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History's headlines: Allentown's Zion Reformed UCC Church prepares to honor its 125-year-old sanctuary and its architect

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Jun 14 2013 04:49:37 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 17 2013 06:30:37 PM CDT

History's Headlines: Sanctuary

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

Rev. Bob Stevens, pastor of Zion’s Reformed UCC Church in Allentown, aka the Liberty Bell Church, noted recently that it has been celebrating a lot of anniversaries lately, most importantly the 250th anniversary of the congregation last year.

And no sooner was that over than Stevens began thinking about the 125th anniversary of the church’s Victorian-era sanctuary this year. An exhibit is currently being planned to mark the event at the Liberty Bell Shrine Museum. It will also honor Lewis Shelly Jacoby, the church’s architect.

There have been four Zion’s Reformed churches in Allentown. The first-a log structure-was located on Walnut Street, roughly where a parking deck stands. It was shared with St. Paul’s Lutheran Congregation as a union church until 1773 when Zion’s moved to its second church- a Georgian style structure. It was there that the Liberty Bell was hidden in 1777-1778.

This building was transformed in 1838 into a brick Federal style church, Zion’s third. It was in 1888 that Zion’s current Neo-Gothic style sanctuary, designed by Jacoby, was completed. With its handsome collection of Victorian stained glass and dark wood interior, it reflects an era that wanted its churches to offer stability and tradition in a nation that was then undergoing terrific social and economic change.

The church’s pastor, Rev. Edwin A. Gernant, was the inspiration behind the construction of Zion’s current sanctuary. A photo of him shows a clear-eyed man with a well-trimmed, handle bar mustache. Pastor from 1881 to 1890, Gernant lovingly oversaw the church’s construction, particularly the selection of its liturgical furnishings. It came to much surprise to Zion’s congregation when Gernant announced that he was leaving Zion’s pulpit and the Reformed ministry to become an Episcopal priest. But if Gernant was the religious force behind the sanctuary, Jacoby was the person who took the pastor’s vision and transformed it into stone.

Allentown and the Lehigh Valley have been fortunate, for a place of its size, to have a number of gifted architects. Jacoby, born in Springtown, Bucks County on April 4, 1848 was among the first.

Little is known of his early years. He did attend public schools and a private academy, and from 1865 to 1867 hr taught school in Springtown and Upper Saucon Township.

Apparently teaching did not appeal to Jacoby, and in 1868 he was working in Allentown at the office of Gustavus Adolphus Aschbach, the city’s first municipal engineer and a self-taught architect. A member of a distinguished German family, Aschbach fled the German States in 1848 following the collapse of a revolution. He spent several years studying engineering in Switzerland before coming to Allentown in 1854 after two years in New York. Among his major public buildings were the redesign of the old Lehigh County Courthouse in 1864 and the design of the old Lehigh County Prison in 1867.

Any American wanting to study architecture who did not have the resources to study in Europe had to learn it as an apprentice in an architect’s firm. Aschbach, with his European training, served this role for Jacoby. Apparently they were a good fit, because by the early 1870s they had formed a partnership with offices at 430 Walnut Street.

Tragedy struck them first in 1873 when an economic panic forced their business to close. After relocating to New York, they were still struggling, and then Aschbach was stricken by a reoccurring attack of malaria. He had first contracted it while designing fortifications for the Union Army in Tennessee and Ohio during the Civil War. During his time in New York, Jacoby took a one semester course in perspective and ornamental drawing at Cooper Union, New York’s famous free college. On April 17, 1875, shortly after they returned to Allentown, Aschbach died as a result of malaria at age 49.

Jacoby, now married, did not get his first major commission in Allentown until 1881. It was for the Second National Bank on S. 7th St., where the Lehigh County Government Center is today. Jacoby designed a four story Second French Empire style building, complete with a mansard roof and ornamental iron work. Jacoby liked it so much he moved his offices to the building, where he stayed from 1881 to 1889.

On March 26, 1886 Zion’s building committee chose Jacoby to design the new sanctuary. The church’s official history calls it an “election,” suggesting other architects may have submitted plans as well. As Jacoby was a Methodist, there could be no question about favoritism because of religion.

Completion of Zion’s in 1888 in such a fine style brought him into the public eye. Soon he was being asked to design churches, hotels and theaters. In 1888 Jacoby designed the Hotel Allen, the city’s first modern hotel. In 1893 he designed the Central Market Hall. Before the decade was out it would be redesigned in the interior as the Lyric Theater, now Miller Symphony Hall. Jacoby’s most notable home design in the city was in 1895 when he designed a turreted Victorian mansion for Charles Ziegenfuss at 16th and Hamilton, which is now the J.S. Burkholder Funeral Home.

That same year Jacoby took as a business partner Samuel Addison Weishampel, a Baltimore architect. From that date until Weishampel’s death in 1916 they would transform the city with what then were Allentown’s two tallest buildings. The first was the Commonwealth Building at 5th and Hamilton. It was designed with a large open staircase. In 1905 they designed the Allentown National Bank building, a nine-story Beaux-Arts Classical gem on North 7th that now houses senior citizens.

With Weishampel’s passing in 1919, Jacoby took on a new partner- Herman Furman Everett. As Jacoby & Everett they were still going strong until the morning of March 14, 1929 when 80-year-old Jacoby died, apparently due to a heart attack, a swift end to a long life well lived.