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Historic Moravian Bethlehem’s Bid for World Heritage Status


Video by PBS39

Article Presented
As Seen in FIG Bethlehem

Historic Moravian Bethlehem's
bid for World Heritage status.

The world is watching us.

That’s because Historic Moravian Bethlehem is poised to become a World Heritage Site. That’s big. Very audacious. Being named a World Heritage Site puts us in the same league as national treasures like Independence Hall, the Statue of Liberty, and the Grand Canyon, and globally iconic sites such as the Great Wall of China, Acropolis, and Pyramids of Egypt.

Historic Moravian Bethlehem is a masterpiece of human creative genius with culture, architecture, and design that are exceptional and have universal value to humankind. That is what the team that evaluates potential World Heritage Sites looks for, and we’ve had it for centuries here in Bethlehem.

The story, briefly.

Almost 275 years ago—in 1741, to be exact—a community of Moravians, a Protestant group from today’s Czech Republic, settled on the rich land near Bethlehem’s Monocacy Creek. But they had more in mind than farming: they were missionaries and amazing town planners.

They settled in. Then they began to build, making Bethlehem a phenomenon of extraordinary buildings, music, and values that were centuries ahead of their time. (More on that in a second). The Moravians built America’s earliest industrial park with a pottery, tannery, soap mill, wash houses, grist mill, oil mill, blacksmith shop, and brass foundry. Within six years, 35 crafts, trades, and industries filled that stretch of ground, and there were butchers, clockmakers, bakers, saddlers, and masons. And by 1762, the Waterworks—the first pumped municipal water system in America—was pumping fresh water for the entire town.

Building a town (literally).

The 1741 Gemeinhaus on Church Street—the community house—was a home, church, infirmary, school, and workshops. It’s not only the oldest building in Bethlehem, but the largest surviving 1700s log structure in continuous use in the United States. A home for single women, a home for single men, and more followed.

Then construction moved onto Main Street with an enormous church, a tidy apothecary (think drugstore), and an inn for travelers.

Ten buildings became part of a National Historic Landmark District in 2012 and were officially recognized by the government for their outstanding historical significance. Two of these are singled out as National Historic Landmarks: the Gemeinhaus and the Waterworks.

1762 Waterworks | Dye House Ruins | 1761 Tannery

Timeless community, ageless values: The true cornerstone.

While the town kept growing, it never outgrew its core Moravian values that were part of that 1741 journey. Moravians didn’t just construct buildings: they forged a value system that echoes down Main and Church Streets today.

Moravians believed that people of all races, genders, and ethnicities should receive the same education and health care. Europeans, African-Americans, and American Indians lived, worked, worshipped, and went to school together, and then were buried side by side. Think for a moment about the world in the mid-1700s and you’ll realize how radical some of these ideas were.

And more than 275 years later, our society is still grappling with many of the same issues that the Moravians embraced from their first days here. These walls have stories. Come learn more about your local treasures.

Easy Historical Fact: The cemetery got the best name: God’s Acre. One of the first things the Moravians did was choose some land and plot out a cemetery. They buried people by group (they called these groups “choirs”)—determined by age, sex, and marital status, not by family. Europeans, African-Americans, and American Indians are buried together side by side. All the headstones are the same size and lay flat on the ground to show that everyone is equal in death.

1741 Gemeinhaus

We are proving ourselves worthy.

Historic Moravian Bethlehem—our special 14.7-acre community—is about to be an even bigger deal.

We took the first step when Bethlehem was nominated to the U.S. Tentative List—a list of exclusive sites from which the U.S. selection committee will submit one to the World Heritage Commission per year. (“Tentative” sounds a lot less impressive than it is!)

We already have a Moravian link. The Moravian town in Christiansfeld, Denmark scored a spot as a World Heritage Site a few years ago. Their universal values, architectural beauty, and town plan show that Moravian history has great value to the world.

Stateside, we have an opportunity to create a heritage triangle. We’re just 70 miles from two other World Heritage Sites: the Statue of Liberty and Independence Hall. We are researching what we need to do to get our town ready. We’re busy making the improvements we need to give visitors the world-class experience that’s been over 275 years in the making.

What sites are part of Historic Moravian Bethlehem?

Along Market Street:

  • God's Acre

Along Church Street:

Colonial Industrial Quarter:

  • 1761 Tannery
  • 1762 Waterworks, also an individual National Historic Landmark
  • Archaeological remains of the pottery, dye house, oil mill, tawery, and butchery

Don't just see it. Experience it.

Sure, you’ll get a sense of history walking down Church Street or strolling through God’s Acre or nibbling on a Moravian cookie. But don’t stop there!

Take a walk through history on a guided tour, explore Bethlehem’s Moravian heritage in the Moravian Museum of Bethlehem, join the fun with family activities at the many historic sites, or wander through the Colonial Industrial Quarter to see the old buildings.

You’ll definitely want to come back for the Christmas holidays to take part in traditions that date back centuries. How many towns can say that?

And with a World Heritage Site designation on the horizon, we’ll be opening even more doors to our past.

Come join us!

Bell House | Old Chapel | Single Sisters' House

This program is being funded in whole or in part with funding received through the County of Northampton's Hotel Tax Program.

Historic Moravian Bethlehem, a National Historic Landmark District nominated to the U.S. Tentative List in December 2016.

74 W. Broad Street, Suite 310, Bethlehem, PA 18018
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