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History's Headlines: Walled up door discovered during Allentown Symphony Hall building project

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Jul 06 2012 03:09:25 PM CDT
Updated On: Jul 09 2012 04:38:05 PM CDT

Imagine it is the year 1926. You are in Allentown and have just finished watching a revival production of the Broadway show "Sinbad the Sailor" with its star Al Jolson at Allentown's Lyric Theater, now Symphony Hall, on N. 6th Street. Now of course you are ready for more fun.

Imagine it is the year 1926.

You are in Allentown and have just finished watching a revival production of the Broadway show "Sinbad the Sailor" with its star Al Jolson at Allentown's Lyric Theater, now Symphony Hall, on N. 6th Street. Now of course you are ready for more fun.

Fortunately your date, being an in-the-know young man of the Prohibition era, has the most necessary item to accomplish that- a membership card in an exclusive "speakeasy" just around the corner at the theater's side entrance.

Grasping an elegant brass Art Deco handle of a glass panel door, you descend a narrow staircase below street level. Another door and a sliding panel reveling just an eye appears. Your date waves his card and you step into a crowded, smoky room.

There is Jolson himself giving a spirited rendition of a Berlin ballad while admiring "flappers" look on. Your date thoughtfully pours the contents of a hip flask into the ice filled glasses and bottles of ginger ale provided as "mixers," and soon the "speak" is swaying to an uninhibited version of the Charleston. Who needs New York when you have the Lyric?

Did this really happen? We may never know. It might have. According to the late William "Bud" Tamblyn, cartoonist for the Morning Call and Evening Chronicle newspapers, who was a young man in the 1920s, "during Prohibition, Lehigh County floated on a sea of booze." And several places that still exist are pointed out today as once being speakeasies in the 1920s.

These were the types of speculations going on recently following the discovery of a mysterious door that was uncovered at Allentown's Symphony Hall (known as the Lyric from 1899 to 1961) as renovations were going on to update the building. "We had no idea the door was there," says Symphony Hall Executive Director Shelia Evans. "When I was told about it I could not believe our luck that this wonderful part of our past had been preserved."

Evans herself added to that history when she opened the door and discovered behind it a thin leather jacket with no lining that had a star stamped button on it. This set off more speculation. Was it part of a costume from a long ago production? Or just something someone provided as insulation when the door was sealed behind the wall? It is impossible to know. Folks who might have known, like John Y. Kohl, the Morning Call's theater critic, have long since taken their last curtain call.

Although not exactly King Tut's tomb, this hidden treasure of a door adds at least something to the past to this over 100 year old structure that was built in the 1890s to be a farmer's market building, called the Central Market Hall when it opened.

At least since 1848, when Allentown's Great Fire wiped out the city's municipal farmer's market building at Center Square, there had been no one central location for the farmers to gather, so many of them simply set up their wagons around the then-monument less square at 7th and Hamilton. According to newspaper accounts, the Central Market Hall had been built to solve that problem. But farmers had gotten used to setting up their huckster wagons for free on the square and were not interested in paying to rent space.

Over time the building's owners decided to put it into better use as a meeting room and gathering space for the Lehigh Valley's many singing clubs. The result was so successful that that its owners decided to convert it into a theater. And in 1899 it opened as the Lyric, the name selected after a contest whose winner was the wife of a member of the Iredell family, who then owned the Chronicle and News newspaper.

It is unknown if the recently discovered door was a part of that initial renovation from market to theater but it might have been. If that was the case it might very well have been touched by at least two U.S. presidents-Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. They spoke there during the 1912 presidential campaign. Or it may have been the door used by customers who arrived in 1911 for an English language production of Puccini's opera, "The Girl of the Golden West." Crowds in formal wear and evening gowns arrived in carriages after paying the high price of $3.25 for first class seats.

But more than likely the door was added as part of some major renovations that the Lyric underwent in 1921-22. That year, David Levy, who may have been the first Jewish architect to practice his profession in Allentown, created the Beaux-Arts classical fa├žade of the building we see today. Postcards from 1907 show it replaced a brick Romanesque revival predecessor.

When or why this particular door was sealed up is a mystery. It may have taken place in the 1950s or early 1960s when public minded citizens decided to save the building from the wrecking ball and create a home for the Allentown Symphony. It all came as a surprise to Bill Lutterschmidt, the job supervisor for contractors Duggan & Marcon when he came across it. "I saw glass windows and a door where it shouldn't be," he said.