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Allentown was originally named Northamptontown by its founder, Chief Justice of Colonial Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, William Allen. Allen, also a former Mayor of Philadelphia and successful businessman, drew up plans for the rural village in 1762. Despite its formal name, from the beginning, nearly everyone called it “Allen’s town.” Allen hoped his village on the banks of the Lehigh River would evolve into a thriving commercial center. It was not to be. The low water level most of the year made river trade impractical. Sometime in the early 1770s, William Allen gave the property to his son, James, who built a country home here called Trout Hall after his father’s hunting and fishing lodge. Even by the time of the American Revolution, Allentown remained little more than a small hamlet of German, farmers and tradesmen.
By the 1850s, however, on the back of the local iron industry, this youngest of the three cities in the Lehigh Valley had become the largest, as it remains today. From its founding in 1762 until its incorporation as a city in 1859, Allentown’s boundaries were 4th and 10th Streets, east to west, and Liberty and Union Streets, north to south. The Old Allentown Historic District comprises the northwest quadrant of the city’s original plan, with the addition of the blocks west to 12th Street between Liberty and Linden, including the 14-acre Union and West End Cemetery in the District’s northwest corner.
This area developed rapidly as a result of a series of speculative real-estate booms (and busts) during the period 1865–1910. Early frame houses were replaced by more substantial two-and three-story row houses that took advantage of all usable space on both the main streets and the half-streets and alleys to meet the housing needs of a growing and changing population. Though primarily a residential district, Old Allentown contains the typical 19th-century mix of housing with commercial buildings, factories, stables, churches, schools, and saloons. Some of these latter structures stand on the sites of former brickyards and sawmills, which supplied the materials used to construct the neighborhood’s buildings.
While Old Allentown contains many individual buildings of great charm, its historic value and distinction lie in its ensemble character. Our walking tour of this dense, richly textured 19th-century urban environment will start in Allentown Arts Park, a greenspace just off the main thoroughfare of Hamilton Street...
Allentown Arts Park
N 5th, Linden and Court streets
The centerpiece of the City’s Art District, the $2 million, half-acre park offers an inviting fountain, locust trees, sunken green lawn, towering street lamps and marble retaining walls. A massive mural painted on the back of Symphony Hall looms over the greenspace.
LOOK NORTH ACROSS LINDEN STREET.
Baum School of Art
510 Linden Street
The Baum School of Art began in the summer of 1926 when Mrs. Blanche Lucas recruited Walter Emerson Baum, the noted Sellersville artist, to provide art instruction for 22 Allentown teachers. The following year, classes resumed on the third floor of the old Franklin Fire House which became the first home for the school. This modern 15,000-square foot facility is the school’s fifth location, built in 1987. The David E. Rodale Gallery, located inside the main entrance of the School, provides a venue for a wide variety of art exhibitions.
LOOK EAST ACROSS N 5TH STREET.
Allentown Art Museum
31 N Fifth Street
The older wing is a Neo-Roman temple with Corinthian columns, built as the First Presbyterian Church in 1902. The modern north wing, constructed in 1974-1975, was designed by Edgar Tafel, Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous student. The museum was incorporated in 1939 when its collection was housed in the stone house adjacent to the city’s Rose Garden at Cedar Park. The then vacant church structure was purchased in 1956.
EXIT THE PARK ONTO LINDEN STREET AND TURN RIGHT, WALKING TOWARDS THE RIVER (THE ART MUSEUM WILL BE ON YOUR RIGHT).
111 N 4th Street
Built in 1872 by attorney Samuel A. Butz, this handsome dark stone Victorian home was once the center of Allentown’s most fashionable residential district. The home was built for Butz’s first wife, Mary Albright, who died in 1901. Butz, a long time member of the board of Allentown College of Women, now Cedar Crest College, practiced law up to the day of his death in 1930. It was purchased in 1975 by Allentown entrepreneur Ray Holland and renovated to house his antique car memorabilia collection.
TURN RIGHT ON N 4TH STREET. CROSS HAMILTON STREET TO ALLEN PARK AT THE SOUTHWEST CORNER OF WALNUT STREET.
