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Alfred Clare builds his dream house: Allentown home built more than 100 years ago still causes stares

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Jan 20 2012 07:22:00 PM CST
Updated On: Jan 23 2012 05:08:33 PM CST

Every home has a story to tell, and one Allentown couple knows a lot more about their home's history, thanks to a mysterious visitor.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

Donato ”Don” Giaquinto and his wife Joan think it was on a Sunday morning in mid 1987 or 1988 when the doorbell rang at their home at 29 S. 13th Street in Allentown.

The man at the door introduced himself as Alfred ‘Al’ Clare of Fort Worth, Texas. He said he was visiting his niece and her husband who lived in Allentown. As the Giaquintos remember it, he also said. “This was my father’s house and I just wanted to see how you are taking care of it.”

The Giaquintos were surprised but pleased, and agreed to show the man around their home. When they were done Clare thanked them and told them how pleased he was about how the home, built in 1903, looked, and how well they were caring for it.

Exterior Clare told them how his English-born father, also named Alfred Clare, had come to the Lehigh Valley to work for either the Lehigh Valley Railroad or the Lehigh Valley Transit Company, the streetcar line. But he had lost his job after only two years and had been forced to return to London. A friend promised to look after the property for him.

But, when he returned several years later, Clare’s father, who had gotten a job with the PP&L Company, learned that his friend had sold the house and at such a price he knew he could never afford to repurchase it. The Clares moved to another house in Allentown. But they retained the home’s blueprints. Clare’s son promised to send them to the Giaquintos.

Clare House blueprint Two years passed. “We had just about given up on hearing from him,” says Joan Giaquinto, “when a large envelope arrived with the original blueprints.”  They bore the words “Plan for a British Cottage.”

Although there is no architect’s name attached to the blueprints, its designer was most likely Ephraim Pickin. Born in Shropshire, England, Pickin was trained in London as an architect, came to Allentown in 1900 and worked for the local firm of Ruhe and Lange before opening his own firm in 1908. Pickin designed churches and a number of prominent buildings on Hamilton Street, among them, in 1911, Leh’s Department Store. 

IClare house interior n the early 20th century Allentown was known for its fine homes. There was Colonel Edward Young’s stately pile at 15th and Hamilton, a beautiful architectural confection of columns and broad porches where the Hampshire House Apartments are today. And Dorney Furniture Company owner Charles Zigenfuss’ property just west of 15th and Hamilton, now the J.S. Burkholder funeral home, featured touches like a cornice bracket in the shape of a rampant lion.

Zigenfuss could be found on the porch during a pleasant afternoon, dressed in a wing collar, formal tailcoat and striped gray pants, with a bouquet of peonies, his favorite flower at his side. Many years later his granddaughter recalled that when she stopped to visit him after school, he gave her a stately bow and presented her with the flowers.

back of house But of all those great buildings, those that are still with us and those that are gone, the only one that still turns heads is the relatively modest one-and-a-half-story bungalow built for Alfred Clare.

What draws the eye to it is the home’s unique shape. Sandwiched between narrow Maple Street and the Lehigh Valley Presbyterian Church (built in 1906 as the first synagogue of Allentown’s Reformed Jewish Congregation Keneseth Israel), the two-story building with a squat roof,  projecting dormers and a front door, set like the derby of  a 19th century dandy at a rakish angle with the sidewalk, demanded attention.

kitchen In an Allentown of conventional row homes, Clare’s house was an “upstart.”  As one member of a prominent Allentown family said, using the “royal plural” for the opinion of the community establishment of the day, “We didn’t know what we thought of it.”

Far from stiff and formal, the Giaquinto’s home feels spacious and welcoming. As a visitor walks through the front door, the sense of comfortable uniqueness about 29 S.13th  Street grows. The glass-enclosed front porch bends slightly with the curve of the home. Radiators installed when the home was built keep it warm enough for the Giaquintos to have their flowering plants over-winter there, along with one of their seven cats.

After passing through into the main body of the house, visitors are ushered through two-paned glass doors into the large living room.

This room contains the musician’s balcony or gallery, the home’s most unique feature. Jutting out halfway above the living room, it was apparently designed for music makers to play for guests below. The late Merle Donovan, an artist and the home’s previous owner, told the Morning Call in 1980 that the balcony is “typical of a lot of English homes.” Small rooms on either side, designed as changing rooms for musicians, have been converted to a guest bedroom and storage space.

breakfast nook The house contains a formal dining room whose main feature is a large antique framed mirror. A kitchen with a breakfast nook adjoins it. The home’s master bedroom and bath is nearby as is a small sitting room.

Among the historic items in the house is a photograph taken of it about 90 years ago. It shows, at the bottom of the exterior front steps, owner A. Edwin Barber, whose family were pioneers in the local iron industry and his son Frederick.  Above them on the steps are Barber’s wife Lillian and daughter Bessie.

The Giaquintos credit Merle Donovan, who purchased the property at auction and modernized its internal systems while respecting its history, for preserving it.

In the early 1980s Donovan actually had musicians from the Pennsylvania Sinfonia Orchestra play in the musician’s balcony for 50 invited guests, the only time that it is known to have happened in the home’s history. Alfred Clare’s spirit must have been pleased.