Lehigh Valley manor recalls a bygone era

Bethlehem: The stately Sayre Mansion overlooks this culturally rich Pennsylvania town, and puts visitors 'right in the center of everything.'

Short Hop

October 24, 1999|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

On the south side of Bethlehem, Pa., the train whistle blows in the middle of the night. I turn over and go back to sleep. An hour or so later, another train whistle blows. The ghostly sound is not so much an interruption as it is an accompaniment to my dreams. It's understandable why Robert Heysham Sayre, chief engineer of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, would want to build his Greek revival-style mansion on Fountain Hill, so close to the sooty and mighty enterprise he worked for.

The Sayre Mansion was the first house erected in the wealthy neighborhood on Fountain Hill. Sayre moved there in 1858, because, as a chronicler wrote, "He wanted to be right in the center of everything." Sayre needn't have worried. He was a captain of industry whose contributions to Lehigh University and St. Luke's Hospital, and his role in building the Bethlehem Iron Works (which became Bethlehem Steel), placed him squarely where the action was.

Four blocks from the university, and a 20-minute walk south of Bethlehem's historic downtown, Sayre's stately manor was a pleasant place to stop for one August night in this culturally rich former steel town of 72,000.

The Sayre Mansion Inn, composed of 19 rooms and suites with accommodations for big parties, was not too fussy or dusty the way some bed and breakfasts can be. Our expansive, immaculate room was furnished with two firm king-sized beds and carefully restored antiques, including a beautiful curly maple armoire.

The private bathroom was strictly modern: No claw-foot tub completed the inn's old feel. Unfortunately, the slightly scratchy towels did.

Mid-summer lull

Perhaps it was the mid-summer lull before Bethlehem's Musikfest -- the city's annual 10-day extravaganza of musical offerings ranging from John Stanky & the Coal Miners to the Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra draws hundreds of thousand visitors -- but the inn was eerily quiet, a sense augmented by the non-presence of staff. When we checked in, one employee was there to assist, but offered little in the way of B&B warmth or charm. When we asked about a quick, close place to eat lunch, she handed us a print-out of possibilities, rather than take the time to tell us herself. She did curtly remind us not to lose our two keys to the room, as there were no other copies.

The inn's slightly abandoned air persisted the next morning, when only one other couple arrived while we were in the handsome dining room for the serve-yourself breakfast of yogurt, fresh fruit, pastries, cereal and so-so coffee.

The city that Sayre's mansion overlooks has changed dramatically in some ways, and remained remarkably the same in others since its owner was alive. Bethlehem Steel's 5-mile-long complex along the Lehigh River rises imposingly above the city, a depressing reminder that the enormous plant once throbbed with activity, but is now -- with the exception of corporate offices and a research facility -- shut down.

Bethlehem's south side, bereft of the plant's blue collar work force, is in a melancholy, shabby state. While "the Steel," as the mammoth employer was called, is gone, it's not forgotten. In the wake of its demise, the south side's Touchstone Theater organized a festival in September in celebration of the plant's workers, its traditions and towering imprint on the national landscape. And a National Museum of Industrial History, to be built by Bethlehem Steel and the Smithsonian Institution, is in the planning stages.

Apparent prosperity

Two bridges lead from Bethlehem's south side, over the Lehigh River, to the city's historic downtown, with its wide sidewalks, occupied storefronts and Old European ambience. On a weekday morning, Main Street was lively with visitors, and bustling merchants were in full Musikfest mode. The apparent prosperity underscored Bethlehem's wise preparation for the decline of steel by its development of industrial parks and wooing of multiple new businesses to replace the old one.

Bethlehem was founded in 1741 by the Moravians, a pacifist Protestant sect that embraced music in its faith. The picturesque Moravian College South Campus abutting Main and Church streets is home to the internationally known Bach Choir of Bethlehem, and an ideal place for a contemplative stroll.

The Moravians also run a bookstore on Church Street that is actually a market offering everything from the latest Harry Potter escapade to watering cans, deli fare, gifts and greeting cards. In recognition of Musikfest, a huge portrait of Elvis, ingeniously fashioned from multicolored jelly beans (thousands of licorice beans must have gone into his luxuriant locks alone), greeted bookstore visitors while we were there.

Array of attractions

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