411 W Walnut Street
The impressive Trout Hall was built in 1769-1770 as the summer estate of James Allen, then 28-year old son of Allentown’s founder. James was William Allen’s third son and as a wedding present his father, the richest man in Pennsylvania, gave him over 3,000 acres in the Lehigh Valley that included the rents from the surrounding farmers. It stands today as Allentown’s oldest home. The start of the American Revolution shattered Allen’s tranquil life. At first he supported the Colonial cause, but when the time came to make the final break with England in 1776 he could not go that far. Allen gathered up his family and servants and went to Trout Hall, hoping to ride out the Revolution as a neutral observer. But when he entertained British officers who were then prisoners he was denounced as a Tory and a spy. Members of the militia even attacked the coach carrying his wife and daughters. In 1778 Allen got a pass from his friend George Washington to take his family to British-occupied Philadelphia. His wife was about to have a baby and her family, who were in the city, wanted her to be with them. While there Allen, age 37, died of tuberculosis on September 19, 1778. In one of the last entries in his diary he wrote of longing for “my old situation at Trout Hall.” There was once another Trout Hall in Allentown. Sometime before 1755 William Allen, Allentown’s founder, built a small hunting and fishing cabin or his friends near Jordan Creek, behind what is now Central Catholic High School. The last known reference to the first Trout Hall was in 1845 when its foundation was torn down to widen Jordan Street.
Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum
432 W Walnut Street
The Lehigh County Historical Society is one of the largest historical societies in America. Its 30,000 square foot headquarters museum is a state-of-the-art climate-controlled facility that houses one of the finest historical research libraries in Pennsylvania. The Heritage Museum includes four galleries with more than 10,000 square feet of exhibits.
TURN RIGHT ON PENN STREET.
Homeopathic Healing Art Plaque
31 S Penn Street
The Homeopathic Healing Art Plaque marks the location of the world’s first medical college exclusively devoted to the practice of homeopathic medicine. Called “The North American Academy of Homeopathic Healing Art,” it was founded on April 10, 1835. The technique of homeopathic medicine - the idea that a drug which will produce certain symptoms in a healthy person will cure a sick person with the same symptoms - was developed in Germany by Dr. Samuel Hahnemann and carried to America. The Academy flourished until 1843 when it was discovered that its treasurer, Allentown banker John Rice, had embezzled the school’s funds. It then moved to Philadelphia and developed into what today is the city’s Hahnemann Hospital.
Allentown City Hall
435 Hamilton Street
In need of a new building for city offices, the five-story City Hall, the three story Public Safety building, and a three level parking deck were built in 1964 as part of the Allentown Redevelopment civic center plan after clearing the area between 4th and 5th Streets of blighted and deteriorated buildings.
TURN LEFT ON HAMILTON STREET.
United States Post Office
southeast corner of Hamilton and 5th streets
Built in 1933-1934, the Art Deco design adds a touch of distinction to a rather simple building. On the interior is a series of murals produced in New York artist Gifford Reynolds Beal. Each deals with a theme from Allentown history. One of the most familiar is the parade of Allentown’s militia units marching off to defend the Capitol building in Washington on April 14, 1861. They are known locally as the First Defenders. Another depicts the journey of the Liberty Bell to Allentown. Other scenes show Allentown industries from the past.
Old Lehigh County Courthouse
northwest corner of Hamilton Street and N 5th Street
Built between 1814 and 1817, the Old Lehigh County Courthouse is the oldest active courthouse in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It was altered in 1841 to show a new style.
STEP DOWN N 5TH STREET TO THE REAR OF THE COURTHOUSE BEFORE CONTINUING UP HAMILTON STREET.
Old Lehigh County Courhtouse Annex
(rear of building)
An addition to the Courthouse in 1914 is an excellent example of the Beaux Arts style of architecture popular at that time for government buildings. It features a generous rusticated base, window pedestals and ornate cornice.
