Bazzini, longtime peanut supplier for the New York Yankees; recent transplant to the region; and member of Manhattan Community Board #1 during the historic districting of Tribeca.
- Bruce Thomas: Lehigh University associate professor of architecture, former four-term member of the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Board, and contributing author to Buildings of Pennsylvania: Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania.
Our experts agree a visit to Bethlehem offers two distinct experiences—north and south of the Lehigh River. “Bethlehem is a very special place,” says Barnette. “Founded in 1741 by the Moravians, the community has a core foundation that is still in place today, yet Bethlehem was also the [early] heart of industrial America.”
Named on Christmas Eve by the immigrants who first settled there, what’s now “north” Bethlehem is defined by the Moravian community and the 18th- and 19th-century college and church buildings they constructed. In stark contrast, Bethlehem Steel’s industrial campus defines “south” Bethlehem, a landscape of hulking mill buildings and blast furnaces that is being revitalized by Barnette and others who have been remediating and preserving the 1,800-acre brown-field site. “To see south Bethlehem today, compared to what it was 10 or 15 years ago, is in itself a reason to visit,” says Barnette.
Though many consider Bethlehem the historic crown jewel of the Lehigh Valley region, the neighboring towns of Easton, Quakertown, Emmaus, and others offer visitors a treasure trove of industrial heritage sites, such as the cement kilns in Coplay or the Lock Ridge Iron Works southwest of Allentown.
Eat in Bethlehem
The Central Bethlehem National Register Historic District includes many fine streetside restaurants and cafes, but our experts say there are unique dining experiences throughout the greater Lehigh Valley.
Thomas prefers simple fare and enjoys Sines 5 & 10 in Quakertown. “It’s a 100-year-old five-and-ten store that still has its 1950s lunch counter and serves really great hamburgers and milkshakes,” he says. He also recommends the Golden Gate Diner on Union Boulevard, a main thoroughfare connecting Allentown and Bethlehem.
For a more sophisticated menu, Damato recommends Bolete. “It’s located in a 1740s inn, and the food is as good as I’ve had anywhere.” Another favorite of Damato’s is Hotel Bethlehem’s 1741 on the Terrace, which he says “captures the splendor of the ’20s and overlooks downtown—the view is truly spectacular.”
No trip to the Lehigh Valley would be complete, suggests Barnette, without lunch at Yocco’s: The Hot Dog King. Founded in 1922 by Lee Iacocca’s cousin, Yocco’s is famous for grilled hot dogs on steamed buns with a secret chili sauce. Hot dogs not your dish? Try lunch at the 1745 Moravian Book Shop. “It’s the oldest bookstore in the country and has a great deli,” says Barnette. For “Bethlehem’s first boutique restaurant,” he suggests The Café. In business since 1980, it’s located in a Victorian mansion on Broad Street.
Stay in Bethlehem
Among hotel options, Barnette, Damato, and Thomas all say the Historic Hotel Bethlehem, a member of the Historic Hotels of America (HHA) program in the heart of the historic north side, is one of the best. Damato stayed there for two months while relocating to Bethlehem from Tribeca, and can’t recommend it enough.
In south Bethlehem, both Barnette and Thomas point to another HHA, the Sayre Mansion. “The 1858 brick mansion was once home to Robert Sayre, first general superintendent of the Lehigh Valley Railroad,” says Thomas.
Barnette also suggests the Morningstar Inn, located in a century-old mansion in north Bethlehem’s historic district.
Do in Bethlehem
“Though there is a lot of history in the Lehigh Valley, you can spend an entire weekend in Bethlehem,” says Damato. “It is a visual history lesson in what industrialism and one big wealth generator can do in a community. Main Street is the historic commercial corridor, with buildings from the mid-1700s to mid-1900s -- most have been converted to specialty shops such as Seasons Olive Oil & Vinegar Taproom or La Petite Provence, which carries European linens and accessories.”
Thomas agrees: “Start in historic Bethlehem,” which he says has the best and largest 18th-century buildings in the country. “On Church Street are the Moravian buildings—the early 19th-century Georgian-style Central Moravian Church and 18th-century stonework buildings. Down at the foot of Main [Street] is an early industrial area including the first water mill in the United States.”
A 20-minute drive east, Easton also offers visitors a variety of historic destinations. Damato frequents the 1926 State Theatre, which he says “was built in the grand tradition of the theaters of the Roaring ’20s.” The restored space is a venue for everything from plays and stand-up comedy to classic rock shows and ballets.
Also in Easton, the National Canal Museum is located along the Lehigh Canal, which was constructed in the early 1800s to facilitate shipping from the nearby mining regions to urban centers. “The last barge on the canal was in 1931,” says Thomas, “and today, D&L Trail towpath is a great way to see everything from the old steel mills to historic Moravian buildings.”
Though Barnette recommends dozens of places to visit in the Lehigh Valley, he had a direct hand in establishing those among the former Bethlehem Steel facilities—Steel Stacks, for example. “A destination for arts, culture, and family events, it’s part of a 200-acre campus that is centered around five old blast furnaces. Christkindlmarkt is located on site in November and December—it’s one of the top holiday marketplaces in the world and is the place to shop if you’re looking for handmade.”
Online Exclusive: The Moravian Legacy: Discovering the Group's Southern Stronghold
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