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Allentown's Alliance Hall Has Jewish Roots

By Frank Whelan
Published On: Aug 16 2011 12:11:13 PM CDT
Updated On: Aug 05 2011 01:25:26 AM CDT

A lot of traffic passes the corner of 6th and Chew Streets in Allentown. Still it is impossible to miss the large building with the majestic columns topped with Corinthian capitals located there.

Today known as Alliance Hall as a part of the Lehigh County Conference of Churches, it serves the needy of the community in number of ways. And although its founders built it as a Jewish Community Center, they would undoubtedly be pleased that it still is being used to aid those who need help.

The saga of Alliance Hall began in 1919.

At that time the property was dominated by a large 3-story Victorian town home, an orchard, and a greenhouse. It was the home of the late Peter Seibert who had made a small fortune selling rugs, coverlets and yarn by shipping them around Cape Horn to California during the 1848 Gold Rush. He carefully invested his earnings in Allentown real estate. A devout Lutheran until his death around 1914, Siebert had been very active in the city's St. John's Lutheran Church.

Siebert's only child, his daughter Sabina and her husband, Rev. John Amos Scheffer, were Lutheran missionaries who due ill health had been forced to return to Allentown. They wanted to sell the property which they felt was too big for them. But they also wanted also to make a contribution to the community.

On an unknown date in 1919 two visitors interested in buying the Siebert property came to the Scheffer's door. Both men were prominent members of Allentown's Jewish community. One was Samuel Perkin, a jeweler and watchmaker. An immigrant from Russia he had escaped the land of pogroms as a teenager. The other was Dr. David Parmet, a doctor who was part of the first staff of Sacred Heart Hospital. They were not acting on their own but as representatives of the leading Jewish businessmen in the city, led by Max Hess Sr. whose flourishing store at 9th and Hamilton had made him a wealthy man.

Parmet and Perkin explained to the Scheffers that there was a great deal of concern in the Jewish community of Allentown about the younger generation. Not all of them were lucky enough to have well-to-do parents. They were immigrants and the children of immigrants. If they were going to be able to take advantage of the opportunities America offered them, and still be true to their faith, they would need help.

Perkin's and Parmet's words fell on fertile soil. Here was just the sort of project the Scheffers had been hoping for. After a brief talk with his wife, Rev. Scheffer announced they would sell the property and take $6000 off of the original price they had been asking. With that, a deal was struck.

At first the Scheffer's home fulfilled the needs of the founders of the Jewish Community Center. But as early as 1922 it was clear that a Victorian mansion was not always a suitable place for young men who wanted a place to play basketball.

The sudden death of Max Hess Sr. that year at age 58 caused the idea of a new center to be put on the shelf. But by 1926, with the nation's economy booming after the post-World War I recession, a fundraising program for a new building was planned. Merchant Charles Kline, supporter of many local Jewish causes, took over its leadership.

On October 31, 1926, a special ceremony was held at the Lyric Theater, now Symphony Hall, to dedicate the cornerstone. The ceremony was moved inside due to the weather, but rain could not dampen the spirits of those who gathered there. David Levy, Allentown's first Jewish architect announced that he was donating his services to design the building. Items placed into the corner stone included an American flag a, prayer shawl and a copy of the Jewish Daily Bulletin.

The building went up rapidly. On May 28, 1928, the dedication ceremony was held. On hand to give the featured address of the day was Rabbi William H. Fineshriber of Philadelphia, one of the best known Jewish clergymen of the time. "It was planned and built in the spirit of the house of God," he said of the center, "so that when our boys and girls come here, they can breathe an atmosphere of Americanism, Judaism and good citizenship."

From 1928 until 1954 the Jewish Community Center was a real focal point. Allentown businessman Sam Grossman, who was regular member of the center in his youth, recalled it as wonderful place. He particularly remembers George Feldman the executive director of the JCC as being a firm but fair person with the young people of the time.

By 1954 the Jewish Community Center's leadership decided it was time to make a change. A plan to move further out to the west end of Allentown was decided on. The JCC moved to its current location at 702 N.22nd Street.

In April 11, 1954 the building at 6th and Tilghman streets was sold to the Catholic Church for use as classroom space for Central Catholic High School. Now known as the Carroll Annex, after the Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence Charles Carroll of Carrollton, it was much needed with the arrival of the baby boom.. A record freshman class of 757 entered the school in 1958. And for the next nine years the building continued serving as a school. But in 1969 the building was again up for sale.

The African American community of the region used the building as community center from the 1970s to the 1980s. Since 1990 it has been Alliance Hall, a place where many of the needs of the community's less fortunate are met. Rev Scheffer and his wife, Dr. Parmet, and Sam Perkin would undoubtedly be pleased.