Take steps to experience Bethlehem

Destination Pennsylvania

December 02, 2007|By Wendy Solomon | Wendy Solomon,The (Allentown, Pa.) Morning Call

BETHLEHEM, PA. / / You don't have to travel far to learn Bethlehem's Moravian history.

The story of its founding by Christian missionaries in the 18th century echoes underfoot on cobbled streets and from austere limestone buildings scattered throughout the downtown.

Bethlehem's Colonial roots are never more apparent than at Christmas, its name having been given to the community on Christmas Eve 1741 by its first Moravian settlers.

This is high season in the Christmas City, as the town is informally named. Houses and storefronts are tastefully decorated with greenery, traditional Moravian candles gleam on window sills, and multifaceted stars hang in doorways.

The streets bustle with energy and walking tours, including new ones added just for the season. They are popular with visitors and residents alike. Unlike other cities, the concentration of historic sites within a few blocks of each other make downtown Bethlehem convenient to explore on foot.

Walking tours are particularly popular in the days before Christmas, either with a group or self-guided.

If you prefer to direct your own tour, arm yourself with maps, history books and pocket-size guides. Resources can be found at the Welcome Center and the Moravian Book Shop, 428 Main St., which is thought to be the oldest continuously operated bookstore in the world.

For guided tours, groups usually begin their 45-minute walking tour a few doors away at the Goundie House, built in 1810 by John Sebastian Goundie (1773-1852), a former mayor, fire inspector and brewer. It's thought to be the first brick house in Bethlehem. You can explore the house's restored and furnished rooms while you wait for your tour group.

On a recent tour, Loretta Hein, one of many seasoned guides of the Historic Bethlehem Partnership, was dressed in swirling black cape over a long plain skirt, bodice and finished with a fitted, ruffled cap that would have been typical attire for a mid-18th century Moravian woman. In a letter to his wife, Abigail, during a visit to Bethlehem in 1777, future President John Adams wrote the distinctive caps reminded him of cabbages.

No account of Bethlehem's history is complete without mention of Count Nikolas von Zinzendorf, a wealthy German nobleman who had protected the oppressed Moravians, an evangelical Protestant denomination largely from what is now the Czech Republic.

The Moravians, accompanied by Zinzendorf, went on a mission to the New World to convert American Indians and unaffiliated Colonists.

The Moravians arrived first in Savannah, Ga., in 1735, then proceeded to Nazareth, Pa., in 1740 and Bethlehem in 1741 and created closed, self-sufficient communities that grew their own crops and made their own wares.

Where the Hotel Bethlehem now stands, a wall plaque notes the spot in 1741 where the handful of Moravian settlers under Bishop David Nitschmann built its first dwelling, a communal log cabin and stable for cows and horses.

On the slope behind the hotel on land intersected by the Monocacy Creek lies the section of town the Moravians reserved for crafts and trades.

You can still see the tannery, grist mill, waterworks (the nation's first municipal water sytem) and remnants of the blacksmith and pottery.

The farmland where the Moravians raised animals and grew their crops would have been adjacent and extending south.

The Moravians' residential area is a short distance away and begins on the south side of Main and Church streets. In the early years, the Moravians did not work for wages -- their labor was given freely for the good of the community. The communal tradition extended into living quarters, where individuals were grouped according to gender, age and marital status.

Single men resided and worked in the large building known as the Brethren's House (1748), which also housed a bakery, tailor and shoe shop. It served twice as a hospital for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, although the Moravians were pacifists.

The Brethren's House, like a number of buildings, is well-preserved and is used today by Moravian College's music department.

The Sisters' House (1744), across West Church Street, housed single women. Adjoining is the Family House (1746), also known as the Bell House, reserved for married couples and their children. The Widows' House (1768) sits across the street.

The Moravian settlers began working on a second, larger communal structure, the two-story Gemeinhaus (1741), or Group House, at Church Street and Heckewelder Place, about the time they were building their first home (where the Hotel Bethlehem now stands).

In addition to living quarters, Gemeinhaus served as their first house of worship, a girls' school, a pharmacy and an infirmary.

The log Gemeinhaus survived the centuries and is Bethlehem's oldest building, although its appearance has changed considerably. Now covered in clapboard, it is the Moravian Museum.

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