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History's Headlines: Easton's Alpha building is about to be transformed again

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Apr 19 2013 05:03:03 PM CDT
Updated On: Apr 20 2013 06:51:34 AM CDT
EASTON, Pa. -

In its little-over 100 year history, Easton’s Alpha Building has had its ups and downs. And, depending on your point of view, the announcement on March 14th by Easton City government that it is going to move out of that venerable historic structure was one of them. A great deal will depend on if the building, once regarded as one of the gems of the city, will be worth anywhere near the $4.1 million the city values it at.

In the early 20th century no American city felt it had arrived unless it had something that might be called a skyscraper and the Lehigh Valley was no exception. Allentown had the first in the Commonwealth Building in 1902. Its size was cut down in the 1970s following a fire.

The seven story Allentown National Bank building, built in 1905-06, is still there and other buildings followed, the tallest of which was the 23 story PPL Tower in 1928. Bethlehem had an office related to Bethlehem Steel on the South Side built circa 1907. And the now vacant Martin Tower of 1969 put it just over the PPL’s height.

The exact date of Easton’s contribution in the tall building race is in dispute. The nine story structure generally known today as the Alpha Building was named after the Alpha Portland Cement Company that used it as a corporate headquarters from 1946 to 1977; they had rented space there since 1926. Some sources have it dating from as early as 1903 but in 1994 a spokesmen for the Alpha Company put its construction date as between 1910 and 1912.

To an older generation of Lehigh Valley residents, it was the headquarters of the First National Bank and Trust Company of Easton, which had planned and built it. And just about anybody in Easton in those days could have told you the “spark plug” behind the building’s creation and the bank's success was Easton’s Chester Snyder.

At first glance few people would have picked Snyder as a financial whiz. Born in the city in 1860 it was assumed that he would follow in the footsteps of his parents, Daniel and Mary Snyder, in the wholesale and retail candy business. The couple prepared Chester for his future by teaching him the skills of candy making.

For reasons that are lost in the past Snyder was apparently not really interested in making chocolates. So he took a job with the city’s Stewart Wire Works and soon rose to the rank of superintendent. Unfortunately in 1885 the company decided to relocate to Allentown and he was out of a job. So at age 25 he took a job as a messenger clerk with the First National Bank.

Over the next five years Snyder watched the bank’s operations and learned. Finally he was given the position of cashier. Here he learned about finance and investing. Snyder apparently came to discover that he had a pretty good head for picking stocks, particularly those of fast growing electric utilities.

Between 1902 and 1912 Snyder served as the president of the St. Lawrence Gas and Electric Power Company of Ogdensburg, N.Y. and gained a controlling interest in the Lincoln Water and Light Company of Lincoln, Illinois.

In 1908 Snyder was treasurer of the Northampton Traction Company, later the Northampton Transit Company. They ran street car lines from downtown Easton to the many small towns and communities to the north, as well as taking summer crowds to Bushkill Park.

By 1916 Snyder, the former messenger boy, was named president of the First National Bank. It was he who in 1922 decided that the building which apparently had been five stories be redesigned and rise to nine stories.

To perform this task he hired the firm of Hoggson Brothers of New York and Chicago. They were bank building specialists who had a proven track record of knowing exactly what their customers wanted. They also designed and built hotels in New York and Florida. And one of the brothers later even played a role, albeit indirectly, in shaping the nation’s capitol.

When it looked like plans for the Lincoln Memorial might be scuttled by Congress, William J. Hoggson was contacted by his friend, the Memorial’s architect Henry Bacon, for help. Acting behind the scenes, Hoggson began a public relations campaign, primarily through the nation’s many women’s clubs, to urge that the monument be built. Over 1,300 clubs participated, flooding Congress with letters and thus assuring there would be a Lincoln Memorial.

In the midst of all this from 1923 to 1926, Hoggson Brothers were at work on the Alpha Building. A representative of the Alpha Company who has seen the company’s 1923 blueprints noted that they were flawless. “You can’t notice you are going from one building to another; it fits together that well.”

Unfortunately the economy of the 1920s did not fit together as well as the Alpha Building. With the stock market crash of 1929, Chester Snyder saw his fortunes plummet. Electric utility stocks were among the hardest hit. In 1931 Northampton Transit was forced in bankruptcy, and in 1935 Snyder resigned as the bank’s president. He died in 1946.

On December 11, 1943 the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, decided to close the First National Bank of Easton. It was 1950 before all the depositors were paid off.               

The Alpha Building survived as the headquarters of the cement company, having been purchased in 1946 for $390,000.

In 1977 the Alpha Company received an agreement of sale for its headquarters building for $500,000. It was the first of several false starts over the next 20 odd years until the city of Easton decided to buy the Alpha in 2001, having already leased it for five years before that.

At this moment the future of the Alpha Building is again a question mark.