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The great Lehigh Valley hotel race of the 1920s

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Sep 16 2011 09:30:23 AM CDT

By 1920 Charles M. Schwab, CEO of Bethlehem Steel, had a wall in his office covered with autographed photos of the world's great men.

By 1920 Charles M. Schwab, CEO of Bethlehem Steel, had a wall in his office covered with autographed photos of the world's great men.

Britain's Winston Churchill, (then Lord of the Admiralty and later World War II prime minister), France's World War I Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson were all represented. Perhaps his favorite was from Thomas Alva Edison. At its bottom the "father" of the light bulb and the phonograph had written, "To the Master 'Hustler' Charles M. Schwab"

But as the head of the second largest steel company in America and an international celebrity himself, Schwab was uneasy. Delegations from across the country and around the world were coming to his city to do business with his company. Where could they stay?

Bethlehem had many hotels in 1920 but no one would have called them modern. Although historically rich, the Sun Inn was far from up-to-date. The Eagle Hotel, once grand enough, was a faded relic of the Victorian past. And having representatives of French field marshals using the "outdoor plumbing" was not the kind of reputation Schwab wanted for Bethlehem.

A frequenter of the finest grand hotels in Europe from St. Petersburg to Monte Carlo (where his forays at the roulette tables, much to the displeasure of his straight-laced steelmaking mentor, Andrew Carnegie, were legendary) Schwab knew Bethlehem's status quo would never do. So he decided a new hotel, to be called the Hotel Bethlehem, would be built.

The Eagle hotel was torn down and gradually the new steel skeleton was rising on the skyline over the picturesque Moravian buildings. It was to be seven stories. Newspapers noted the cost of the new hotel was $800,000.

hotel_bethlehem_today The Hotel Bethlehem opened on May 19, 1922, Two orchestras were on hand to provide music. Newspapers offered details on the lobby's gold, cream, and blue d├ęcor and the "warm red velvet" furniture. The ballroom, where couples danced a stately two-step, was dominated by a crystal chandelier. And each of the Hotel Bethlehem's 200 guest rooms came "with bath."

The strains of music from the Hotel Bethlehem's opening had barely stilled before Bethlehem's sister cities, Easton and Allentown, in a rivalry that went back to colonial times, each wanted a modern hotel. If they could not entertain European bigwigs, then cigar chomping conventioneers and local service clubs would be their market.

Easton was next out of the gate. It had no Charlie Schwab to lead the way, but it did have a bold business community. By 1923 former mayor D.W. Devin had a committee organized. "No other method of advertising could bring such direct beneficial results to Easton than the building of this new community hotel," said a committee brochure.

The Hotel Easton's path was not as smooth as that of the Hotel Bethlehem. Fundraising proved a problem but was eventually overcome. Then when the nine story structure's foundations were being put in place, it was discovered that the swampy ground required the building be anchored by concrete caissons sunk deep to bedrock. But work on the $1.3 million dollar hotel, designed by Philadelphia architects Thomas, Martin and Kirkpatrick, (the firm's Donald M. Kirkpatrick was an Easton native), continued.

On February 10, 1927, uniformed bell boys were ushering the over 400 guests that flocked in for the opening. Along with a full course dinner and special dessert, there was dancing to the sounds of Snyder's 15-piece orchestra. "Easton musicians are as capable of furnishing perfect syncopated melodies for dancing as any out of town orchestra," noted the local press. It was 2:30 a.m. before the Charleston-dancing crowd, in tuxedoes and evening gowns, finally called it a night.

hotel_easton_main_dining As Easton was at work, Allentown was proving it was not going to be left behind. For a long time the idea of a new hotel had been talked about. And in 1917 industrialist Sam Traylor's Georgian-style Hotel Traylor at 15th and Hamilton St. opened. One of its first big-name guests was former U.S. president William Howard Taft who came to the city in 1918 to see Camp Crane, the U.S. Army ambulance training base at the Allentown Fairgrounds. But the Traylor was what might be called today a "boutique hotel" that could not handle the big convention crowds the city hoped to attract.

So under the direction of Albert Gomery, a wholesale produce businessman. the site of the former American Hotel at 6th and Hamilton Street was purchased from a developer/ builder, Aaron Potrach. After an architect's competition in the winter of 1926, the hotel contract was awarded to Ritter and Shay of Philadelphia, among the leading architects in the country. Their Drake Hotel, built in 1929, is considered one of that city's landmark historic structures.

In June 1926 ground was broken for Allentown's hotel. Among those with the first shovel was General Harry C. Trexler. Beside him was Mayor Malcolm "Mal" Gross. Their picture together in the newspaper the next day probably did more to assure the building's success than anything else. In Allentown of the 1920s, if Harry Trexler touched it, it turned to gold.

Sometime during its construction, what had been called the American Hotel had its name changed to the Americus. As the hotel's Spanish Moorish style walls of yellow brick rose over 6th and Hamilton, down the street at 9th and Hamilton the Pennsylvania Power & Light Company's tower was also rising.

americus_hotel_lobby The Americus Hotel opened on September 13, 1927, just three days behind schedule. The crowds that night admired the large murals done by Philadelphia artist George Harding that were in keeping with the Spanish theme.

As they enjoyed a dinner prepared by Swiss chef Werner Kloetzil, "formerly of the Palmer House, Chicago" the over 700 guests listened to a series of speakers praise the new hotel.

The Great Lehigh Valley Hotel Race of the 1920s was over, and everybody felt they had won.