Breinig and Bachman Building
southeast corner of 6th and Hamilton streets
Breinig and Bachman was a men’s clothing store that occupied the ground floor for many years. No one can say for sure why the animal heads were added. Perhaps it was to please one of the building’s original long-time tenants, the wholesale grain and animal feed dealer George W. Eckert. Built in 1894, this yellow bricked structure replaced a building of a similar name built three years before. The first B & B building was destroyed along with the rest of the southeast side of the street in a fire on the night of Friday, October 13, 1893.
northeast corner of 6th and Hamilton streets
The Americus Hotel, built by Allentown businessman Albert “Bert” Gomery, was named for 15th century Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci and the interior walls once had elaborate murals depicting the Spanish Empire. The guest list totaled 700 at the opening on September 13, 1928.
Liberty Bell Shrine
622 W Hamilton Street
In September of 1777 General George Washington was unable to keep the British out of the capital city of Philadelphia, having lost the Battle of Brandywine. During a war, metal becomes scarce, so it was feared that the British might melt down the city’s church bells and the bells of the State House, including the bell we now know as the Liberty Bell. The Supreme Executive Council decided to remove the eleven bells from the city so they would not fall into enemy hands. A train of 700 wagons was organized to carry military stores to Bethlehem. Camouflaged by hay and manure, the bells were transported on sturdy wagons and then hauled to Allentown where they were hidden under the floorboards of old Zion’s Reformed Church. There, they remained in safety until the following July. By the end of June, 1778, the British had evacuated Philadelphia and the Liberty Bell and the church bells were restored to their rightful places.
Zion’s Reformed United Church of Christ
622 W Hamilton Street
The Zion’s Reformed Church was built in 1886 and is the fourth to bear that name. Its roots go back to a log structure that was built to the rear of the current site in 1762 that housed the two oldest congregations in Allentown. The church was shared with the Lutherans until the 1770s. In 1773 Zion’s Reformed congregation built a brick church on the lot it occupies today. The Lutherans remained in the log church until 1794 when they moved to South 8th Street off Hamilton.
Lehigh Valley Bank and Trust Company
600 Block Hamilton Street
The Lehigh Valley Trust dates to 1886. With its ornate columns and Beaux Arts festoons of stone garlands, its 1911 bank building is everything a bank should be - solid, conservative, and respectable. Its front was clad in white marble from Vermont, its four Ionic columns supported a marble cornice and gable, and the lobby was entered through ornamental bronze doors.
Zollinger-Harned Company Building
605-613 Hamilton Street
Zollinger-Harned was one of three major downtown department stores, along with Hess’s and Lehr’s that made Allentown a premier shopping destination in the Northeast. All are gone now; Zollinger-Harned left Hamilton Street in 1978.
Center Square/Hamilton Mall
Hamilton Street and 7th Street
Center Square is the focal point of the community as it was conceived by William Allen in 1762. In the not-too-distant past, clothing stores were located on each corner. Today, banks have established themselves in the buildings making the Square the financial heart of Allentown.
Soldiers and Sailors Monument
Hamilton Street and 7th Street
This city landmark, was originally dedicated on October 19, 1899 to honor General Phillip Sheridan’s Civil War unit – the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers - who fought at the battle of Cedar Creek. Governor William Stone did oration duty and more than 1,000 schoolchildren sang the national anthem as the monument was unveiled. The 99-foot high Vermont granite was re-dedicated as a monument to veterans of all wars on May 30, 1964.
Lehigh County Government Center
southeast corner of Center Square
The former H. Lehr & Company Department Store property was recently renovated by Lehigh County to expand and create much needed additional office space.
First National Bank
northeast corner of Center Square
The First National Bank of Allentown was formed in 1954 by the merger of Allentown National Bank and Second National Bank. The bank’s headquarters was built on the site of the landmark Hotel Allen in 1958 and once sported a giant “1st” looming over the Square from the top of the corner.
