National Historic Landmark District Plaque Unveiling
Moravian village now a national treasure
18th -century religious commune gains an elite designation
By Nicole Radzievich Of The Morning Call
Think of it as Bethlehem’s French Quarter, or its Williamsburg.
Like those historic destinations, Bethlehem’s collection of 18th-century Moravian buildings was celebrated Tuesday afternoon for its induction as one of 200 historic landmark districts in the nation.
Punctuated by the pageantry of a trumpet and trombone quartet, the Covenant Brass, local dignitaries gathered at Main and Church streets to celebrate the designation, awarded in 2012, with the unveiling of a bronze plaque.
The plaque, for now on display in the sanctuary of Central Moravian Church, commemorates that the 14.7-acre religious commune, which began as a mission community of German-speaking settlers in 1741, tells not only Bethlehem’s story but also a national one.
“With its intact core buildings, the district preserves some of the most important structures on the site relating to the Moravians here in the New World. The Moravian village buildings in our district are outstanding examples of urban heritage, Colonial Germanic architecture … ” said Charlene Donchez Mowers, who worked on the designation for more than a decade as president of Historic Bethlehem Museum & Sites. “Historic Moravian is the physical manifestation of the artistic, architectural, cultural, educational, religious and industrial attributes that set the Moravians apart from other Colonials.”
Mowers remarks came during a 30-minute unveiling that drew more than 100 people, including Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez, Congressman Charlie Dent, Discover Lehigh Valley President Michael Stershic and other guests, including 28 Moravians visiting on an 18-day pilgrimage from the Republic of Suriname, a South American country north of Brazil.
National recognition for the district will help historians put the buildings into context, giving visitors a fuller story of Bethlehem, from the Colonial days on.
The district features the Colonial Industrial Quarter, God’s Acre cemetery, the Sun Inn and buildings of the Central Moravian Church, the city of Bethlehem, Historic Bethlehem and Moravian College. The district includes two buildings — the Waterworks pump house and the Gemeinhaus community hall — that are already recognized as historic landmarks on their own.
Those buildings played key roles in Bethlehem’s religious, scientific, architectural and political history.
The Gemeinhaus, birthplace of scientist Louis David von Schweinitz, is the nation’s largest 18th-century log structure in continuous use. The Waterworks tapped the Monocacy Creek for the first pumped municipal water system in America.
Landmarks are sites, structures and objects that represent an outstanding aspect of American history and culture. There are eight landmark districts in the state and approximately 200 in the country.
Mowers read a letter from Harold Closter, national director of the Smithsonian Affiliations Program, that said historical figures such as George Washington recognized Bethlehem for nourishing “the bedrock principles of equality, education and public service.”
“With its wonderful universities, museums and cultural amenities, Bethlehem continues to serve as a source of inspiration,” Closter wrote. “Today’s designation of the Moravian historic district as a national historic landmark is a fitting tribute to the many who have contributed to Bethlehem’s character and an important reminder that our future rests on the accomplishments of those who have gone before us.”
Bishop Hopeton Clennon, senior pastor of Central Moravian Church, said the plaque recognizes that ordinary people — more than 200 years ago — were going about their lives promoting equality, industry and a hard work ethic as part of their mission, all of which are still valued by the community today. About 8,000 Moravians live in the Lehigh Valley, with more than 800,000 throughout the world, many in Africa and South America.
“Today’s congregation appreciates [the historic designation] because it is validation and recog nition of the same qualities that we believe and the qualities that we value as a community today,” he said.
The district is already part of a National Historic District, a lower designation that also enables historic structures to qualify for tax credits and grants.
The landmark district also lies within the Central Bethlehem Historic District, the state’s first local historic district, where buildings must be maintained to strict historic standards.
The National Park Service, a branch of the Department of Interior, endorsed the landmark designation and it was awarded in October 2012.
The designation provides the property owners and nonprofits that manage them — Historic Bethlehem, Moravian College, Central Moravian Church and the city of Bethlehem — higher standing when competing for grants and other funding, said Cynthia MacLeod, superintendent of Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia.
Mowers said Bethlehem’s national recognition will help with the next designation she is seeking for the district: a spot on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage list. [email protected] 610-778-2253
As Printed in the Morning Call
April 23, 2014