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History's Headlines: Lehigh Valley Children's Centers building has important tie to local history

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Jun 08 2013 05:50:44 AM CDT
Updated On: Jun 11 2013 11:54:38 AM CDT

History's Headlines

ALLENTOWN, PA -

As vice president of development with the Lehigh Valley Children’s Center, Debra Lamb has her hands full, helping to raise funds for the organization that provides services for working families across the region.

But every once in awhile a question comes from a staff member.

One that came to her recently had to do with the converted 19th century home that the LVCC operates as an early learning facility at 1145 Walnut Street.

“I was asked by a member of the staff there if I knew anything about the property,” Lamb recalls. “She thought it important that we might find out more about what it had been before. I agreed to try and find out what I could.”

After research that included talking to local experts, Lamb was surprised to learn that 1145 had a not undistinguished pedigree that tied it to once prominent but now largely forgotten local resident from the 19th and early 20th century who had played a small but significant part in history.

The story of 1145 began as post Civil War Allentown began moving west. By 1870 the property at 12th and Walnut was being opened for building lots and a map for that year shows it was owned by Ephraim Grim.

Ephraim’s background shows he began life on a farm and was a farmer in 1855 when he married. Later he engaged in land speculation and in the 1870s was a banker with one of the many small banks that dotted downtown Allentown.
Grim’s career in finance was apparently a short one. Perhaps a victim of the Panic of 1873 that destroyed much of the Lehigh Valley’s iron industry, Grim is listed in the city directory in the 1880s as a shopkeeper.

It was not until 1892 that the city directory listed any sort of house on that corner. Since the directories were usually a year behind, it was probably built in 1891. Its owners are listed as Henry Heller and his wife, Emma. They do no not appear in the directory before 1892 and are gone from the house at 1145 Walnut by 1900.

Henry Heller’s occupation is listed as freight and passenger agent for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. Why a railroad that was largely located west of Chicago would want an agent in Allentown is unknown. Perhaps it was thought important to have someone in the region who could handle whatever business it might have. With the dawn of the new century the CB& Q apparently had other plans for Heller because the couple vanishes from Allentown in 1900.

The following seven years would see the start of 1145’s most significant brush with history. That year, Charles A. Matcham, late of Devonshire, England, along with his wife, Margaret Ormrod Matcham, and their children take up residence there.

Matcham is the kind of historical figure that often appears in local history. Once a name that everyone in the community knew, who, as a result of an early death or sudden change in economic circumstances, is buried and largely forgotten today.

Born in 1865, Matcham was one of those Englishmen who had a bent for modern technology, in particular the telephone. Graduating in 1879 with honors with a degree as a civil engineer, his first job was with the International Bell Telephone Company, created by Gardiner Green Hubbard, Alexander Graham Bell’s father-in-law. Based in Brussels, Belgium it was designed to promote and sell the new invention in Europe.

Matcham installed some of the company’s first phones in Europe, starting with the “wiring” of Brussels. That was followed by Antwerp. Gradually he headed east and set up a system in Riga- then part of the Russian Empire- and now the capital of Latvia.

Perhaps Matcham’s biggest coup came in 1880 when he was personally asked by Alexander II, Czar of all the Russians, to install the phone system for the Winter Palace, his major residence in the capital of St. Petersburg. A modernist who believed in updating his country, Alexander must have taken a liking to the young Englishman.

In the fall of 1881 Matcham came to America. Sometime between 1884 and 1888, Matcham’s work for the Pennsylvania Telephone Company brought him to Emmaus. There, in 1889 he married Margaret Ormrod, oldest daughter of industrialist and English immigrant, George Ormrod.

Ormrod owned interests in everything from coal mines to the Donaldson Pipe Company of Emmaus (their slogan: “the pipe everlasting”). He got his son-in-law a position with a local cement company. In 1897 Matcham was one of the investors with his father and Harry C. Trexler in the Lehigh Portland Cement Company.

In his years at 1145 Walnut Street, Matcham was the general manager of Lehigh Portland. The house was almost certainly the site of many dinners and social events and leaders of the community that must have included Trexler. For whatever reason, in 1907 Matcham decided to leave Lehigh Portland and went to work for the Allentown Cement Company.

That same year the family moved to a much larger dwelling at St. Cloud and Hamilton Street but Matcham did not have long to enjoy it. In the later part of 1910 he developed a cold that went into his lungs. Despite the best doctors' care, Matcham died on September 21, 1911 at the age of 46. His son Charles O. Matcham graduated from Yale, relocated to California, and became a prominent Los Angeles architect.

The next occupants of 1145 were the John Saeger family. The Saegers, whose fortune was in flour milling, were to occupy the house until 1932. Perhaps the most interesting thing about them was that John Saeger’s wife was Fannie Markland Ormrod, also a daughter of George Ormrod.

With the departure of the Saeger’s the home made its transition to a commercial use, being converted to a dentist’s office and residence. And today a future generation of Lehigh Valley children plays games there and laughs.