Allentown National Bank
northeast corner of Center Square
This was the site of Allentown’s first financial institution, the Northampton Bank, chartered in 1814. When the Allentown National Bank opened its Beaux Arts style headquarters in 1905, the handsome white eight-story structure was the pride of the City. Designed by Allentown architects Jacoby, Weishampel & Biggin, it boasted “two smoothly running hydraulic elevators that were the ultimate in safety” and a spacious rotunda surmounted by a dome 32 feet in height supported by six onyx columns. It was the essence of magnificence. When the bank relocated it served other tenants until it was vacated in the 1990s. Taken over by the City of Allentown, the building is being adapted for housing.
Dime Savings and Trust Company
northwest corner of Center Square
The maroon brick, Art-Deco style building was the former Dime Savings Bank and Trust Company, which opened in 1929 just in time for the Great Depression, which killed it.
Merchants National Bank
southwest corner of Center Square
Merchants National Bank opened its doors for business in 1903. The building, currently twice as wide on Hamilton Street, was completed in the late 1920s. Prior to this time, the bank conducted business in the lower level of the YMCA building.
southeast corner of Hamilton Street and Hall Street
Portland Place was formerly known as the Lehigh Portland Cement Company. The building served as the company’s headquarters. It was also known as the Young Building after one of the company’s founders, Edward M. Young. Built in 1902, it was extensively remodeled in the late Art-Modern style in 1939-1940. Over the front door is a glass relief sculpture designed by the Italian-American artist Oronzio Maldarelli. At that time it was the largest glass mural panel in the world. Cast at the Pittsburgh Corning Company’s glass works, its three stylized allegorical figures represent the strength, durability, and permanence of cement.
739 Hamilton Street
This was originally the site of one of four hospitals that operated during the Revolutionary War. Shoe magnate Harvey Farr set up the headquarters here for his footwear company. Since the 1860s, the Farr family business had flourished and this 32,000 square foot, 5-story structure was to be its crowning glory. No expense was spared to construct the masonry and steel edifice and, when completed in 1927, its classic Revival style dominated Hamilton Street. After the Farr family sold the business in the 1980s the building went through a succession of forgettable retail uses and the upper four floors went unutilized. Ultimately the building contained loft apartments that have been occupied since 2006.
TURN RIGHT ON N 8TH STREET.
12-16 N 8th Street
Opened in 1917, the Strand Theatre featured an Austin organ. Later it became the Cinema, when in the 1940s and early-1950s it was listed with 1,000 seats. The marquee and auditorium are gone but the facade remains.
Merkle Company Store
243-247 N 8th Street
William Merkle emigrated from Stuttgart, Germany in the 1850s and opened the Merkle and Company Store in this small, stable-like building which today looks much as it did when the store opened. The doors and shutters are original. Small as it is, this building for a time housed the Merkle family, as well as the store (they later moved to 342 North 8th Street). Five generations of the Merkle family continued to own and operate the business until 1985. The Merkle Building at 245-247 North 8th Street is an unusually grand structure―four stories with stone facing, bays, arched windows and a copper-clad cornice gracing the facade. Constructed around 1900 on the site of two former houses, it was built as an apartment building―the first of its kind in Allentown―with the spacious first floor housing, besides the retail grocery, a millinery shop, a whole-sale dairy business, and a warehouse.
TURN RIGHT ON CHEW STREET.
Liberty Engine House
711 Chew Street
This is the original Liberty Engine House, built by the city in 1871 and enlarged to its present three stories in 1902. A group of 32 volunteers founded the Liberty Hose Company in 1869 to provide fire protection to the rapidly expanding northern wards of Allentown. After moving to the Chew Street building, the company acquired a horse-drawn, steam-powered Silsby rotary-pump fire engine, state-of-the-art equipment at the time, at a price of $4,200. Besides fighting fires, the Liberty crew used their pumper to sprinkle water on the streets to keep the dust down in dry weather in the days before asphalt. The company moved out of the building in 1958.
TURN AROUND AND WALK WEST ON CHEW STREET. TURN LEFT ON FOUNTAIN STREET.
929-937 Turner Street
northwest corner of Fountain Street
Among the earliest extant structures in Old Allentown are the row houses at 929–937 Turner Street, sometimes called the “The Five Sisters.” These small, peaked-roof frame buildings probably date to the 1830s. The diminutive scale, the use of wood rather than brick as a siding material, and the central chimneys are indicative of pre-Civil-War construction. The steeply pitched roofs with gable ends facing the street are a unique feature of these row houses. This design peculiarity may be the reason for the row’s survival. While most other frame dwellings were dismantled and/or moved to other locations to make way for larger brick structures in the 1870s and 1880s, no single unit in this row could be removed without destroying the structural integrity of the one next to it.
Allentown Cemetery Park
southwest corner of Turner Street and Fountain Street
Allentown Cemetery Park was created by William Allen as the graveyard for his little community. The first person recorded as being buried in the cemetery was Mary Huber in 1765. The older stones have epitaphs written in ornate German Gothic script. A large plaque at the corner of 10th and Linden lists veterans of the American Revolution and War of 1812. Among the most famous interred here is Peter Rhoads Sr., a local storekeeper and member of the Revolutionary-era Committee for Public Safety.
TURN LEFT ON HAMILTON STREET.
Pennsylvania Power and Light Building
9th and Hamilton streets
Thanks partly to General Henry Trexler, one of the principal directors of Lehigh Valley Transit, Pennsylvania Power and Light, a young company in the new and expanding power industry, was persuaded to locate its headquarters in downtown Allentown. The building has reigned as Allentown’s tallest since its completion in June 1928. This 322-foot skyscraper was designed by architect Harvey Corbett and became a prototype for Art Deco architecture in New York City; Corbett would be one of several architects who planned Rockefeller Center in the 1930s. At the time it opened the PP&L had the fastest elevators in the world. When illuminated at night the PP&L was visible from most parts of Lehigh County and was featured in the 1930 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica as the best example of a modern office building. Among the building’s outstanding exterior features are bas-reliefs by the Ukrainian-born sculptor Alexander Archipenko, a pioneer of modern sculpture. Archipenko was one of the leading figures in the so-called “School of Paris” that flourished in that French city in the pre-World War I years. He came to America in 1923 and the PP&L may have been one of his first public commissions in this country. Relief sculptures over the doorway show two eels pouring water over cog wheels as symbols of the uses of hydroelectric power. Other reliefs combine a mixture of birds and flowers, reflecting Ukrainian folk themes.
TURN LEFT ON 6TH STREET.
23 N 6th Street
The Allentown Symphony has the unique distinction of being the smallest symphony orchestra in America to own its own performance hall. The historic, 1,200-seat Allentown Symphony Hall was built around 1896 as the Central Market Hall. The structure was converted to a theater in 1899 by the architectural firm of J.B. McElfatrick and renamed the Lyric Theatre. Perhaps one of only a dozen of the famous McElfatrick designs still standing, for many years it was one of the leading burlesque halls in the eastern United States. In 1953, with the help of a number of community leaders, the Allentown Symphony Association bought the hall as a permanent home for its symphony orchestra, and re-christened it Symphony Hall. The Allentown Symphony has had only three music directors throughout its history with Donald Voorhees, famed conductor of the “Bell Telephone Hour,” serving as the first music director for over thirty years from 1951 to 1983. Under his direction, the orchestra collaborated with such music legends as Placido Domingo, Phyllis Curtin, Rudolf Serkin, John Corigliano, Benny Goodman, and many others.
101 N 6th Street; northeast corner of Linden Street
The Critic, an Allentown newspaper founded in 1883, was the direct ancestor of the Morning Call. The editor, owner and chief reporter of the Critic was Samuel S. Woolever. In 1894 Muhlenberg College senior David A. Miller came on board as its sole reporter. Later that year the newspaper ran a contest. A school boy or girl in Lehigh County would receive $5 in gold if he or she could guess the publication’s new name. The identity of the lucky winner is lost to history, but on Jan. 1, 1895, Allentown City Treasurer A.L. Reichenbach, who had supervised the contest, read out the new name: “The Morning Call.” Miller would remain in charge of the paper until he died in 1958 at the age of 88.
TURN RIGHT ON LINDEN STREET TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT IN ALLENTOWN ARTS PARK.